I’m still long overdue for a post of my own. Meanwhile, I came across this piece this morning by Christopher Lebron in the Boston Review. It’s a powerful critique of the new Black Panther film. I confess that I’ve been tempted to see Black Panther, despite my ever challenging commitment to resist violence in all its forms, including and especially the way I choose to entertain myself. Violence is so utterly pervasive in our society, and the myth of redemptive violence so firmly entrenched in our culture that it is never given a first- let alone a second- thought (even/especially by would-be Jesus followers). Thus it is not surprising that a movie that purports to be at least in some way about black power would necessarily also be a movie about black violence. Unfortunately, Black Panther turns out to be a movie that reinforces tropes about black-on-black violence. Haven’t we had enough of those already?
Black Panther is, of course, a comic book/superhero movie, and thus could not exist without again reinforcing the myth of redemptive violence. As Christopher Lebron says in the Boston Review piece linked above, “After all, what else do comic-book heroes do but dispense justice with their armored fists and laser rifles?” I’ve read other reviews, such as this one in the NY Post, that inevitably compare T’Challa, the title character of Black Panther, to MLK, Jr. and Killmonger, the black villain, to Malcolm X. As the NY Post author says: “T’Challa, though, is a pacifist, the Martin Luther King Jr. to Killmonger’s Malcolm X.” Missing here is any thoughtful nuance, such as the recognition that MLK, Jr. was no mere pacifist, but a practitioner of nonviolent resistance. This is a distinction with a monumental difference. Moreover, in the very next sentence, the Post author, Sara Stewart, writes: “Killmonger and T’Challa face off in combat for the crown” (of Wakanda, the fictional African country that Black Panther calls home). If T’Challa were truly the Martin to Killmonger’s Malcolm, he would not have engaged in a brawl to get/maintain power. That’s violent resistance, not nonviolent resistance. But I digress. The Boston Review piece is really worth the read. I recommend it heartily.
If my math is right there are over 30 (nearly 40, if memory serves) posts on the Circle of Hope blog about “alternativity.” I now have a few posts as well in which I mention or allude to it. What is alternativity? Responding to the blatant racism of the current presidential administration (as opposed to the more subtle racism of some of the recent previous ones), Rod White, the Development pastor of Circle of Hope, tries to answer the question of “what do we do?” in response to the oppressive domination of “the powers” and the complicity of all too many would-be Jesus followers in that oppression. He says:
The answer comes from being the Body of Christ, not just a reaction or a resistance, but an alternative reality.
Scarcity is met with mutuality and generosity in the body of Christ. We will have to do better than to think about it. But we are trying.
Fear-mongering is met with trust in what God puts together, not in what the invisible hand creates. We’ll need to integrate our faith into the actions of our daily life more. But we are trying.
Foolishness is met with truth telling, just like Paul boldly states the new reality Jesus is making. We’ll have to listen to the Spirit directly and in one another and test it out, not just flee, resist and resent. But we are trying.
Alternativity is the word we use to sum it all up. We are trying to live in it. Deactivating Twitter is my act of defiance as much as self-preservation. Tackling the health care debacle is about perseverance as much as survival. Writing this little post, complaining about our terrible experiences, griping about Charlottesville, denouncing Trump, quoting Paul, insisting that there are better ways and that we are living them right now is how I keep myself on track. And I hope it has helped you, too. We have an alternative reality to build with Jesus, and it can’t wait for things to get better.
Circle of Hope has a habit of getting together face-to-face from time to time to “do theology.” The results of some of those conversations show up on their The Way of Jesus site (an incredible resource for Jesus followers worth plumbing the depths of). Thus, in May of last year, as primary season was winding down during the presidential election, they posted on The Way of Jesus a reflection based on their conversation about the relationship between God’s kingdom and the powers. They say:
When we do theology about elections we run into the line that has always separated Reformed Christianity from Anabaptist. The Reformed Christians can be called part of “magisterial” Protestantism, retaining the sense of “magisterium” that also marks Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox members of the Church. Alistair McGrath says that reformers like Luther and Calvin, who had a huge influence in European and American forms of the church, taught that, “The magistrate had a right to authority within the church, just as the church could rely on the authority of the magistrate to enforce discipline, suppress heresy, or maintain order.” In addition, the term magister relates to the emphasis on authoritative teachers. Often this is seen in the names of theological schools descending from magisterial reformers (i.e. Lutheran and Calvinist).
“Radical” reformers, who were later called Anabaptists, thought the church had fallen from grace and wanted to restore it. They traced the root of the fall to point of the fusion of church and society of which Constantine was the architect, Eusebius the priest, Augustine the apologete, and the Crusades and Inquisition the culmination.
When Constantine claimed Christianity, he turned the church right-side up, so to speak, from its former upside-down reputation. He consciously thought he was baptizing the empire. Perhaps his motives were good. Many Christians in his day, like the historian of the Church, Eusebius, thought he was the gift of God to end persecution and to honor the faithfulness of the church as it triumphed over the evils of Rome. Christians in Constantine’s empire extolled him as their champion. Bishops personally escorted him into battle against rival nations. The church quickly adapted to this new opportunity and used empire means to achieve Kingdom ends. The adaptation meant the end of God-ordained, missional non-alignment with imperial powers.
The Anabaptist’s disgust with Constantinianism is not about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the ends toward which they wield such power. The shift labeled “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.
How do they know that the Constantinian way can and must not be equated with “the way of Jesus?” Well, they look to Scripture, for starters:
Jesus demonstrably did not take the same route as Constantine, although he received the title king.
When the Messiah came, he distanced himself from the Jerusalem establishment (John 2:13–21).
Jesus did not reconstitute Israel land-based empire based in Palestine but prepared his people to be scattered across the world by his Spirit (John 4: 21– 24; Acts 1: 8).
Jesus unmasked the powers’ claims to be benefactors and self-consciously adopted the suffering servant posture (Luke 22:25– 27).
Jesus proclaimed a kingdom whose citizens are committed to peacemaking, enemy love, and transnational disciple-making (Matt 5: 38– 48, 28: 19).
Previously scattered Jews from as far back as Jeremiah’s time formed synagogues throughout the world that became central to the church’s missionary expansion (Acts 9:19-22, 14:1, 17:1– 3).
The earliest Christians viewed themselves as aliens, exiles, strangers, and dispersed ones (Jas 1: 1; 1 Pet 1: 1, 2: 11-12) whose citizenship is in heaven as opposed to Rome or Jerusalem (Phil 3: 17-21).
Finally, then, they conclude that “We are pretty much descendants of Anabaptists and the pre-Constantine church.” Then, while offering some ever helpful reminders such as “The Bible can’t really be seen if it is read from an empire perspective,” they offer this nugget, which brings us back to alternativity:
The main way we respond to the ways of the world is to build the alternative: the Kingdom of God being lived out as the people of God, the church. We go to the system from the church and return to the church. We hope the grace we bring transforms and changes the world, but when we are not assured of that, we know who we are and where we come from and we preserve the possibilities of a better world by existing.
That’s it, right there. To the extent that we as the church and the Bride of Christ embody an alternative reality to the powers, principalities, and systems of this age, then we live into our prophetic calling to declare with our very lives, as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote and I discuss elsewhere, that “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added).” Though we live yet “between the times,” we are to be an outpost of God’s kingdom come. Thus,
In the midst of violence, we bring peace.
In the midst of (perceived) scarcity, we bring abundance and generosity.
In the midst of fear-mongering, we bring fearlessness.
In the midst of so much foolishness, we bring wisdom.
In the midst of domination by the powers and principalities of this age, we bring alternativity.
Consequently, as Rod White writes in the title of another post that has been a touchstone for us in our season of “devolution” and “getting small,” “for the slaves of Christ, existence is resistance.”
Thus, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Bruderhof has been on my mind of late. As our year of devolution and learning to be peacemakers winds on, and most recently as we’ve felt called to move on from Mill City Church and explore becoming part of Church of All Nations, I’ve found myself returning for inspiration again and again not only to Circle of Hope but also to the Bruderhof. They, of course, are the community of 2,000+ Jesus followers on several continents that not only resist capitalism in order to follow Jesus- as we feel called to do- but almost reject it altogether (collectively, they own some businesses, all the proceeds from which go back into supporting the life of the community). They were founded by Eberhard Arnold in Germany just as Hitler was coming to power, and today, nearly a century later, they live together in rural villages around the country and around the world, and even have some community houses in urban areas like the Bronx. Everything they do, they do together. They literally sell all their possessions and give any proceeds to the church, which is a requirement for any person or family that seeks to join the Bruderhof. Thus they live into God’s economy in a more real and tangible way than scarcely anyone else I’m aware of or could imagine. Since those who join the Bruderhof don’t engage in capitalism, they hold everything in common and do not earn wages. The necessary work for their life together is divvied up among the members, and each does his part. No man or woman is richer or poorer than any other. All belongs to all and is received from God as a gift for all. They practice communal discernment and decision-making, and hold one another accountable to Jesus and one another as they practice their way of life together. As they say of themselves here:
We are an intentional Christian community of more than 2,900 people living in twenty-three settlements on four continents. We are a fellowship of families and singles, practicing radical discipleship in the spirit of the first church in Jerusalem. We gladly renounce private property and share everything in common. Our vocation is a life of service to God, each other, and you.
The Bruderhof was founded in 1920 by Eberhard Arnold in Germany. None of us owns anything personally, and our communal property belongs not to us as a group but to the cause of Christ. Anyone who has decided to become a member freely gives all property, earnings, and inheritances to the church community. In turn, all necessities such as food, housing, and health care are provided for. Members generally work for and in the community, but none of us receives a paycheck, stipend, or allowance. In our homes and daily lives, we try to live frugally and give generously, to avoid excess, and to remain unfettered by materialism. In these practical ways we seek to witness that under the stewardship of the church, everything we have is available to anybody in need.
I’ve probably known of them, at least dimly, for a while, but their faithful witness lo this past century as a distinct community of Christ that stands in contradistinction to that of empire- whether that of Nazi Germany as they were being founded or the U.S. today- is striking and admirable. They are themselves an embodied word of truth spoken to power. So my dim awareness of them has come alive of late as I’ve been reacquainted with Eberhard Arnold, whom I wrote about here. On Circle of Hope’s Celebrating the Transhistorical Body blog, they remembered Arnold on Nov. 22 of last year. I was surprised when reading their post about him to be reminded that it was Arnold who said that “Truth without love kills, but love without truth lies.” This quote can be found in the header for Rod White’s blog and is one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs. I was also surprised, though in hindsight I shouldn’t have been, to learn that it was MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) that helped the Bruderhof escape Nazi Germany. For those who don’t know, “MCC is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace.” Thus, they are the relief, development, and peacemaking arm of those from the Mennonite and other Anabaptist traditions, and Circle of Hope contributes a significant percentage of their tithes and offerings to MCC.
Anyway, there is much affinity between Arnold/the Bruderhof and Circle of Hope. Both have Anabaptist roots. Both strive for alternativity, though in very different settings. Thus, on MLK, Jr. Day of this year, Rod White re-posted on his blog a piece from the Plough (the publishing arm of the Bruderhof) titled “Alien Citizens: Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, and Why the Church Is Political.” I urge you to go read it. Above I spoke of the Circle of Hope writer who wrestled with the implications of a Trump presidency not by saying that this administration is “bad” while some others were better and the alternative potential Clinton presidency might at least have been better than this Trump one; rather, they said that any secular administration can only ever be the latest attempt by the powers to secure their rule. Meanwhile, what we really need and are to strive for is the alternativity of the kingdom of God, a truth which would be no less true if Hilary were president. Similarly, in the piece from the Plough by Will Willimon, he writes about the questions surrounding how to respond to the Trump presidency. He says:
For Christians, these questions, while interesting, are not the most pressing. Jesus’ people participate uneasily in American democratic politics not because we are torn between the politics of the left and of the right, but because of the singular truth uttered by Eberhard Arnold in his 1934 sermon on the Incarnation: “Our politics is that of the kingdom of God”.
Because Arnold was a man of such deep humility, peacefulness, and nonviolence, in reading his sermons it’s easy to miss his radicality. How well Arnold knew and lived the oddness of being a Christian, a resident alien in a world where politics had become the functional equivalent of God. How challenging is Arnold’s preaching in our world, where the political programs of Washington or Moscow can seem to be the only show in town, our last, best hope for maintaining our sense of security and illusions of control.
Christians carry two passports: one for the country in which we find ourselves, and another for that baptismal nation being made by God from all the nations. This nation is a realm not made by us but by God; Arnold calls it a “completely new order” where Christ at last “truly rules over all things.”
As storm clouds gathered in Nazified Germany, and millions pinned their hopes on a political savior who would make Germany great again through messianic politics, Arnold defiantly asserted that the most important political task of the church was to join Paul in “the expectation, the assurance of a completely new order.” How quaint, the world must have thought; how irrelevant Christian preachers can be.
