If You Can’t See the Ocean You’re Swimming In, Open Your Eyes.

In the player above, skip ahead to track 3, “Buzzing of a Bee,” and give it a listen. Below is an early version of the lyrics of this song, courtesy of Circle of Hope in Philly and their partners, including the spoken word artist, Blew Kind. Here’s what they say about it:

CONFESSION
We are being honest about our mistakes, limits, and the brokenness of our world. Blew Kind wrote this spoken word piece preparing for the event in Fall of 2014 called “Peacemaking in an Era of Drone Warfare” put on by the Philadelphia Interfaith Network Against Drone Warfare, of which we are a contributing member along with The Brandywine Peace Community, Mennonite Central Committee (East Coast), Red Letter Christians, The Alternative Seminary, and American Friends Service Committee. The military plans on building and opening a US Drone War Command Center in Horsham, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. We first performed this piece at the coalition event with Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and a viewing of the short documentary “Wounds of Waziristan” and then at a monthly peace vigil outside the Air Guard Station, the future home of the command center. Try to listen as she connects violence and white supremacy to drone warfare and calls into question its morality and our need to root ourselves in Jesus to fight against their propagation.

lyrics

Here are most of the lyrics, in a slightly earlier form

In search of men. Ages 18-48
That may resemble a “militant”
Why are you here?
I thought it was to help
Join the fight against ISIS, against terrorism
Whom are pushing people into exile for refusal to be
Their faith.

The creativity to be a refuge & fighter of the “free world”
As you say,
Is lacking and only gravitates towards
Maintaining the status of Violence.
There are 40,000 people hiding
in the mountains for their lives.

How dare you impose your system of violence
When our leaders insist you to stop, stating
“The use of drones is not only a
continual violation of our territorial integrity
but also detrimental to our resolve & efforts
at eliminating terrorism in our country”
Another states,
“These drones are illegal, in humane
violate the UN Charter of Human Rights
And constitutes as a War Crime. “
And all you can do is
“disagree”
from the mouths of pride & disillusioned power
contending “that the attacks
do not violate international law

(people in the audience start Buzzing..)
We call them “Bangadan”..buzzing of a bee
The hover
All day. Louder at night.
No war declared but you bomb my people…
I hold my babies tight
And hope we will see tomorrow together..
I hear the wailing of a monther, my neighbor
Lost their baby before their eyes.
All dust. No warning.
Wailing all day. Louder at night.
Tears find their home on my cheek.
Praying for my children, these precious souls
That birthed from my womb..
(stop buzzing..)

Will there ever be peace?
Will this madness never end?
The anxiety, the fear, the nightmares

Bzzzz…

“No identities needed, Vaguries around strike targets”
common English reports state.
2500 of my people
have been blown to die
from these buzzing drones
that have no face.
To stand on a mountain
Pointing guns & lazers
Bizzz Bzz..
Grinning, “you…weak one will fear me”
You.. hide when you hear me”
Because Fear to this
American militarized self seeking puppet
Is the fuel that
Cycles poverty
Cycles barbarism against those
Of the brown skin.
Old news, are you familiar?
Oh right, the American educational system and media neglect to educate
The truth of this madness, disgust, thick,
Stains of this lands forefathers, big business owners…
Or as Ida B Wells states in the 19th century,
“They belong to the race which holds Negro life cheap, which owns the telegraph wires, newspapers, and all other communication with the outside world. They write the reports which justify lynching by painting the Negro as black as possible, and those reports are accepted by the press associations and the world without question or investigation. The sheriffs, police, and state officials stand by and see the work done well in the broad day light.”
Oh! Ida B Wells. You had somethin goin on..
After 9/11 Fear has pushed the people
To accept ridiculous laws of control
Power in the hands of the government
Dictating Who is suspicious
Whose rights get torn away,
Private prisons of torture,
Radicalization of violence
All for the “Fight of Terror”

precise and affective.”
First:
Who are you to be a judge of international law/ethics/morals?
Rooted in a history of barbarism, greed, debt enslaving countries
Of families
Lynching stilling alive on your “God given blood stained soil”
Second:
If you are as affective as stated.
Why for every 1 “suspected” militant
10 innocent mothers, daughters, fathers, sons are killed
Deciding morality and viability of these
Destructive tactics using statistics is empty and corrupt
When human lives are your quantitative data
Or, lets use a more detached phrase of
“causalities”

These cycles of violence.
A “necessary evil”
Sewed into the deepest muck of
Racism this land of laws has ever known.
System based on fear.
Fear of the unknown
Un-colonized
Un-English
Un-White
So How ‘bout we adjust our view of what profit could actually mean.
What if maintaining the status of profit is actually
Maintaining the braid of families, children, culture, and hope.
Profit driven by a chain of hands
Linking in the presence of injustice.
Rooted in Jesus.