Rather than offering alternative policies or programs to counter those of the Nazis, Arnold made the sweeping claim that “all political, all social, all educational, all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.”
This, again, is alternativity in a nutshell. And what a bold claim it is! Could it be that “all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ?” Is it possible that to whatever extent humanity’s problems have not been solved is the exact extent to which we do not truly or fully subject ourselves to Christ’s rule instead of that of Washington, D.C.? Notice that Arnold says such problems are solved “in a concrete way.” This is no abstract theologizing in a blog post, as I may be accused of doing here. In yesterday’s worship gathering among the people of Church of All Nations (more about Church of All Nations later), the worship leader alluded to the recent trip by some 17 folks from Church of All Nations to the Bruderhof to learn from and fellowship with them. He said that their theology is a “lived theology.” In other words, they spend much less time talking about it than they do simply doing it. As they say in response to the question “Are Bruderhof members religious?”:
We are religious in the sense that our Christian faith is of utmost importance to us. That said, most Bruderhof members are not religious in the sense of highly developed or frequently displayed personal piety. We are extremely ordinary, and tend to speak less about our faith than some other branches of Christianity.
To live in a Bruderhof community you have to want to follow Jesus. Whether you call that being a Christian is not so important – but you have to want to follow Jesus and live the way he showed people how to live.
Much of the world thinks (so-called) “Christianity” is about believing certain things (giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions) and being sure to utter a single prayer at least one time to make sure you get your “fire insurance” and thereafter is about imposing your beliefs and morals on others through the power of the state (how very Constantinian!). What if we were instead known by our love for one another and those around us? What if our efforts were directed at living the kind of life Jesus embodied and taught us? What if we rejected not just empire and the politics of the powers but also the economics of the powers? In the face of the oppression of the powers that divides us into “haves” and “have-nots” be it via capitalism or any other worldly economic system, what if we shared everything and thereby made not only such oppression irrelevant, but also made irrelevant whatever worldly economic solutions the powers allow, again because we renounce the world’s economic systems and share everything? It is just such questions that the Bruderhof attempts to answer not primarily with their theology, but with their lives.
Willimon touches on this in the Plough piece when he says, “As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.” Indeed. I alluded above and have written elsewhere about our recent entrance into Church of All Nations. There are many reasons for this. I’d like for now to note that, as we’ve participated in a couple of worship gatherings and the simple community meals that follow and as we’ve listened to sermons and read articles written by Pastor Kim online, I’ve been struck by the lack of publicity at the very least regarding any sort of social outreach or justice related initiatives. I don’t mean to needlessly be critical of any other church we’ve been a part of or other churches like them, but the study in contrasts is, literally, remarkable. Whole swaths of “Christianity” out there adopt “missional communities,” for example, to marry the mission to somehow “be the church” through service and outreach to others, with community. It seems to me, though, that this is a marriage of convenience that is nonetheless necessary if you’re still trying to “do”‘ (or even “be”) “church” within the convenient folds of Christendom. If you don’t even realize the extent to which you’ve been compromised and perhaps literally “owned” by empire, then it’s hard to see how all your outreach programs and justice initiatives, as well-intentioned as they may be, merely perpetuate the rule of the powers, principalities, and powers over/against that of Christ and his kingdom. Meanwhile, instead of “having a social policy,” we’re supposed to be one. To the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing perpetual temporal power grabs in seeking to influence society through elections, to the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing violence in all its forms and, to the extent possible (ha, hear my compromising fearfulness?), resist capitalism and participate in God’s economy by sharing possessions and giving to those who ask of us- to whatever extent we do all this no “social policy” or program is necessary. From what I can tell so far, this alternativity is something that Church of All Nations is going for too. I’ll have a bit more to say about this below.
Returning for now to Eberhard Arnold, the Bruderhof, and Willimon’s Plough piece, I’ll say again that Arnold founded the Bruderhof about a hundred years ago. Like I and my family, Arnold became convinced that the Sermon on the Mount was to be lived, not just “loved” as some idyllic dream to aspire to. He likewise learned that living the Sermon on the Mount could not be done alone. Community was required. As I’ve said, you can’t follow Jesus alone, especially not if you’re trying to follow him down the narrow path of radical discipleship, through the narrow door of enemy love and participation in God’s economy. Thus, the Bruderhof was born.
Willimon’s Resident Aliens piece in the Plough has much to contribute to this discussion, and bears further quoting at some length. He writes:
Asked by The Christian Century to respond to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, a dozen reviewers dismissed the book as politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day. None noticed that the book was meant to address the church, not the US Senate. Resident Aliens was a work of ecclesiology that assumed that when Christians are pressed to “say something political,” our most faithful response is church. As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.
Many of our critics showed that they still live under the Constantinian illusion that the United States is roughly synonymous with the kingdom of God. Even though the state alleges that it practices freedom of religion, the secular state tolerates no alternatives to its sovereignty. Christians are free in American democracy to be as religious as we please as long as we keep our religion personal and private.
Contemporary secular politics decrees that people of faith must first jettison the church’s peculiar speech and practices before we can be allowed to go public and do politics. Many mainline Protestants, and an embarrassing number of American evangelicals, cling to the hope that by engagement with secular politics within the limits set by the modern democratic state, we can wrest some shred of social significance for the Christian faith. That’s how my own United Methodist Church became the Democratic Party on its knees.
Saying it better than we put it in Resident Aliens, Arnold not only sees Christ as “embodied in the church” but calls the church to go beyond words and engage in radical, urgent action that forms the church as irrefutable, concrete proof that Jesus Christ really is Lord and we are not: “Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians.… Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by,” on the basis of our knowledge of who God is and where God is bringing the world. Our hope is not in some fuzzy, ethereal spirituality. “It takes place now, through Christ in the church. The future kingdom receives form in the church.”
In his sermon, Arnold eschews commentary on current events, as well as condemnation or commendation of this or that political leader, and instead speaks about the peculiar way Christ takes up room in the world and makes his will known through the ragtag group of losers we dare to call, with Paul, the very body of Christ. “It is not the task of this body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world.… Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.”
Because of who God is and how God works, the congregation where I preach, for all its failures (and I can tell you, they are many) is, according to Arnold, nothing less than “an embassy of God’s kingdom”: “When the British ambassador is in the British embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich.… In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.”
Arnold’s sermon is a continually fresh, relevant rebuke to those who think we can do politics without doing church. Among many pastors and church leaders, there is a rather docetic view of ministry and the church. We denigrate many of the tasks that consume pastoral ministry – administration, sermon preparation, and congregational leadership – because we long to be done with this mundane, corporeal stuff so we can soar upward to higher, more spiritual tasks. Arnold wisely asserts Incarnation and unashamedly calls upon his congregants to get their hands dirty by engaging in corporate work: to set up, create, form, and learn all those organizational skills that are appropriate for an incarnational faith where we are saved by the Eternal Word condescending to become our flesh.
There’s so much to unpack here, but I trust I’ve already done some of that work and could do no better than Willimon, to be sure. I do want to highlight some things, though. Willimon notes that Arnold describes the church as being “an embassy of God’s kingdom” and reminds his readers that in an embassy the only “laws” that apply are that of the kingdom/state that the embassy is from. Thus, we are to live as if the authority of Christ and his kingdom “trumps” that of any secular power. Where the state tells us to keep the economy (and all its related wars) going by consuming ever more, Jesus calls us to sell our possessions, share God’s gifts which were given to all for all, and give to those who ask of us. Where the state devalues black and brown lives through its racially biased education, housing, employment, and criminal “justice” systems; and through the mass incarceration of people of color via the school to prison pipeline (in order to keep profits flowing to the prison industrial complex), we are to assert and live as if black lives matter.
I could go on, but I also want to echo Arnold in saying that “Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by.” Likewise, he said, “The future kingdom receives form in the church.” Doesn’t this sound a lot like “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle?” Indeed.
Willimon goes on to allude to the Charleston church massacre and its aftermath. He says:
I know a pastor who began his sermon after the Charleston massacre by asking, “How come our Bible studies in this church have not been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us? Church, we need to figure out how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not. Our little congregation is called to be a showcase of what a living God can do!”
It’s a profound question Willimon’s pastor colleague asked. Why don’t more people want to kill us? The “politics of Jesus” were sufficient to get him executed by the state, and he promised that we would be persecuted too. May I suggest that if we (European American) U.S. residents who want to follow Jesus are not being severely persecuted, it’s not because of the “freedoms” that U.S. soldiers are said to die for. Rather, I would argue that it’s because we spend most of our days pledging allegiance with our lives to the ideals, dreams, and aspirations that are symbolized in the U.S. flag, rather than to Christ and his kingdom.
So then, as I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the Bruderhof of late, I’ve been surprised to see what a vital presence they have. Despite the pastoral setting of most of their communities, they have not retreated from the world (because the Sermon on the Mount cannot be put into practice in isolation from one’s actual and metaphorical neighbors). They operate the Plough magazine and publishing house, which I’ve quoted at length above and am glad to subscribe to. They have a vibrant presence on social media, especially Youtube, where one can find a plethora of explainer videos and vignettes from their life together. Take this one, which explains who and what they are in their own words:
I also want to show you this one, titled “Living in Community is Not the Answer:”
This several minute long video by Melinda, a young woman from the Bruderhof, is a profound meditation on life in community and what it’s for, and on our relationship to the powers as we seek to embody alternativity, though of course she doesn’t quite put it that way. In the video Melinda is answering the question posed by a commenter, Christian, which he describes as a “haunting question.” Christian asks: “Is community an end in itself, the cause for dedicating your life, or is it preparation for the mission?” Melinda answers by saying that we are called to life together, but such life is not an end in itself. She says that “community is the vehicle by which we can help and uphold ourselves in our dedication to the cause” (of following Jesus, together). She concludes by stating essentially that the life of alternativity that we are called to must be a life together because we can not do it alone. She says that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves means that we can not be richer than our neighbor and can not turn a blind eye when our neighbor struggles or falls into sin. She says, “Show me a way of doing all that without full Christian community, and I’ll consider it.” Then comes the coup de grace, as she repeats what I think another Bruderhof member must have said in responding to Christian’s “haunting question.” She says:
“I’m not sure why this is a haunting question. My haunting question for Christian is why he feels like owning his own stuff and living for one’s self is preparation for mission.”
It’s an incisive rejoinder which I, putting myself in Christian’s place, do not have a good answer for. So, as the Bruderhof was on my mind, and given my knowledge that some folks from Church of All Nations were at the Bruderhof over the past week, I looked for a Church of All Nations (CAN) sermon to listen to last Sunday when we couldn’t make it to their worship gathering because one of us was sick. I chose this sermon, titled “Saved from What?” I already knew enough of CAN and Pastor Kim to know that this would likely touch in some way on radical discipleship as an alternative to the “traditional” USAmerican presentation of the gospel that I’ve described at length on this blog, including above. I wanted to hear it and expected to view it as something of an answer to another recent sermon I heard about what following Jesus means. That is, I had a pretty good idea that this sermon would be about alternativity. Gratefully, I was not disappointed.
I was surprised, however, as the sermon, from May of this year, was in Pastor Kim’s words, “essentially all about the Bruderhof.” Pastor Kim speaks at length about the call to community and alternativity as embodied and practiced by the Bruderhof, and holds it up as something to be strived for by CAN. As Kirsten and I sat listening to this, when we heard him mention that the sermon was largely about the Bruderhof we looked at each other, a bit stunned. We had spent much of that day reacquainting ourselves with them. Arnold had already risen up as a guide to our next steps in our journey of “getting small” that we keep talking about, and again I’ve written about that. I had likewise been pleased to find all the resonance between how the Bruderhof embodies alternativity and the way Circle of Hope strives to do so in a very different, urban context. And I knew that Church of All Nations currently (at the time, a week ago) had a delegation visiting the Bruderhof, but I did not expect this sermon from May to be largely about them too.
We’ve had several moments in our journey over the past year in which we felt like it was very hard NOT to say that God was somehow speaking to us. Several times we heard the same piece of scripture, for example, from several different, diverse sources, all coming to us at the same time, a time in which we had ears to hear that bit of Scripture anew. This moment as we listened to Pastor Kim preach online about the Bruderhof felt at the very least like another one of those bread crumbs along the trail we are to follow. It was confirmation that we were paying attention to the “right” voice(s) at the “right” time. Imagine my delight, then, when I came across this article online, written for the Plough by Pastor Kim, no less, for the upcoming issue. Bear with me as I give you the whole thing below, because it’s worth it. It’s not really that long, and if you’ve read this far, I appreciate it, for starters, and you’ve shown yourself to be committed to seeing this through to the end. I’ll have just a few words to add of my own below. Pastor Kim writes:
In October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther ignited a movement in the Western church that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. It was a bold response that captured the people’s yearning for comprehensive reform of a church that seemed to have lost its moorings. In modern times it has become apparent to more and more Christians that the church seems to be obsessed with its own institutional survival, which is akin to a dog chasing its own tail. What kind of reformation do we need today for the church to remember its identity and pursue its mission?
Every few months at Church of All Nations (CAN), we offer a class for visitors who want to become members of our congregation, and by extension, of the church catholic. In the class we discuss discipleship, membership, and the theological concepts at the core of our community. But the majority of class time is devoted to a two-thousand-year overview of the Christian story. Why do we spend so much time discussing history? We see no other way to know who we are as a church, and where we are going, apart from knowing how we got here.
It doesn’t take long for our new member candidates to see that our congregation, though part of the mainline Presbyterian family, draws its inspiration from the radical reformers persecuted as “Anabaptists” by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. The Anabaptists’ clear identification of church–state collusion as idolatry made them a threat to both the Catholic Church and the fledgling Protestant movement. At CAN, our commitment to costly discipleship doesn’t come from Reformed catechisms and creeds, but from the way that the Confessing Church emerged to challenge Nazi rule in Germany, and the daring witness of Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer – their courage, “real world” theology, and pastoral insights.
Today, we are seeing growing impatience with the institutional church’s accommodation to temporal power. Younger generations, no longer willing to give the church the benefit of the doubt, are driving the mass exodus out of the Western church, which they see as a primary source of pain and abuse in the world. But for those who have not given up on the church as a vessel of God’s grace and transformation, the contours of a new reformation are beginning to surface.
Our congregation, for instance, is trying to root itself in the anti-imperial gospel community that Jesus inaugurated in Galilee. We hope to be heirs of an unbroken tradition of radical faithfulness to the God of Israel. Though the church has given in to the temptations of empire throughout her history, we are encouraged by the long and continuous witness of uncompromising faithfulness to Jesus as well.
The Early Church
What can we learn about reformation today from the early church? The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist proclaiming “repentance and the forgiveness of sins.” John was consciously harking back to the traditions of Moses and Elijah, legendary leaders of Israel who practiced the dual roles of prophet and pastor. They boldly entered the courts of Pharaoh and King Ahab and demanded justice. They re-taught the people how to live as family, how to practice hospitality, and how to rely on God for their daily bread. John the Baptist had a simple message: The kingdom of God is just around the corner, so you better get your act together. At the core of his teaching was an ancient biblical ethic of mutual aid and restorative justice: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; whoever has food must do the same.
Jesus opted to be baptized into the radical wilderness movement that John had faithfully stewarded for years. The Gospels give us a portrait of a scandalously loving and spirit-filled messiah who healed those plagued with evil spirits. He dared feed the hungry whose common lands had been gobbled up by massive estates. He taught the Galileans how to live with one another like Moses had originally taught them. God’s law was to love one’s neighbors as family, to not scheme about tomorrow, to not give in to the strife and petty jealousies that fracture communities and make them easy to divide and conquer.
When Jesus died, his followers experienced his presence among them. The brutal execution of their Lord could have ended the movement. Instead, they saw that Jesus refused to counter violence with violence. When the women reported an empty tomb, they took it as a sign of Christ’s vindication. The story of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord to “the right hand of the Father” became a rallying cry for those who knew Jesus in his life. Jesus had stayed faithful to the Father, the God of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even on pain of death. Rome had done its worst, its most terroristic act, and Jesus turned the whole spectacle on its head with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” For the disciples, death had truly lost its sting.
Paul, the “strict constructionist” rabbi who sought to protect the integrity of Pharisaic Judaism by any means necessary, was also a privileged Roman citizen. He was interrupted on his way to Damascus by the stark presence of the resurrected Messiah. Blinded by the Lord’s presence, Paul went from being the chief enforcer of temple law to “least of the apostles.” As an alternative to Caesar’s patronage in the imperial familia, Paul could now offer a place in the loving family of God, the body of Christ.
For most of its history the institutional church has been both the master and servant of Western empires.The church has been a force for good in countless ways, and it is right for Christians to celebrate that heritage. But an honest accounting also requires us to admit that for most of its history the institutional church has in alternating ways been both the master and servant of Western empires. Is there another way? Can modern disciples truly follow the Way of Jesus over the American Way?
A New Generation
The church continues only as the next generation accepts the call to be Christ’s body, and his hands and feet to the world. As a pastor in a mainline church for twenty-five years, I have noted the dwindling numbers of young people in the local church. The children of boomers see the church today as complicit in, and co-opted by, the ways of the world. They have little interest in perpetuating the Constantinian arrangement in which churches produce loyal foot soldiers for the empire du jour.
The Protestant Reformation and the Radical Reformation were supposed to inaugurate a new era of integrity and faithfulness for the church. But today we see that, whether a congregation is Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, Mennonite, or Presbyterian, they are overwhelmingly white, old, and declining. Such is the fruit of the Reformation after five hundred years.
The church I currently serve was founded in 2004 with a demographic of mostly Korean- American immigrants raised in this country, roughly twenty-five to thirty-five years old. In recent years, CAN has become a slightly majority-white church, although our members still hail from over twenty-five nations and cultures. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that two-thirds of our congregation is made up of twenty- to forty-year-olds. Ministering to a mostly millennial congregation has given us some insights about the future of the church in a postmodern context.
What is it that our young people don’t buy anymore?
Uncritical patriotism and American exceptionalism (“my country, right or wrong”).
Unexamined white supremacy, both the nativism of the Right and the paternalism toward people of color by the Left.
Unfettered consumerism at the expense of global fairness and environmental sustainability, and endless consumption as a personal coping mechanism.
Rugged individualism and the subtext of the American dream – the accumulation of enough skills and wealth so as to be completely independent.
Christian denominational sectarianism, parochialism, and triumphalism in the face of religious pluralism.
Young people today are desperate for what only the church can offer:
Our young people are searching for their vocation. Many are educated enough for a job or career in the present order, but are desperately searching for a calling.
Our young people hunger for healthy relationships, to meaningfully and deeply relate to another human being (half grew up in divorced or single-parent homes, and others in dysfunctional households).
Plagued with loneliness, isolation, and alienation, our young people are seeking enduring Christian community that functions like a diverse yet intimate family.
Our young people are looking for stability in a highly mobile world, and concreteness in an increasingly virtual and socially networked existence.
Our young people desire authentic faith. They are prone to agnosticism or even raw atheism, as they see little evidence of a God that makes a difference in the religious institutions of the day, namely the local church. If local churches would respond evangelically to these needs, they would open the possibility of spiritual renewal for this searching but confused generation.
A New Reformation
Many professional religious leaders are working tirelessly for the church’s “renewal,” hoping that a new reformation might save the institutional church from demise. But people today are not interested in institutional score-keeping like membership, attendance, budgets, and square feet. If the only motivation for reformation is preserving a middle-class lifestyle for the clergy and preventing the sanctuary from turning into a condo, then people are saying, Let the temple be torn down, for Jesus can raise it up in three days. Amen, so be it.
We firmly believe that, after five hundred years, the Protestant Reformation is giving way to another tectonic shift in what it means to be church. A new reformation is coming indeed.
One element of that reformation will be learning to live together in intentional Christian community. Our congregation has been forming households of unrelated people almost from our beginning, and now we have multiple community houses that are structured, ordered, and thriving. We were making steady progress, or so we thought, until we began to learn about the Bruderhof way.
We were blown away by this community that goes back almost a hundred years – the lifelong commitment to the community, the common purse, working for businesses that are owned and operated by the overall community, the care of its members from cradle to grave (if they choose to stay). CAN is in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, a highly urbanized area, and cannot as yet match these characteristics. But we have been inspired by an actual community that has done it and is living out the Acts 2 way of being church – of sharing all things in common in an age of individualism, greed, loneliness, and despair.
For us, a radical reformation in our time demands that the church live into its vocation as ecclesia, meaning the “called-out ones.” Christians are to be called out of a sick society built on the evils of racism, sexism, militarism, exploitation, and destructive competition. We are to create a new community of love. This does not mean withdrawal from society or indulging sectarian impulses. Church of All Nations is in the middle of an urban and suburban landscape, and hopes to witness to God’s love for the world, right here where we are.
With this goal, we seek to pool our people’s resources, talents, ideas, and labor for the common good. We want our members to feel that their work is rewarding, that the fruit of their labor is being shared justly, that they work together, live together, play together, and worship together because it is very good and pleasant when kindred live together in unity. We will have to participate in the broader economic system, but we will not allow capitalist dogma to influence our internal economics. We will draw people from our immediate context of great brokenness, but our mission will include the casting out of imperial demons and the healing of bodies and souls so that we can relate rightly to our God, our neighbors (human and non-human), and God’s good green earth. We aspire to create an urban village founded on the love and teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord, a type of Bruderhof in the city, and to share God’s abundance with an impoverished world.
Is this part of the next reformation, or just a pipe dream? We’re not sure, but we are grateful for the witness of the Bruderhof, and pray that Christians can live together in harmony as a counter-witness to a world falling apart.
Pastor Kim offers a compelling vision, does he not, of a kind of Bruderhof in the city? Is it any wonder that we feel drawn to CAN just now? We can’t escape the haunting questions asked above by the pastor colleague of Willimon and by the member of the Bruderhof. Why, exactly, is it that that the way we not only study but live out Jesus’ teaching in the Bible has not “been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us?” Why haven’t we more fully figured out “how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not?” Or, as the Bruderhof commenter challenged, why do we “feel like owning (our) own stuff and living for (ourselves) is preparation for mission?” Quite simply, it’s not.
Thankfully, we do have the witness of the Bruderhof, whatever unavoidable shortcomings their life together may entail. I can’t help, though, but wonder if Pastor Kim is aware of Circle of Hope. Their life together has shortcomings too, but they’re the only urban church I know of that is really going for alternativity in the way that Pastor Kim seems to want to be a part of, and I and my family do as well. From the very intentional way they go about being the church together through cell groups and a network of congregations that form one church, to their frequent witness and action against the powers in solidarity with marginalized groups, to their willingness to boldly renounce capitalism and violence and share the resources they develop freely (see here, for example, or read about how they share resources here and the power that unleashes here), to their Bruderhof-like subversive use of the world’s economic system to generate resources for their life together (go here and here, for example)- all of this seems to me to be an embodiment of what a “Bruderhof in the city” might look like. Like CAN, Circle has folks that live together in community, so much so that Rod wrote a resource for them as they do so way back in 2004. CAN was a “sponsor” of the Carnivale de Resistance that we attended last year, which I wrote about here and for which our former Circle of Hope pastor Joshua was a member of the Carnivale team. Naturally, Circle of Hope has a Carnivale de Resistance support team, and the organizers of Carnivale spoke at a CAN conference a few years ago. Circe also has a Watershed Discipleship team and as a community has been profoundly influenced by Ched Myers. Meanwhile Ched, of course, also came to speak at that same recent CAN conference. I could go on, but for now suffice it to say that there’s much resonance among Circle of Hope, the Bruderhof, and CAN. Therefore, with Circle of Hope and the Bruderhof as inspiration, I and my family are glad to enter into the life that CAN is having together. We pray that we will ever more fully embody, together, the alternativity that we are called to. Lord, let it be so.
It was this heartfelt talk (click the link) in the wake of the recent events in Charlottesville that did it for me, really. I mean it. You can just stop reading now and listen to this talk. If the only thing this post accomplishes is to get you to listen to this “sermon” (he says it’s not really a sermon) by Pastor Jin S. Kim of Church of All Nations here in the Twin Cities, my work here will be done. I’ve known about Church of All Nations (CAN) for a little while. I don’t quite remember how it came across my radar. It may have been because CAN is one of the few churches here in the Twin Cities that has cell groups, and actually calls them cell groups, thus indicating, one would think, at least some familiarity with the concept. As I’ve mentioned many times, it was a cell group based church in Philly, Circle of Hope, that we were a part of in two stints from ’96-’98 and from ’03-’05 and which remains so very formative in terms of my imagination for what the church can and should be. It’s why I keep talking about it. Over the past year, though, I’ve come across CAN repeatedly.
I’ll say more about CAN in a moment, but first let’s talk about the central theme of what I and my family have been learning over the past year- “getting small.” Remember, we’re learning to give away privilege and power so that we can relate to the Empire of our day (the violent, capitalistic U.S. one) the way that Jesus and the first of his followers related to theirs (the violent, Mammon loving Roman one), from “under, not over.” We’re trying to get “small” and maybe even get into “Paul’s slavish shoes” a bit so that we can better be slaves for Jesus, just as he slaved for us. Here’s the post again that unpacks all this better than I ever could. On my break at work I often walk from the building I work in up to my alma mater, Luther Seminary. Yesterday as I was thinking on my walk back to work a word came to mind: devolution.