If you ask what the people want of Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia
They sing that of the same note.
“No more killing of our people
No more funerals of our mothers, daughters, fathers, sons..”
Hear our wail
All day. Louder at night.
May our voice be heard
And the bows of the wicked broken.
Her our wail
Mother Justice of the great deep
Father Refuge in the shadow of your wings..
Hear our wail..
And hope
we will see tomorrow together..

Bzzzz…. Bzzz…
We call them Bangadan
Buzzing of a bee

All for the “Fight of Terror”
“If everything is Terrorism,
nothing is terrorism,”
states former FBI Special Agent
“[the watchlist system] is revving out of control”

Now is the time to rid ourselves of this old foundation,
The leaders of this country
As the “Defenders of the Free World”
As the leaders of Greed, Racism, Profit, and Civilization.
Now is the time to
Adapt a new foundation
Rooted in those of the Resistors, the Martyrs
Who voice forgiveness, compassion, peace
Who voice the cry of the needy
The cry of the oppressed
How can we be a part of the solution before
Tension escalates to wildness and blood?
Yes, Peace isn’t profitable
…especially in a country governed
by the big business of weaponry.
However, an old saying goes
“There is future for the men & women of peace
& their children will be blessed
But the future of the wicked will be cut off”

credits

from Finding Home, released December 4, 2015

Chariots and Horses

Image HT

Hit play above and give this song, another gift to the church from the folks that make up Circle of Hope in Philly, a listen as you read. It’s based on Psalm 20, in which David says:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
    but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

I discovered the song when I came across this post by Jonny Rashid, one of Circle of Hope’s pastors. If you don’t get anything from what I write below, hit the link in the line above and just read Jonny’s post. Maybe God’s Spirit will speak to you through him. It was written over a year ago, but remains timely, especially in light of the recently released “Nashville Statement,” because, as Jonny says, “Christians in this fight (the fight for the culture, or ‘culture wars’) are discerning what hills to die on. Excluding gay people seems to be an important hill for them.” In Jonny’s post he links to the song above, and includes these lyrics from it:

I won’t put my trust in chariots or horses
I won’t put my trust in them.
I won’t put my trust in that empty promise
I won’t put my trust in them.

My trust and my pride is in the name of Jesus Christ
Who takes the old and broke and makes it new
I’ll put my hope in the One who frees us all from sin,
And to love is what He shows us to do.

This song is an anthem for our time. Not putting our trust in chariots or horses- or guns or bombs or violence of any kind- is one of the primary challenges of our time, and every time. Likewise, if my ears serve me, verse 2 of the song goes:

I won’t put my trust in gold or earthly riches
I won’t put my trust in them.
I won’t put my trust in that empty promise
I won’t put my trust in them.

My trust and my pride is in the name of Jesus Christ
Who takes the old and broke and makes it new
I’ll put my hope in the One who frees us all from sin,
And to love is what He shows us to do.

Again, not putting our trust in treasure that we can store up here on earth in our checking and savings accounts, in our money market accounts and 401k’s, is (along with the call to renounce violence) probably the biggest barrier to following Jesus we “rich young rulers” in the U.S. face. So….what a song.