I’m most interested in the first part of the first definition: “the transfer or delegation of power to a lower level.” This really gets at what I mean when I talk about “getting small.” Note that I don’t mean the “formal” sense of the word, “descent to a lower or worse state” because a lower state socioeconomically in U.S. empire is not “worse” than my more privileged one. If anything, I am in the “worse” state because my power and privilege insulates me from the reality of my need for a Savior. Indeed, if “getting small” has to do with decentering “whiteness” and relinquishing at least a few of the many privileges I enjoy because of my skin tone, if it has to do with recognizing that nothing belongs to me and that private property is a concept foreign to God’s economy and his kingdom- and therefore if I have two coats while my brother or sister have none it is incumbent upon me to give him one and apologize for keeping what God clearly gave me to give to him- if all this is true, then my aim is to transfer the worldly power that has accrued to me unjustly. My responsibility is to delegate the influence I’ve been given to my brothers or sisters who exist on a “lower level” in worldly society. I have to get small, and close, to those on the margins of secular society that I want to love and serve and be loved and served by and learn from, because solidarity requires proximity. Thus, this has been a year of devolution, and it’s far from over.
You may recall, then, that Ched Myers has been a big influence in our year of devolution in 2017. His book Sabbath Economics had a follow-up book written by Matthew Colwell, Sabbath Economics: Household Practices, which was one of the books we read in January that helped launch us down this path. It was in that book that we learned that “solidarity requires proximity,” and in regard to Jesus’ phrase “the poor will always be with you,” it was Ched who said that this saying by Jesus “…is not about the inevitability of poverty but about the social location of the church.” Anyway, Ched does great work, including his recent book Watershed Discipleship, which I’m eager to read some day. Ched is part of Bartimeus Cooperative Ministries, and they help run this little site I discovered this year called Radical Discipleship. Among the great resources that site offers, one is a list of “Communities of Discontinuity.” These are communities around the country that are in some way trying to embody resistance to Empire in order to follow Jesus instead. On that page they quote Ched in one of his seminal works, Who Will Roll Away the Stone, in which he said that “…we are attempting to live in ways incongruous with and even defective from the expectations of our gender, race, and class.” Sounds a bit like devolution, doesn’t it? So among these communities of discontinuity are Circle of Hope, of course, and also South Street Ministries in Akron that we were also a part of at one time and whose pastor, Duane Crabbs, we have great affection for. Carnivale de Resistance and Christian Peacemaker Teams are listed. The Dorothy Day Catholic Worker is as well along with the Mennonite Worker here in the Twin Cities, which is run by Mark Van Steenwyk, whom we’ve been privileged to partner with of late. Rutba House, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s intentional community, is listed, as is The Simple Way, where Shane Claiborne got his start. And then there’s the Underground Seminary, also here in the Twin Cities.
When I clicked that Underground Seminary link for the first time, I discovered that it is run by CAN, and so I encountered them again. Incidentally, I also discovered that it was amazing and I wished that I could perhaps have gone there for seminary instead of where I did. Pastor Kim says that they started the Underground Seminary because in his work with pastoral interns at CAN he found that he kept getting “exasperated by the arduous task of deprogramming seminary grads” and so “thought it’d be better to equip them to be radical disciples from the start.” That said, when I went to seminary the Underground Seminary didn’t exist and I doubt I would have been ready for it if it had.
I mentioned Mark Van Steenwyk of the Mennonite Worker above. His is a radical voice that I appreciate, and it turns out that he and Pastor Kim are good friends. They’re both local, and Pastor Kim wrote the afterword for one of Mark’s books. Mark also interviewed Pastor Kim for the amazing Iconocast podcast, which Mark used to be involved with. It’s another worthy listen. And then in this article, Mark quotes Dr. King, who spoke of a “mythical concept of time” by which “white” moderates “paternalistically believe” they “can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” by advising black folk to wait for a more “convenient” time to pursue civil rights. Regarding the myth alluded to above, Mark says:
But our myths weren’t born on the streets. They were forged in the pulpits of thousands of congregations. As my dear friend, Pastor Jin Kim of Church of All Nations, says: “The church provides the foot soldiers for the American Empire.”
If you’ve been reading this blog and know anything about me, can you see why I might like Pastor Kim? Here’s one more pearl of wisdom from him, just to drive home the point. In a two-part article for Sojourners, he wrote:
The meaning of evangelism is the proclamation of good news to the world. How can we continue to exclude and avoid those with whom we are not comfortable and live into our evangelical calling at the same time? If we do not shed this primitive tendency, and yet heed the call to be evangelical, do we not risk exporting our ecclesial tribalism far and wide? How can we say we are evangelical if the good news is not good for the whole world? If the gospel is proclaimed under the rubric of the homogeneous unit principle, I would argue that this is distorted news, even false news. The acid test of evangelism must be: Is this good news for the poor?
But the church has largely forgotten the poor, instead focusing on the perceived poverty of individual rights driven by debates over human sexuality and ordination. What about plain old poverty driven by the historic legacy of racism, a politics seemingly motivated by a preferential option for the rich, and the exploitation of the newly arrived on American shores?
◉ We are always trying to stretch across barriers: across racial/ethnic, class and cultural divides.
◉ Racial reconciliation is a matter of demanding justice, not just peace.
◉ A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.
◉ We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represents the new humanity.
Such reconciliation is what CAN is all about, and about which they say: “Our central mission is to do the ministry of reconciliation.” This shows, as CAN is one of the most diverse congregations, I suspect, in the country. As Pastor Kim wrote about CAN in 2010:
Though according to this 2012 MPR story about CAN, there is a growing number of people of European descent that make up CAN, their commitment to embodying the new humanity is evident. As a Presbyterian congregation, they have deacons. There are 10 of them, and 8 of those ten are women. In most churches, it’s the other way around. There are 17 folks on staff (I don’t know how many are paid), and 9 of them are women, while 10 represent ethnic minorities. About all this diversity and the promise and potential pitfalls it represents, they say:
Many of us who began this journey assumed that we would be dealing with much more conflict as many cultures and worldviews add to the complexity of congregational dynamics. What we have discovered, to our delight, is the exact opposite. The very decision to join a church in which one chooses to be a minority seems to draw the kind of people who are willing to “lay down their sword” of power and privilege. The Korean American founders had to set the example first. Today, we all seem to be caught up in a virtuous cycle of who can lift up and value other individuals and cultures, to “consider others better than oneself.” The culture of public confession, corporate repentance, joyful celebration and vulnerable relationality that we have cultivated here is key to understanding the dynamism and eschatological hope evident in our life together.
This language of “laying down one’s sword of power and privilege” is obviously music to my ears, and as suggested above, I am indeed drawn to this church, but I’ll say more about that later. For now, just note that such language again is very much in keeping with “getting small,” with the year of devolution in 2017 that I’ve been describing.
Part of that devolution, though, indeed part of that giving up of power and privilege, has very much for us meant also quite really, if not literally, laying down one’s sword. As I’ve said, in the Sermon on the Mount, on the cross, and in our lives we’ve heard Jesus repeatedly calling us to renounce violence in all its forms, and so we’ve yearned to be part of a faith community that also understands this to be at the heart of the gospel. You can imagine, then, my delight when I discovered this bit of writing by Pastor Kim, in which, speaking of Jesus, he says:
He will not wage war to bring peace. He will not use violence to end violence. In Jesus Christ the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the ox, will break bread together. In Jesus Christ “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” Our impulses of impatience, vengeance and violence will be changed, not by a violent inauguration of the last dispensation, but by the eschatological pull of God’s kingdom on all creation, old and new. When Jesus suffered violence on the cross without retaliating, he emptied violence of its power once and for all. Violence itself was crucified in Jesus.
Hearing the notion that violence itself was crucified on the cross with Jesus was somehow new to me in 2017. I heard it in Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove’s book The Awakening of Hope, in which a chapter is titled, “Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill.” Then, of course, I heard it in spades in both of the Brian Zahnd books I read this year, A Farewell to Mars and Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, as well as in Greg Boyd’s magnum opus which I’ve started reading and heard him speak about, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Meanwhile, Pastor Kim has been writing and talking about this at least since 2010.
So let’s review. 2017 has been our year of devolution as we’ve worked on “getting small” so that we can follow Jesus “from under, not over.” Inherent in that effort is a recognition of history and an awareness of our standing vis-a-vis the larger culture. That is, we live in the shadow of an Empire more powerful than the Roman one that loomed large in the culture of Jesus’ day and in the imaginations of many of the Biblical writers. Our relationship to that Empire, inasmuch as it makes claims and seeks power and control that properly belongs to Jesus and his kingdom, must be one of resistance. As Jesus followers we must resist not just consumerism but capitalism itself. We must resist not just “bad guys with guns” but violence itself, including that which is so frequently engaged in around the world with impunity by the U.S. government, not to mention in local police forces around the country. We must not accommodate Mammon and Empire- the powers and principalities- but by living into God’s economy, renouncing violence, and pledging allegiance to Christ and his kingdom alone, we must therefore subvert Mammon and Empire.
Still Trying to Keep Up With Jesus
Church of All Nations (CAN) is a community that “gets” all this, and more. They’re organized, at least partially, in cell groups. They started an “underground seminary” to raise up radical disciples who don’t have to be deprogrammed of their imperial, capitalistic outlook. They have a staff person whose job, in part, is to help organize the intentional community houses that are connected to their church. In short, there is much, much to like about this faith community. I know it’s not perfect. It can’t be. But they embody a prophetic witness that is simply remarkable.
So why am I writing about all this? As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, Kirsten and I have struggled for some months now to find our place within Mill City Church. We have so appreciated that faith community over the past year that we’ve been a part of it. It was within Mill City Church, after all, that we heard the call to get small and renounce violence, to take seriously our responsibility to follow Jesus by renouncing any kingdom that is not his so that we can “give to God what is God’s” (our allegiance, our loyalty, our very lives; in short, everything). Of all the puzzle pieces God put together to lead us in our year of devolution so far, being part of Mill City Church was a crucial one.
That said, the more we’ve learned along the way, the more marginalized within Mill City Church we’ve felt. This is probably a good thing. We are, after all, trying to get closer to those “on the margins.” However, it seems the call to radical discipleship and the conclusions we’ve reached about what it means for us are not shared by, according to one of Mill City’s pastors, “anyone else” within the church. Nor, we were told, would that call be included overtly in any of the teaching of Mill City’s pastors any time soon. Thus, in a recent meeting with two of Mill City’s pastors, it was made clear to us that if we are to continue on the path we’re on and remain part of Mill City Church as we do so, it will, at the very least, be a very lonely journey. We know that the path we’re trying to walk is a “narrow one that few find.” So on the one hand this served as something of a confirmation that we were moving in the right direction, but it really put in stark relief what we would be up against as we tried to keep moving in that direction within this church. As I said in a sub-heading in another recent post, “we followed Jesus into Mill City Church. Jesus kept moving.”
So it is with mixed feelings that I write that we will be moving on too. It was made clear to us again that we would be alone within Mill City Church if we kept trying to follow Jesus the way we feel called to. We can live with that, but we don’t want to be a distraction, or worse, a divisive element within a church that may not be everything we thought or hoped it was. Thus, as I recently told someone in an email, “there are times when it has seemed that in order to follow Jesus we’d have to abandon the church altogether. We’re praying we’re wrong about that, because we know we can’t follow Jesus alone, especially if we’re trying to resist violent, capitalistic U.S. culture as we do so.”
And that just brings me back to all I said above about CAN. You can see, I hope, why it would be an attractive faith community to us. All the things we’ve been learning this year they’ve been living for more than a few. Still, none of that was sufficient to cause us to jump ship from Mill City and start over again among Church of All Nations. However, the talk I linked to at the very top of this post was sufficient, at least enough to cause us to want to give CAN a try. It’s that talk that I listened to, jaw slightly agape, and then got Kirsten and listened to again with her. This talk is remarkable, in no small part because of the fact that in it Pastor Kim tells the truth about history when he calls the U.S. a “racist” and “fascist” state, and does so right from the pulpit, fearlessly. Beyond that, though, I found as I listened to it that I had another epiphany.
The U.S. Is A Racist, Fascist State
I was reminded that one of Mill City’s pastors had a 5 minute “family meeting” before giving their regular sermon in the wake of the events in Charlottesville. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but an effort was made to call out the injustice occurring and call us as Jesus followers to renounce racism and resist it. It was good, but it was brief, and then the pastor moved on to the bulk, and arguably the substance, of their prepared remarks. Let me be clear that I’m not criticizing what happened at Mill City’s worship gathering that morning. At least the events in Charlottesville were mentioned and racism was called out, which is more than occurred after the Jeronimo Yanez verdict, for example (and the preacher on that Sunday has publicly apologized for saying nothing about it). I do, however, want to contrast what happened at Mill City’s gathering with what happened at CAN’s after the events of Charlottesville, because the difference is instructive. Pastor Kim had a “family meeting” in his talk too, but that meeting was the substance of his remarks. It’s all he talked about, and he spent not 5 minutes doing so, but 40. And he told the truth. He didn’t say something about “racism” generally as a factor that some individuals in Charlottesville allowed to motivate them to do hateful things. He said the U.S. was itself a racist, not to mention fascist, state. And he did this with authority that none of Mill City’s pastors could ever have, because they’re European American, while Pastor Kim is not, and neither are the majority of his staff. Nor is CAN itself dominated by any one ethnic group, while Mill City is far and away, from the looks of things on Sunday probably 95% or more, made up of people of European descent. In other words, save for some notable exceptions, Mill City is all “white.”
So as I listened to the urgency in Pastor Kim’s voice as he described what could happen if racist, fascist forces eventually “came for” people of color in this country and perhaps for “people of color- lovers” too- just as Nazis eventually “came for” Jews in Hitler’s Germany- it struck me that it was only in a context of proximity to people of color that the impetus to do more than just “stand in solidarity” with the oppressed in some metaphorical sense gains the traction that it needs. The pastor that gave that 5 minute talk about Charlottesville to all the “white” people who make up Mill City is to be praised for, and often speaks herself about, all her efforts over the years to cultivate relationships with people of color and build bridges, etc. That is indeed very praiseworthy. But when you’re sitting in an auditorium again full of “white” people, she could even have said everything Pastor Kim said about Charlottesville, and the words simply wouldn’t have held the power that they did when Pastor Kim said them. A “white” person preaching to “white” people about loving black folks and resisting racism is all very well and good, but I kind of doubt it will change much. On the other hand, a “white” person such as myself who hears those same words spoken by a non-“white” person who says them to a congregation that is filled with people of color from many nations around the globe is moved to act.
Our Place Is Not Between the Rescuer and Those In Need Of Rescue. Our Place Is Between the Oppressor and Those They Would Oppress.
Pastor Kim gave a great analogy in his talk about a loved one in need of rescue. If you’re separated from that loved one in grave danger by a crowd of people who may have the best intentions in the world, but who aren’t paying attention to your loved one’s cry, then they become a formidable barrier to any effort to get to and save your loved one. As Pastor Kim said, the crowd that is in the way might be very well-meaning, but if they’re not “woke,” if they’re not actively trying to save your loved one too or at least getting out of the way so that you can, they remain part of the problem. As I listened to this, I realized that my friend Jesse who’s pursuing his PhD at Temple, working largely on matters of race and the church, is right. For some time, as far as I know, he’s been convicted that he and his family as “white” folks follow Jesus best if they do so as part of a black church. Solidarity requires proximity, as I keep saying. If people of color in this country need “white” folks to not just build bridges and have good intentions, but to really be in solidarity with them, then proximity is necessary. We need to be close enough to be “in the way,” but not as a barrier between the rescuer and the oppressed. We need to stand between the oppressor and the oppressed. So long, then, as I and my family remained in the mostly “white” Mill City Church, we remained “in the way” in the worst kind of way. So we followed Jesus into Mill City Church, but Jesus kept moving.
Granted, CAN is not a mostly black church any more than it’s a mostly “white” one. But I don’t think there will be ethnic neighborhoods in the New Jerusalem. I know every congregation probably realistically can’t be as diverse as CAN, but if CAN is a microcosm of the new humanity, if it’s a “foretaste of the feast to come,” it’s a prophetic reality worth striving for. So where no truly diverse congregation like CAN is available, I think “white” folks ought to be “all in” in a local black church. Then at least the oppressed are not an abstract ideal to love metaphorically as you educate yourself and try to get “woke,” often from a distance; instead, they are your friends and neighbors, your brothers and sisters in Christ with whom you worship on Sunday and work at being the Church together, however hard that might be. That said, we are blessed to live now about 4 miles from where CAN has their building, and so for all the reasons above, we feel very called to keep following Jesus into their midst. Who knows what will happen? What I hope, though, is that instead of being “in the way” in the worst possible way as a well-intentioned “white” person standing between the rescuer and those in need of rescue, we will instead find ourselves “in the way” in the “right” way, that is, on the way with Jesus, along the way of the cross. Lord, let it be so.
On a final note, I should add that I don’t regret our time among Mill City Church in the least. I think being a part of this church was a necessary step in our journey. It turns out it was just a step, but we couldn’t make this next one without having made that one. Thus, we are very grateful for our time among them, and hope to continue our relationships with those from Mill City that want to. After all, we’re all trying to follow Jesus. Sometimes this involves moving rapidly along the way. Sometimes it seems like no progress is made at all. Sometimes we move in the wrong direction. As I’ve repeatedly said, Kirsten and I spent the better part of 20 years hardly following at all in many ways. Still, Jesus keeps calling us. Lord willing, we’ll all keep trying to answer, and follow, and keep up with him. Again, Lord, let it be so.
I will confess that I think most of us get following Jesus wrong. Obviously, to have such a thought presupposes that I have some idea of what it would look like to get following Jesus “right.” I intentionally said “us” in my first sentence, because like Paul, I am the worst of sinners. As I’ve said of late, after abandoning Facebook because it seemed on balance to be more of a negative than a positive in our lives, we came back on in order to better connect with our local faith community, relatives far away, etc. Being back on, as I’ve also said, has been something of a mixed bag. I’m finding that even without a smartphone, Facebook retains its power to suck you in. It’s so, so easy to get locked into the “bubble.” It’s literally rewarding; endorphins are released in your brain when you receive and respond to notifications (even if not on a smartphone). It’s easy to “like” all the news sites, public figures, and causes you believe in, and all the while behind the scenes Facebook’s not so magic algorithm works in self-referencing fashion to reinforce what you already thought was true, to magnify your outrage at all the things you already thought were wrong, until one day you find yourself plowing your car into the people who are surely trying to steal your country right out from under you. I should be explicit here in stating that I am in no way justifying the actions of the home-grown terrorist who murdered and harmed peaceful counter-protestors in Charlottesville, and I can’t begin to think I know what his motivations were when he committed his vile, murderous act of aggression. What I am saying is that I believed before, and believe still, that Facebook (can be? is?) dangerous.
Silencing Those I Disagree With
When we were on before I got in lots of online arguments with the people- usually from the conservative “Christian” upbringing of my youth- that I disagree with. Even if in my heart of hearts I didn’t really believe that my arguing with them would change their minds, I still felt compelled to do so. Usually those arguments ended badly, and a quick click of the “unfriend” or even “block” button followed. Naturally, as I silenced those I disagreed with, I locked myself ever more into my own self-referencing and self-reinforcing bubble. As I write this I’m struck by the last sentence I just wrote. Even if only on Facebook, “I silenced those I disagreed with.” Would I do this in person? Would I refuse to hear those I don’t agree with, even/especially when I find their rhetoric vile, their arguments baseless, and their opinions ignorant or ill-informed? My own rhetoric about myself would say “no,” even if in practice my web of face-to-face relationships and those I choose to spend time with might suggest otherwise.
“Issues” Don’t Deserve Our “Stances;” People Do
Of course I know that people will, and often do, “like,” “friend,” and “follow” pages, people, and groups they don’t agree with for the sole purpose of “trolling” and/or getting into such arguments as I allude to above. I suspect that this is no more virtuous than cementing yourself in your own little like-minded bubble on Facebook. If part of what I think might be the “right” way to follow Jesus involves breaking down barriers and overcoming (often self-constructed) walls of division, I have to think that I have some responsibility to pursue relationship with those who look, think, and act differently than I do, and at the very least to remain in those (online) relationships I’m already a part of with those who think like maybe I used to, but do no longer. Better still, I would do well when possible to invite such folks to dinner. You see, to the extent that I’ve changed in my thinking about the world and especially about how to follow Jesus, much of that change has been driven by my in-person contact with people and ideas that are different than I am. As I’ve said for a little while now, I’ve learned that some of the most divisive “issues” of our time usually involve real people’s lives, and it’s easy to take a stand for or against an “issue,” but when you get to know the real people who the “issue” impacts, you find yourself no longer talking and thinking about the “issue.” Instead, you must decide whether to advocate for or against the well-being and maybe the very life of that person you know, who hopefully has become your friend. The gay “lifestyle” and/or “agenda” used to be an “issue” for me. Now, when people argue about it, I have to think about David, and April, and Ty, and others. I have to ask whether or not I really love them and want the best for them. There’s a lot more to be said about that, but I digress.
My point now I suppose is that “exposure therapy” works. Maybe that’s a good way to think of this. Especially to the extent that we remain afraid of those who are different from us and those we can’t understand, we all need a little therapy, and simple exposure to those friends we haven’t met yet would be a good start. What I’m saying is that I probably swung from one extreme to the other. I lived in a conservative bubble for a long time (pre-social media days), and it did not serve me well as a Jesus-follower. A “liberal” bubble will no doubt serve me no better. It’s probably fair to say that as a mobile-home dwelling male of European descent growing up in Texas, I was a conservative, America-loving, homophobic racist. And because as a child I was an abused conservative, America-loving, homophobic racist who grew up in the church, I really, really loved Jesus in my own small, ill-informed, immature way. I always say I grew up knowing that I could “depend on God in the absence of dependable parents.” Hear me now, the labels I’ve given myself above are labels I’m applying to myself, not to anyone else. Maybe others who grew up in the conditions I did might now look back and think of themselves then in the same way. Most probably wouldn’t, but I’m not saying that about anyone else. I’m saying that about myself.
Moving from One Secular Political Extreme to the Other When I’m Supposed to be an Extremist for Love
If before I was conservative, America-loving, homophobic, and racist, am I now liberal, America-hating, gay-loving, and anti-racist? Some would probably say so, at least in regard to some of those labels. I’d like to be anti-racist. It’s a necessary corrective to a foundational truth about the U.S. which it will likely take just as many centuries to undo as it did to “do” in the first place. I’d like to be thought of as someone who loves my LGBTQ brothers and sisters and who is passionate about (nonviolently) fighting for their good. Admittedly, this is probably still a growth point for me, but it’s something I aspire to. My “conservative” friends, to whatever extent I still have any, would likely think of me as very “liberal.” Truth be told, however, more and more I’m able to see the extent to which “liberalism” inasmuch as it’s thought of as a counter to “conservatism” in this country is a poor vehicle if our destination is the beloved community that MLK, Jr. spoke of and Scripture describes so beautifully. I think “liberal” secular politics in this country often offer the promise of more loving and humane answers to the problems that plague our society, but just as often fail to deliver on that promise. I’ll take the rhetoric of an Obama over that of a Trump any day, but sadly much of Obama’s rhetoric proved to be just- and only- that, rhetoric.
What I ought to know by now is that if what I really hope for is God’s kingdom of love and justice to come, then I have to live like Jesus is Lord, and Caesar/Trump/Obama is not. If the beloved community is what I’m called to be a part of, then I have to do the hard work that the family business of reconciliation requires. That means I must work to be reconciled with my neighbors of color, my LGBTQ neighbors, my poor neighbors, and my rich neighbors and conservative neighbors. If I believe that everything belongs to God, then I must stop hoarding all the material wealth I’ve been blessed with and to whatever extent I have two coats while my neighbor has none, I must give at least one away. If I believe that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and he really meant that we should not violently resist an evil person, I must do the hard work of peacemaking, even/especially as I consider the violent impulses of all the institutions I benefit from and participate in every day.
Too Many Causes, Too Little Time
When I go on Facebook these days, especially after the events in Charlottesville, I find myself overwhelmed with all the things I should be angry about. Some such anger, I hope, is right and righteous, and hopefully to the extent that this is true it will serve its purpose. The purpose of anger, after all, is to give the adrenaline necessary to act, and surely there are many actions that are necessary in these perilous times. Still, the simple volume of anger-inducing information is paralyzing. When there are so many things to do, it’s hard to know where to start. Adding to the vitriol in the comments on a Facebook post or Twitter thread probably isn’t the most helpful place to start, to be sure. I also think it’s a bit of a distraction. Online discussion can be helpful, and I participate in probably more than my fair share, but the real work of healing and restoration that this world so desperately needs happens most often as we break bread together, face-to-face, not as we break faith with one another while hurling insults online.