I bring up the song because it so obviously touches on the two big things we’ve been learning this year, both of which have to do with how very counter-cultural following Jesus really is because:

  1. Much of what Jesus seems to have to say to us has to do with recognizing that everything belongs to God the giver who made us to be givers too and calls us to participate in his economy rather than the economies of the world. In God’s economy, there is abundance, not scarcity. In God’s economy, we share; we don’t hoard and accumulate for ourselves. In God’s economy, we’re not mere consumers; we’re stewards. In God’s economy, we are blessed to be a blessing such that if our neighbor has no coat while we have two, we are to give him one, with our apology for hoarding what God gave us clearly for the express purpose of passing on to him. Thus, capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from. I could go on, and already have.
  2. We have been charged with being heralds of the gospel of peace. We are to be peacemakers and agents of shalom. Just as God calls us to reject Mammon in order to serve him, he calls us to reject violence in all its forms because the One we follow is the Prince of Peace. Thus, not only do we reject capitalism and all the economies of this world, we also are to reject war and capital punishment and violent entertainment and every other way that the principalities, powers, and empires of this world seek to ensnare us in the culture of violence, usually in service of the economy or so that we can protect our (rich) “way of life,” etc.

Rejecting capitalism/Mammon and giving up violence obviously puts one at odds with empire, and thus “narrow is the road that leads to life,” indeed, and indeed “only a few find it.” Though again few seem to find this narrow road, it seems to me that there is a preponderance of Scripture that makes it clear that we are to participate in God’s abundant economy by sharing the many good gifts God has given us. We read a lot in Scripture about peacemaking too, especially in the New Testament, but there’s also plenty that seems to paint God as a violent god that endorses violence and tells his followers to participate in it. Some of the most “troubling texts” in Scripture fall into this category. Thankfully, modern-day prophets like Brian Zahnd and Greg Boyd and many others are doing some great work these days to show us that God is not, after all, violent. I’ve read Zahnd’s A Farewell to Mars and Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, and I would highly recommend both. I’ve started reading Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and was blessed to be able to hear him speak about it to Third Way Church (a local faith community I have immense respect for). I even had the chance to talk to Greg personally at Third Way’s worship gathering, and so am confident that even without having yet finished the very lengthy, scholarly Crucifixion of the Warrior God (thankfully there’s a shorter, more accessible version, called Cross Vision), I know I will be able to highly recommend it too.

The gifts that both Zahnd and Boyd (and again, others) have to offer not just the church, but the world, include their work to show that many of those “troubling texts” are not in the end what they might seem to be at first reading with our modern, Western eyes. There’s a lot under the surface and behind the scenes of written Scripture that when illuminated help us to see that, as Zahnd says: “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.” This, then, brings me to the matter at hand. I was honored a few weeks ago to have been asked to teach some of the elementary age kids who gather as part of Mill City Church. I was supposed to talk about the “armor of God.” You might imagine that this presented a bit of a conundrum for me, given what I’ve said above and have been saying all year. I was glad for the opportunity, though, because it forced me to wrestle with the question of whether or not the warrior language of the “armor of God” passage is another example of those texts that (seem to) tell us how to be violent rather than shalom-makers. Let’s take a look at the passage from Ephesians:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Now, you probably know as well as I that you can’t start reading something that starts with “Finally.” The obvious question is: “Finally, what?” What is being summed up here? Before I go any further I should mention that in this, as in so many other things, I am indebted to the good people of Circle of Hope and the heavy theological lifting they’ve done in thinking of Paul “doing theology” in “two tiers.” As they put it:

Paul has a very useful approach to taking action on behalf of Jesus and in service to the poor and oppressed. He even has a great approach to advocating for rights, which seems way before its time. What I mean is that there is a general, universal, eternal tier in his thinking, and then a practical, flexible, temporal application of it. In the Enlightenment period, theologians put the entire Bible into one big text and applied their systems of thinking to it in order to make sense of it. Protestants have been having Bible studies ever since trying to fit the Bible into some rational system. Paul, in particular, looks like he is a very unsystematic thinker at points. For instance, he will tell the Galatians that there is no male and female in Christ, we are all children of God in Christ. Then he tells the Corinthian women some very specific ways to behave in no uncertain terms that make them look completely unequal. Which one is it? I think it is both. His prophetic first tier is “There is no male or female hierarchy,” his practical tier is “Act in a way that makes the mission work and relationships of love flourish, and don’t get us in trouble with our persecutors.”