Without Worship, We Shrink
I read yesterday (online, of course) about how a pastor I respect was moved to pray as he faced all the troubles in the world as represented on Facebook and in his own, real life. When I went on Facebook today and was faced with the same troubles in the world and my own troubles in my own real life, I was moved…to praise. Among the faith community that same pastor I spoke of above is a part of, they have a proverb that goes: “without worship, we shrink.” I continue to believe that this is fundamentally, spiritually, and existentially true. When I allow myself to be moved by an effective worship song, I really am…moved. I’m transported from wherever my burdens feel too heavy to bear to the foot of the cross, where Jesus confronts me with his unflinching love not just for me and my tribe but for each and every person who has ever or will ever live, for the whole world, for the entire created order that groans with us in anticipation of its own redemption. In those moments I am overwhelmed not with anger or despair at all the troubles in the world, or at least on Facebook, but instead with love.
Being Overwhelmed is a Virtue
You see, we were meant to be overwhelmed. We were built and wired to be overwhelmed. We’re finite after all. We’re not in-finite. We can hold so much, and no more. God made us this way because he is infinite. He is not contained. God is love, and that love flows from God to his good creation and to every one of us each and every day for as long as the world has existed and on into eternity, and yet his love is never, ever diminished. He is not the less for it. His love is not a “zero-sum” endeavor. It is not subject to the “laws” of economics, and certainly not to the laws of capitalism. It is not the case that the more God gives, the less he has. And you know what? That’s true for us too. We were made to be overwhelmed because we were made to be vessels of this “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love.” We were meant to be utterly filled up with it, and then it was meant to flow from us out to everyone around us. I John puts it best:
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
19 We love because he first loved us.20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in that passage that a lot could be said about, and I’ve said some of it before. What I’m most interested in now is how the passage above ends:
This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
How to Have Confidence on the Day of Judgment
Many would-be Jesus followers spend their whole lives focusing on what came before the last part I just quoted again above. They focus on this part: “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.” Many Christians think this “acknowledgment” that Jesus is the Son of God has to do with reciting a formulaic prayer, or worse, making sure the Ten Commandments are in front of courthouses and hymns can be played by high school bands during football halftime shows. Maybe saying the “sinner’s prayer” suffices as the kind of acknowledgment the verse above alludes to, but I suspect not. What I’m struck by, though, is this. Why do some Christians insist everybody say that formulaic prayer or let them practice their USAmerican civil religion in public spaces? Undoubtedly it’s so that they can “have confidence on the day of judgment” because they think that God’s a worse parent than they hope to be and is therefore willing to torment people in hell forever if they don’t say such a prayer. Thus, it is very, very based in fear. Isn’t it ironic, then, that the very passage above speaks to this very issue? There are very specific instructions about just how to “have confidence on the day of judgment,” and this bit of scripture has a lot to say about fear. According to this passage, we will have confidence on the day of judgment not by saying a formulaic prayer and not by fighting the culture wars; rather, that confidence comes when, “in this world, we are like Jesus.” Immediately afterward, we read, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The passage speaks of God’s love being made “complete” among us, and it seems really, really clear that this happens as we love another, because God has first loved us. Oh, that we would all be so overwhelmed with this love that we did love one another in this way, so that God’s love would be made complete and the world would know we were really, truly, finally Christians! What better way could there be to acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God?
Of course, all that is the opposite of love can seem overwhelming too. Thankfully, as finite creatures we were not built to contain all the hate and evil in the world, and to whatever extent we don’t act lovingly toward one another, there’s plenty of hate and evil to go around. When we focus on the hate and evil, even if we do so in the hope of countering it, it again feels overwhelming. Just spend a little time on Facebook, and you’ll know this to be true. The problem when this happens isn’t that we feel overwhelmed because again that’s how we’re built. The problem is what we’re letting ourselves be overwhelmed by. Let’s work to worship and pray and do whatever we need to keep close to Jesus, so that we can be overwhelmed by his love, letting it spill out of us to everyone who crosses our path. There’s plenty of hate-speech online and hateful actions in real life that require our loving response, but after all “darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Not surprisingly, those words came as Dr. King spoke about violence. He said:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Jesus says that we who would follow him are meant to be the “light of the world.” Let’s be light. It’s the only thing that can drive out darkness. Let’s be love. It’s the only thing that can drive out hate. Let’s be peace. It’s the only thing that can drive out violence.
Let’s Be Friends?
I hope to be light, love, and peace in real life, and on Facebook. That presupposes that I again work hard at the family business of reconciliation, and that requires that I be in relationship- in real life and on Facebook- with those who are different than I am. Hopefully in the coming days our Facebook friend list will grow as I reach out to the folks I unfriended when I grew out of the conservative outlook of my youth. I may not like everything they say; in fact, I’m sure I won’t, but I don’t have the right to silence them, and who knows, maybe I’ll learn something from them. Nor, of course, will they like all the online stances Kirsten and I might take. Be that as it may, if Jesus unrelentingly loves the entire world and each and every one of us whether we want or deserve it or not, and I purport to follow him, then I have to grow into that kind of love too. Lord, let it be so.
The other night we watched Amazing Grace again. It’s a powerful film about the Abolition movement in England, led in no small part by William Wilberforce. Wilberforce’s story is compelling, all the more so because his efforts to end the slave trade were very much rooted in his faith and desire to follow Jesus. Wilberforce began following Jesus in earnest after his political career began, and there’s a great scene in the movie between he and his butler that plays out like this:
William Wilberforce: It’s God. I have 10,000 engagements of state today but I would prefer to spend the day out here getting a wet arse, studying dandelions and marveling at… bloody spider’s webs.
William Wilberforce: I think He found me. You have any idea how inconvenient that is? How idiotic it will sound? I have a political career glittering ahead of me, and in my heart I want spider’s webs.
Richard the Butler: [sitting down next to WW] “It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everybody else and still unknown to himself.” Francis Bacon. I don’t just dust your books, sir.
Having been found by God, Wilberforce struggled with whether or not he should remain in politics, and in the movie version of his story, there were many voices in his life that came together to convince him to continue his political career in large measure so that he could work to end the slave trade. One of those voices was John Newton, a mentor of his, a pastor, and former slave ship captain who spent his days haunted by his former career. Newton, the reader may know, wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” from which the film takes its title. Knowing even just that much about Newton’s life puts the words of the hymn in a new light. Though Newton doesn’t have much screen time in the film, his scenes are powerful. For example, he is depicted in the film as saying: “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly. I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” Newton was haunted by the “20,000 ghosts” of the slaves he was responsible for transporting either to death or into bondage, and so fiercely urged Wilberforce to remain steadfast in his efforts to bring an end to the slave trade. He again is depicted as saying:
I can’t help you. But do it, Wilber. Do it. Take them on. Blow their dirty, filthy ships out of the water. The planters, sugar barons, Alderman “Sugar Cane”, the Lord Mayor of London. Liverpool, Boston, Bristol, New York. All their streets running with blood, dysentery, puke! You won’t come away from those streets clean, Wilber. You’ll get filthy with it, you’ll dream it, see it in broad daylight. But do it. For God’s sake.
So Newton urged Wilberforce to remain in government because Wilberforce “had work to do.” Likewise, Wilberforce’s friend and compatriot who would became Prime Minister, William Pitt, is depicted as arranging a dinner meeting with anti-slave trade activists who told him: “We understand you’re having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist. We humbly suggest you can do both.” Here’s that scene from the movie:
And so he did. Thus began a long effort to pass legislation that would end the slave trade. In fact, it took 16 years for Wilberforce and his allies to get a bill passed, and even then it required a bit of political “trickery” to do so. The final vote to end the slave trade did not end slavery outright, but it was a momentous and long-awaited step in the right direction, one which Wilberforce had given his life and health to help bring about. As Wikipedia notes:
Sensing a breakthrough that had been long anticipated, Charles Grey moved for a second reading in the Commons on 23 February 1807. As tributes were made to Wilberforce, whose face streamed with tears, the bill was carried by 283 votes to 16.
Of course, this was not the end of Wilberforce’s story. He continued to advocate for steady progress toward the ultimate goal of ending slavery in England altogether, but it would take another 26 years for that to occur. Again, Wikipedia picks up the tale:
On 26 July 1833, Wilberforce heard of government concessions that guaranteed the passing of the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery. The following day he grew much weaker, and he died early on the morning of 29 July at his cousin’s house in Cadogan Place, London.
Wikipedia adds that the bill passed a month after Wilberforce did. This steady, lifelong advocacy for the ending of slavery went hand-in-hand with Wilberforce’s faith. Such dedication over such a long time reminds me of the title of the Eugene Peterson book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, for surely that’s what Wilberforce’s life represented. Or, as Newton again is depicted as saying in the film: “God sometimes does His work with gentle drizzle, not storms. Drip. Drip. Drip.”
It’s interesting to revisit this pivotal moment in history amid the racial tensions of today and the disheartening realization that all the “progress” in the world over the past 50 years or so can’t come close to making right the injustice done over the 3+ centuries that came before. As important as bringing an end to the slave trade and then to slavery itself was, it is a decidedly unfinished business as people of color today represent a gravely disproportionate share of the economically and educationally disadvantaged and represent a gravely disproportionate share of the prison population, etc. Still, Wilberforce’s story is inspiring, and we were glad to have been reminded of it again.
So it was with slavery on my mind that I was reviewing one of my recent posts about our efforts to get “small” and I again came across this language from Rod White that helped move us in this direction. He’s writing about Paul and encouraging us to remember that Paul was a person “on the margins” writing to other people “on the margins” of Empire (the Roman one, in Paul’s case, while today we live under the shadow of the “American” one). Rod says:
One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied things up by using the word servant instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.
There’s that language of “becoming small” which has been so important in shaping the paradigm we’re working to live into. And obviously too there’s quite a paradigm shift in regard to thinking about slavery. Rod has a lot more to say about slavery than just what I’ve quoted above, and I would again encourage you to read the rest, which you can find here. For now, though, I should just add that Rod is careful to say that Paul “advises slaves to get free if they can. And he tells Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a brother, or to just charge him whatever it costs to set him free.” However, Rod’s point is that…
…there are no slaves in Christ. A slave in the world is God’s free person. A free person in the world is God’s slave. This is hard to translate for people who believe the delusion that law makes them free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering. Paul might respond to such ideas, as he did, and say, “Though I am blameless before the law, I am God’s prisoner, a lifelong felon freed by grace.” Similarly, no one works for human masters, we do whatever we do for the Lord. Even when oppressed, we experience the hope that we will have our reward and the oppressors will get theirs.
Again I want to be very clear about what Rod isn’t saying, as far as I can tell. He’s not saying that because “a slave in the world is God’s free person” we ought not work tirelessly as Wilberforce did to end slavery wherever we find it. What I do hear him saying is that whatever state or social position we find ourselves in, as Bob Dylan put it, you “gotta serve somebody.” Rod says, speaking of Paul: “His thoughts are a lot bigger than whether a person is going to gain social or political freedom. That achievement would be frosting on his hope cake. The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us.” I still love that “frosting on his hope cake” line.
The point, I think, is that salvation isn’t something we just look forward to after we die. Jesus offers us freedom now, whether you’re a rich male of European descent like myself or the lowliest refugee risking it all to get to this country which has (literally) afforded me so much. Having just watched Amazing Grace again I continued my reading for Lent. I mentioned in my last post that I’ve started reading Brian Zahnd’s important work, A Farewell to Mars:
Zahnd has something to say about slavery too, though it’s a side point in the larger argument he’s making for following the peacemaking way of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Zahnd says:
He’s drawing a direct line from life in the way of Jesus to efforts to end slavery wherever and whenever they’ve been found throughout the world. He adds:
Indeed, precisely because we who not only follow Jesus but have been set free by him have therefore also “been freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to us,” we therefore are compelled to work against enslavement wherever we find it. I struggled with the word “compelled” in the line above, but it’s the right word, for I am a slave…of Christ. I gladly surrender my very body, mind, soul, and spirit to the One who has set me free. I am not just free, after all, from something, I am free for something. Zahnd above speaks prophetically against those who misunderstand Scripture, or worse, twist and misuse it for their own nefarious purposes, to “make” it mean that the big point of life with Jesus is to give us our heavenly retirement plan when we die while everything we leave behind here on earth burns. I’ve recently written about this too.
Zahnd says: “A secret (or not-so-secret) longing for the world’s violent destruction is grossly unbecoming to the followers of the Lamb. We are not hoping for Armageddon; we are helping build New Jerusalem.” I’m reminded again of N.T. Wright’s ever helpful work in calling us to remember that the point of the Christian life isn’t to escape the earth and get to heaven; rather, because of Jesus, heaven will come to earth some day and indeed is already coming, even now, wherever we who have been “saved” choose to live like Jesus is “already” our King.
All these thoughts were swimming in my head as we attended Mill City Church‘s worship gathering this morning. Today was the second in the sermon series for Lent: “What’s So Great About Easter?” We’re focusing during this series on one of our four “Mission Priorities” for 2017: “Gospel and Neighbor.” Today, one of our pastors, J.D., talked about what exactly it is we need to be saved “from.” He said that in part what we need to be saved from is a “cycle of captivity.” He gave some very vulnerable examples of this from his own life and then challenged us to be willing to be fully present with our neighbors, whoever they might be, as opportunities arise to discuss the things in our life that would have our allegiance, that in fact seek to enslave us and hold us captive. Do you see the theme running through my weekend, starting with our viewing of Amazing Grace on Friday night? At every turn God seems to be saying something to me about slavery.
For a long time I lamented that God seemed absent and hidden from me, that I could not find him in the places I expected to. There’s a lesson there that I’m still learning. Now, though, I seem to have entered a new season in my life in which I can’t help but find God everywhere I look. God seems to be waiting around every corner, lurking in every face, stowing away in the pages of every book, and leaping out at me from the melody of every song. I am grateful, to be sure, and will continue to treasure up all these things and ponder them in my heart. William Wilberforce, at least in the movie Amazing Grace, said he didn’t so much find God as was instead found by him. I believe this is something of what I’m experiencing now. In Wilberforce’s case, God found him and led him to see Jesus in his enslaved brothers and sisters from Africa, and therefore he was led to do everything within his power to overturn the laws that enabled their enslavement. Paul speaks of slavery and calls us to realize that even if we happen to find ourselves enslaved in the world, if Christ has set us free, we are free indeed. Likewise, if we happen to find ourselves in positions of power in the world, Christ has still set us free from the trappings of that power, and we are still free, indeed, to stand and work in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who find themselves in earthly chains.
We do indeed need to be saved from a cycle of captivity. Whatever keeps us from experiencing the freedom Jesus offers are chains no less constricting than the bonds that brought black bodies from Africa to work on plantations on the continent I call my (earthly) home. For many people who look like and have the privilege that I do, that which captivates us keeps us from knowing the freedom we have to fully love, serve, and learn from our brother and sisters of color. This must change. It is beginning to change in me, and I am grateful. But we must not only ask what it is we need to be saved from, but just what it is we need to be saved for. Moreover, we need to fully embrace the experience of being saved. It’s hard for a privileged person of European descent like myself, but I need to imagine how it must feel to have literal chains removed from my ankles, wrists, and neck. As I imagine those bonds being loosed, I do well to remember that this freedom comes at a price, but I do not have to pay it. As Rod again said, “In Philippians 2:7…Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not.” Jesus became a slave for us so that we could know freedom. Isn’t it indeed wrong-headed then to see him “serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not?”
We want it, don’t we?!
Having been set free, we follow the example of our Lord and choose to be slaves of and for Christ, for unlike that of those earthly impostor-“lords” that would enslave us if they could, Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden is light, and in him we will find rest for our souls. Mother Pollard knew something about both the legacy of slavery and finding rest in Jesus. Though Rosa Parks is much better known when one thinks of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Mother Pollard played no less an important role. As this site notes:
Mother Pollard was part of the African-American community in Montgomery, Alabama, during the start of the historic 1950s bus boycotts. Despite her advanced years, she refused to take the bus and was adamant that she would walk to see change happen, making the statement, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” Pollard was also a valued source of love and inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr.
We’re saved from cycles of captivity, and saved for the work of the “family business” of reconciliation that God calls us to. Having been indeed set free, our souls find rest not just in “Paul’s slavish shoes,” but in Jesus’. Our “feets” may get tired, but I for one wouldn’t miss a step along the way. Like William Wilberforce, we’ve got work to do, after all.
My freshman year college roommate wrote me an email on the eve of yesterday’s inauguration that clocked in at just under 4,000 words. The basic gist of his argument in all those words seems to be that:
I’ve changed. I’m not the same person he knew in college, for about a year (we were only roommates for freshman year). He goes to reasonable lengths to try to express his appreciation for the fact that my journey has been very different from his and he says he knows that my experiences (which again have been very different from his) have shaped me.
Echoing one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs, I like to say that “Jesus is the lens through which I read the Bible.” My old roommate suggests, however, that it isn’t really Jesus through which I see the Bible. Rather, as far as he can tell in regard to me, “socialist liberalism” is the lens through which I see everything, including Jesus and the Bible. He says: “Socialist liberalism seems to be THE lens with which you see the Bible, Jesus’ teachings, the mission of the church, the only hope for USAmericans (my term), and the only morally justifiable way to accomplish economic and racial reconciliation.”
He goes on to suggest that when I write about my own story and struggles, he “applauds my courage and candor” and “there is not a hint of self-righteousness; only humility.” When, however, I:
“label conservative Christians as ‘fundagelicals’, rail against well-intention(ed) Jesus followers who disagree with socialist liberal political positions and mock them for completely missing the point of the gospel message, label every Trump supporter as racist, publicly shame any Christian who proudly supports Israel because you read an ALJazeera article, devote a majority of a blog to try to see how you can survive thanksgiving with Trump-supporting in-laws, tweet and retweet 50 times everyday with cynicism, hatred, and intolerance of those who disagree with your worldview, and see yourself as…someone who proudly resists a government that hasn’t had a chance yet…and to do all of that using very selective, theologically liberal biblical hermeneutics to make your case and claim the moral authority and high ground while at the same time subliminally (usually not directly) shaming every evangelical Christian…………… it says an awful lot more about the dangerous place you are in instead of the morally indefensible place you claim the ‘other team’ is living in.”
He wasn’t done, though. He adds that again from his perspective I “…can often come across as a self-righteous, hate-filled, borderline agnostic, ideologue who sits in judgment of conservatives, moderates, black and red-letter bible Christians (as opposed to only red-letter ones), meat-eaters, and anyone who is not willing to admit their white guilt and give reparations to every minority in our country….even though it’s not our country hence your USAmericans monicker.”
He then suggests “as a friend” that I “leave the militant socialist liberal Christianity stuff out of your social media life” and that I:
“flip the script to inspiration devoid of antagonization. I know it’s difficult to do that in this new administration but trust me, there is a better way to speak truth to power. The easy way is to keep reading alt left propaganda, get yourself all worked up, retweet 150,000 quotes and articles a day, resist the oppression of whatever it is that upsets you, carry around your white guilt as you live in suburbia, and spend your days miserable reading alt left books from progressive-only bookstores, written by left-wing authors. That’s actually the easy thing to do. The hard way to bring real change I believe is by inspiring a generation of people to the true gospel; the life, teachings, death, resurrection, red letters, and black letters of Jesus.” He says that I should inspire people “…by giving as much credence to the world of politics as Jesus did…not much. The Kingdom was all about speaking truth to power on a different level. Let the Essenes and Barabbas deal with trying to take down the oppression of Rome. Jesus’ speaking truth to power looked so different from Brian Zahnd…’s worldview.”
He adds that Obamacare was “doomed to fail” because, basically as I understand what my old roommate was saying, it tried to force people to care about one another. It tries to legislate morality. Finally, he concludes that “…rooting out all imperialistic Christendom from the world isn’t the solution in my opinion. The solution is changing the empire from within Christendom itself; one heart at a time. I believe that to be the hard way, but the more effective way. Politics is a failed system; for the left and the right; for both Christian conservatives and Christian progressives. There’s a better way.” Incidentally, I don’t think he’s plugging Paul Ryan’s economic plan with that last “better way” bit.
At the end he says he looks forward to seeing more of my family and sports related posts and posts about my faith community, and hopes that he’ll also see me “inspire the echo chamber” with something they “haven’t heard before or retweeted already,” with the gospel.
Phew! That’s a lot to digest, and I don’t even know where to begin to respond. What I don’t want to do is get into an online argument. I’ve been in more than my fair share of those, and they never, ever end well, but on a couple of occasions they have ended relationships. So, although it’s as tempting as the sweets I’ve been consuming much too frequently of late, I will do my best to resist the urge to defend myself, to take his points one by one and show from my perspective why he’s misunderstood me (there’s probably a lot of that) or why I believe whatever position I’ve taken or acted on is one that is as consistent as I can muster with my stated desire to follow Jesus. Some of what he said above is (needlessly) incendiary, whether he meant it to be or not. Nevertheless, I believe in his own way that he means well. So I’ll assume the best and instead of defending myself, what I will do is simply state, as clearly and briefly and in as straightforward fashion as I can, what I believe and why I do what I do. I think I’ve done this before, but lest there be any confusion, here goes:
Despite lots of very compelling reasons not to, I still want, and am trying, to follow Jesus. I know several smart, loving people who have tried to do the same and concluded that they cannot. As I keep saying, their stories aren’t over; so who knows what will happen with them in “the end?” I bring them up because I can relate to them and I respect their reasons. If you want to know more about this, I’ve written about it extensively of late. Just read my last several posts. For my part, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I want to do this; no, I am compelled to do this, because somehow I still believe that as much as I may try (and fail) to hold on to Jesus, I believe deep down that Jesus is still holding on to me. Among the “prosperity gospel” preachers Trump gathered to pray for him as he was inaugurated yesterday, one of the other religious leaders (I don’t remember which one) prayed that Trump, in office, would “be his best self.” That’s one of the few sentiments from yesterday’s proceedings that I can support. I believe, and it has been my experience, that only as I try to closely follow Jesus am I ever truly my best self. It as at the foot of the cross, that great playing field leveler, that I see myself as I truly am (broken but healed), and more importantly, see those around me and around the world for who they truly are (God’s beloved children whom I am to love whether I consider them friends, neighbors, or even enemies). So I am trying, still, to follow Jesus, now well over the threshold of my fourth decade. In many ways that is no small feat these days. I’m not proud; I am grateful. I know, however, that I may not be following Jesus very well.
Even so, there are some basics about following Jesus that have become non-negotiable. I’m glad for this too. Among my “non-negotiables” is a willingness to be certain of very little. This willingness has been crucial to my ongoing relationship with Jesus. I used to be certain about various things that I thought were necessary for faith, like my former certainty that the Bible was inerrant, for example (it’s not). I used to be certain that Jesus was, as I’ve long now said, “a white Anglo-Saxon U.S. male protestant that shopped at the mall, lived in the ‘burbs, and spent his day pursing the American dream” just like most other people I used to know. Little of that, it turns out, is true. I used to be certain that following Jesus was “as American as apple pie” and that doing so, therefore, meant that following Jesus went hand-in-hand with being a “good (white) American,” that doing so meant being patriotic in the U.S. flag next to the “Christian” flag in houses of worship kind of way. According to this way of thinking that I used to be certain was the “correct” way, following Jesus was about following the rules of “checklist Christianity” (again, this is well-trod ground for me on this blog). Included in those rules were a whole bunch of “do’s and don’ts:”
Do read your Bible and pray every day and “go to church” every Sunday
Don’t use bad language or (for some) smoke or drink or even dance (my still favorite Baptist joke is that sex is bad because it might lead to dancing)
Speaking of sex, don’t engage in any other than male-female sex inside of marriage. I’m not pronouncing a judgment here, by the way; I believe that sex outside of marriage is sinful because it destroys the right relationships we were made for. There’s a lot more to be said about this, but I’m off point. Right now I’m just recounting all the “rules” I grew up with that I used to be certain about.
This list of rules could go on and on. My point is that the rules were the focus of the kind of “Christianity” I grew up with, and they extended to belief, which is to say that some of the rules dealt with lending intellectual assent to a series of propositions about God and the Bible. Anyway, if you could “check off” all the rules, you were “in;” you were a “good Christian.” Over time, however, and largely through my own experience, I’ve come to understand that this way of trying to follow Jesus is no way at all, because it’s not really about following Jesus at all. It’s about following the rules; it’s about imposing a new “law,” when in fact Jesus came to put an end to the law. It’s why I now say that “rules are for relationship.” Read Mark 2. It’s literally all about Jesus and his followers breaking all kinds of rules (ones in the Bible, no less) in order to show that they are a means to an end, not the end. Thus, the rules point us in the direction of right relationship, but they’re a poor substitute for it. And that’s just the thing, too many would be Jesus followers I know are willing to substitute the rules for Jesus. That is what I would contend is the “easy way.” The hard way is basing one’s faith on a relationship with a living God who is always on the move, always to be found on the margins, loving and including those that we so often do not. As Pierce Pettis sang, “I can’t go with you and stay where I’m at.” As All Sons and Daughters sing:
I could just sit
I could just sit and wait for all Your goodness
Hope to feel Your presence
And I could just stay
I could just stay right where I am and hope to feel You
Hope to feel something again
And I could hold on
I could hold on to who I am and never let You
Change me from the inside
And I could be safe
I could be safe here in Your arms and never leave home
Never let these walls down
But You have called me higher
You have called me deeper
And I’ll go where You will lead me Lord
You have called me higher
You have called me deeper
And I’ll go where You lead me Lord
Where You lead me
Where You lead me Lord
My point obviously is that most of those things I used to be so sure of I simply am not sure of any longer. As always, here I am reminded of “my” teacher and mentor (not personally of course) Frederick Buechner, who says:
Lord I find You in the seeking
Lord I find You in the doubt
And to know You is to love You
And to know so little else
I need You
Oh how I need You (x3)
Or, as Paul put it: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Living in love with a living God who is always calling me higher and deeper, more fully into my best self, more fully into right relationship with God and with my neighbors, friends, and enemies near and far- and with God’s good earth- means showing up for racial justice and engaging in action and awareness in regard to it; it means speaking truth to power whether it is that of Barack Obama or Donald Trump or Wall Street or Caesar. Declaring that Jesus is Lord means saying that Caesar (or Obama or Trump) is not. Living that out is messy and hard, but necessary, and very political in fact. As usual, Rod White said it better than I could:
“OK. I voted. To paraphrase Paul on both his prophetic and practical sides: In Christ there is no Republican or Democrat; Jesus is Lord. In the voting booth I voted to bring as much justice as I could with my measly vote. Now back to the everyday transformative work we do…with joy.”
In fact, his whole post about the election as a “whitelash” is instructive. I encourage you to read it. Again, for my part, if acting in the voting booth and in my social media posts to bring as much justice as I can with my measly vote and my measly voice makes me look like a “self-righteous, hate-filled, borderline agnostic, ideologue who sits in judgment of conservatives, moderates, black and red-letter bible Christians (as opposed to only red-letter ones), meat-eaters, and anyone who is not willing to admit their white guilt and give reparations to every minority in our country….even though it’s not our country,” then so be it. Lord willing, my more “liberal” and “left-ish” friends will find me equally offensive. If I follow Jesus well and closely enough, what will come through most clearly is love for neighbors near and far and friends and enemies alike. To the extent that my online presence does not make that clear, I repent and beg forgiveness.
I started this post a few days ago, when I was feeling very upset about the news of the day and was trying to get to the root of why. I mean it’s not as if I didn’t know that any of this would happen. Nothing that’s happening right now in national politics- from Trump’s terrible Cabinet picks to his circus of a “press conference” the other day, complete with the steady stream of lies in person, on Twitter, and from his surrogates- none of this is a surprise. Maybe it’s the stark relief of President Obama’s farewell address vs. what happened in Trump Tower during his “press conference.” Obama showed, one last time, how one could at least give the appearance of rising to the dignity of the office and spoke with amazing eloquence, humility, and inspiration. He almost made me want to be hopeful again, despite the striking dissonance of his words with the actual reality of our situation.
Speaking of dissonance, I think this is a big part of what has me most troubled right now. I’m experiencing cognitive dissonance, and I don’t know how to resolve or how to relieve the tension it creates. In the Wikipedia entry for “doublethink” (more on that later), it states that cognitive dissonance is that “…in which contradictory beliefs cause conflict in one’s mind.” F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted as saying, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Perhaps wrongly, I think of this as the ability to hold a paradox, to engage in sound reasoning from true premises that nonetheless results in “a self-contradictory or a logically unacceptable conclusion” according to Wikipedia, which adds: “A paradox involves contradictory yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time.” Paradox is central to Christian faith. Christians hold that Jesus was both “fully human” and “fully divine,” at the same time. Life in Christ, especially these days, is a constant paradox since we hold that the kingdom of God is “already” here (and where Jesus is King, love, justice, and peace are the rule, and poverty and racism could not exist); yet daily we are confronted with evidence that God’s kingdom is “not yet” remotely close to being fully realized in this way.
I am not mentally conflicted about the paradoxes I hold in regard to faith, as there is a mystery involved, and hopefully a little maturity, that helps to dissipate any tension that the apparently conflicting beliefs or ideas I have in regard to Jesus might cause. I understand that the kingdom of God is “already” upon us because of Jesus, but clearly “not yet” fully realized, in part because I know that God has chosen to work through us, flawed and broken as we are, yet in the process of being healed and restored and made whole even as that healing and restoration and wholeness is brought to the whole world. I believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine because I trust him, however imperfectly, and the mystery of the incarnation, of “God with us,” is a beauty I believe will and is saving the world, to borrow a phrase from Brian Zahnd.
Cognitive dissonance, however, as I’m using the phrase, is distinct from paradox in that it cannot be sustained over time. It causes mental conflict and tension that must be resolved in some way. I described above the distinction I’m making between cognitive dissonance and paradox, how tension that might develop in an attempt to hold simultaneously two apparently contradictory beliefs is sometimes able to be sustained over time through belief and trust in Jesus and an appreciation for the mystery that is often a part of the way God works. Sometimes, however, describing something as a paradox just won’t do. It seems to me that paradoxes must in some way be balanced or supported by some other overriding or underlying belief or idea. The paradox of Jesus being both “fully human” and “fully divine” is sustainable over time because it helps inform the idea of “God with us,” that the transcendent God who once seemed so far away would come close, would be immanent, would make himself small and vulnerable in order to join us where we are and end our self-imposed separation from him. The paradox of the kingdom of God being “already” upon us but “not yet” fully realized helps us understand why hate and injustice persist, for now, and is a powerfully motivating force for informing how we can respond to such evils with God’s love, justice, and shalom.
Sometimes, though, would be paradoxes are not at all balanced or are not supported by a larger underlying truth, and thus the resultant cognitive dissonance creates tension that must be resolved, often I suppose through abandoning one of the beliefs or ideas that one previously held to be true. I suspect this is why they’re so stressful, as it is always hard to realize that something you thought was true simply is not. Here are some of the contradictory beliefs/ideas I’ve been struggling with in regard to the election:
On the one hand, “Christians” follow Jesus; Jesus is their leader. Most “white Evangelicals,” who at least think of themselves as being “Christian,” voted for Trump and say that their faith informs their vote. However, on the other hand:
Trump is a Biblically illiterate, narcissistic, serial misogynist who brags about sexual assault, lies incessantly, and demonstrably loves money- and himself- above all else.
Again, on the one hand, especially for “white Evangelicals,” a conversion experience, often involving saying the “sinner’s prayer” in which one confesses one’s sin(s) and asks Jesus to forgive them is the entry point to the faith and the highlight of it. For “white Evangelicals,” this is arguably what makes one a “Christian” or not. Most “white Evangelicals” voted for Trump and say that their faith informs their vote. However, on the other hand:
Trump has stated that he’s never done anything for which he might need forgiveness, despite:
routinely using, abusing, and objectifying women as evidenced by bragging about sexual assault whether he engaged in it or not (and odds are, he did) and being married three times and famously carrying on an affair with the woman who would be his second wife
beginning his career in real estate by being sued for discriminatory housing practices toward racial minorities
routinely cheating his workers and contractors out of earned wages
daily, incessantly, lying to further his self-aggrandizing agenda or engaging in petulant rants about people or institutions he thinks- rightly or wrongly- have slighted him
…and the list could go on and on and on. The point is, this man doesn’t believe he’s ever done anything he should ask forgiveness for, an assertion which stands the test of time despite his forced faux-contrition during the campaign only after being publicly caught in just one of his most egregious offenses.
Again, on the one hand, and at the risk of conflating Republicans and “white Evangelicals,” most of them I know or encounter online and in the media seem to hate, with a special vitriol, President Obama. However, on the other hand:
Obama is an avowed Christian and can describe- and has- his own conversion experience. Obama made it through eight years at the pinnacle of U.S. power with a scandal free administration and an intact nuclear family. He’s conducted himself in office with dignity and grace. He’s (mostly) pursued policies that are at least defensible from the standpoint of someone trying to follow Jesus. It is evident in Scripture that God has a special concern for the poor, that Jesus-followers have a duty to care for the sick, the imprisoned, etc. Obamacare, for all its faults, is a move in that direction; it’s an attempt to better care for the sick. Moreover, instead of pursuing universal healthcare from the start, which I and many others wish he would have, in an effort to compromise with his political opponents from the very beginning he took a Republican idea- Romneycare- and tried to roll it out for the nation. Instead of appreciating this and working with him, Republicans famously vowed to oppose absolutely everything he did whether he pursued things they might otherwise have agreed with or not, and so they did. Their incessant efforts to foil, block, undermine, and obstruct his every effort has much to do with the extent to which Obamacare is currently “failing” (and whether or not it’s “failing” is a debatable point, this year’s dramatic price hikes notwithstanding). For example, if the Medicare expansion that was supposed to occur in all 50 states had actually occurred, more people would be covered and the entire system would be more stable, and cheaper. Taking another issue, Obama did not go nearly far enough, or even do very much, to tackle actual poverty in the U.S. or around the world. However, his efforts to better the lives of “middle class” USAmericans at least mitigated and slowed the typical Republican efforts to pursue preferential policies not for the poor but for the ultra-rich. This was good while it lasted. All that said, Obama obviously is not perfect and his administration has been far from it. He has not been nearly as transparent in office as he said he would be. He has not closed Gitmo, though again Republican obstruction has a lot to do with this. His escalation of the use of drones to kill alleged terrorists has resulted in many, many civilian deaths and has helped to perpetuate a climate of fear and distrust that can only contribute to the perception in some parts of the world that the U.S. is “the great Satan.” He pledged, though, to wind down the wars he inherited as President and his use of drones was a strategic attempt to keep that promise while simultaneously continuing the metaphorical “war on terror.” He believed that the use of drones rather than “boots on the ground” would result in decreased loss of life than would have happened otherwise. The point again is that his policies are at least defensible from the standpoint of someone trying to follow Jesus, and his personal conduct has been above reproach. Yet many, many, “white Evangelicals” seem to absolutely despise him and would rather have someone like Trump in office. This is a fact which defies explanation. It defies sense or decency and certainly runs counter to the notion that those “Christians” who voted Trump in did so with their values foremost in mind.
It’s the vitriol that really gets me and gives away the underlying motivations. It’s hard to believe that racism is not an issue. I know white folks at whom that charge is leveled object, but racism is not (or is not merely) an attitude. That’s prejudice. Racism is a system by which “white” people benefit from unearned privilege and people of color suffer from unearned discrimination. In the anti-racism training I had many, many years ago, I was taught that “racism=prejudice+power.” That’s debatable, obviously. What’s not debatable is that there is a dramatic power differential between people of color and those who self-identify as white. What’s not debatable is that most systems and institutions in this country are set up to perpetuate that power differential. Therefore, the fact that “we the people” elected Obama twice is not evidence that racism is not an issue or that we live in a “post-racial” society. Obama is instead a charismatic, likely once-in-a-generation exception that proves the rule. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said: “If I have to jump six feet to get the same thing that you have to jump two feet for ― that’s how racism works. To be president, [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds … Donald Trump had to be rich and white. That was it. That’s the difference.”
I know that there are many otherwise well-meaning “white” people who want to follow Jesus and think they are even while they voted to put Donald Trump, of all people, in charge of the U.S.’ housing policy (which systematically disadvantages people of color) and fiscal and financial policy (which systematically disadvantages people of color) and justice system (which systematically disadvantages and incarcerates in grossly disproportionate ways people of color) and immigration policy (which systematically disadvantages people of color from other parts of the world who usually have it much worse off even than people of color here in the U.S.), all of which is to say nothing of the U.S. military machine (which systematically is used in ways that oppress and disadvantage people of color around the world). I know some who might read this might dispute my interpretation of the facts I’ve alluded to, if not the facts themselves. I’m glad to be shown if/when I’m wrong. I don’t think the basic thrust of my argument is, and daily I am convicted by the Holy Spirit in a way that tells me I’m on to something.
I suppose all this is why I am grateful for Mill City Church‘s now forming “Action and Awareness” Missional Community that is focused on action and awareness concerning racial justice. If cognitive dissonance is the result of the presence of conflicting ideas that cannot be resolved or sustained over time, the only recourse is to surrender one of those beliefs or ideas in order to resolve the tension. Soon Trump will be president of the U.S. It seems likely that people will suffer and experience more oppression as a result, especially people of color. If I can not believe that supporting Trump and working to enact his policies is consistent with following Jesus, I must take action to the extent that I’m able. I must act to confront and resist the oppressors and to stand in the gap with the oppressed. I am hopeful the Action and Awareness Missional Community will be a vehicle for this.
Likewise, awareness is crucial too. Just the other day the A&A Missional Community learned a little about implicit bias. I know I have a lot to learn about my own biases and the many ways I support and perpetuate racism in this country without even realizing it simply because I’m an educated “white” male. I spoke too above about “doublethink.” Wikipedia says “Doublethink is notable due to a lack of cognitive dissonance — thus the person is completely unaware of any conflict or contradiction.” Perhaps all those otherwise well-meaning would be Jesus followers that voted for Trump simply somehow aren’t aware that their vote for him and support of his policies are inconsistent with following Jesus, that supporting Trump and having Jesus as your leader are, in some very notable ways, antithetical. Where that’s the case, I’m hoping the awareness that the A&A Missional Community will work to promote will be part of the answer. Lord, let it be so.