Later, they offer this very helpful hermeneutic for reading Paul which is related to the two tiers described above:

Head coverings, long hair for women, not men (although Jesus probably had long hair), women not speaking (elsewhere they are forbidden to teach men) although he encouraged them to keep their head covered while prophesying in the meeting – these are all inconsistent and specific applications. Paul was not trying to write the Bible as the modernists saw it. Surely he did not expect his writings to be collected. He is not a professor writing a book about a topic. He is working things out as the body of Christ, led by the Spirit, “in Christ.” You can make your own discernment in Christ, but it looks like we should apply a principle of Bible interpretation that says the closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day, the more likely it is to be culturally bound, and the more counter-cultural it is the more likely it is to be universal in application. It’s not an ironclad principle, but a useful guide.

This guide is useful indeed. The closer a teaching in the Bible is to the culture of the day- the more in line it is with how things were for the folks who originally wrote and read the Bible- “the more likely it is to be culturally bound.” In other words, if Paul, inspired by God’s Spirit, were writing to us today, the teaching in such passages might be written very differently. Remember, it was Jesus who so often did this very thing with his Bible- the Old Testament- when he repeatedly said, “You have heard it said….but I tell you…” Likewise, if something that runs truly counter to the culture of the folks who originally wrote and read the Bible made it into that very Bible, it’s very likely to have a universal application, to be a timeless truth that is just as “true” for us as it was for its original hearers, and in much the same way.

So, going back to the “finally” that the “armor of God” passage above begins with, let’s see what’s being summarized. Paul begins in Ephesians 1 by giving thanks for those to whom he was writing and describing how Christ has been given authority “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” This is quite a claim in the midst of the Roman Empire of his day. As I’ve so often repeated, to say that “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Caesar is not. Shane Claiborne, I think, gets close to getting it right when he says that this is like saying “Jesus is President,” and Trump (or Obama or any other) is not. Paul’s assertion here is one that Christians in the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world- richer and more powerful even than Rome in its heyday- should likewise be making today. The “leader of the free world,” and all the world indeed, is not the President of the U.S., and any power the President or Congress or Supreme Court or any other earthly ruler thinks he has pales in comparison to that of Jesus, but I digress.

In these first few chapters of Ephesians, Paul addresses himself to Jews first, and then turns his attention to the Gentiles, to whom he has a mission to preach the gospel. In chapter 2 he describes how those who have been “saved” have received this salvation as gift, through grace and faith, “so that no one can boast.” He’s making a case here. He declares that Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ, who has preached peace (shalom) to those who were thought to be far from God (Gentiles), and peace to those who were thought to be near to God (Jews). Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) at the time did not “naturally” associate with one another, and up to this point it would have been unthinkable to imagine that the Jewish Messiah, the would-be political liberator of his people, was not only not going to violently overthrow Rome, but to make matters far worse in the eyes of Jews at the time, was going to offer his salvation (whatever that meant) not only to Jews but to their Gentile oppressors too! This was a scandal of the worst kind. It’s no wonder Jesus was executed with approval from the Roman state and the Jewish religious leaders. So then, Paul in Ephesians is writing to persuade his Jewish hearers and readers who have begun to follow Jesus that (again, quite scandalously) they are no more worthy of salvation than Gentiles are, for God’s free gift is indeed free, and is available to all. Paul makes this explicit in Ephesians 3. This is good news, but of a subversively revolutionary kind. Jews of the time had been hoping for a revolution, after all, but this is not the revolution they thought they were signing up for.

Paul spills a lot of ink in Ephesians 4 continuing to describe this gospel of peace and the unity that all who would follow Jesus are to share. He goes on to describe the new life that we who are united in and by Christ are to share. Paul tells us to live according to this new life we have been given, and to stop living like those who do not follow Jesus, who “are so greedy that they do all kinds of indecent things.” Isn’t it interesting how often in Scripture, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, we find instruction (not rules) for how we are to relate to one another economically? “The love of money is the root of all evil,” indeed. Paul in Ephesians 4 even gives examples of what the new life in Christ he’s been describing looks like by way of contrast with the old. Notable among them, and again related to God’s economy, is this gem: “If you are a thief, quit stealing. Be honest and work hard, so you will have something to give to people in need” (italics added). Sharing with those who ask of us is baked right in to the description of why we should work (and not steal) at all.

This theme runs into Ephesians 5, where Paul says:

Do as God does. After all, you are his dear children. Let love be your guide. Christ loved us[a] and offered his life for us as a sacrifice that pleases God. You are God’s people, so don’t let it be said that any of you are immoral or indecent or greedy (italics added).

Paul talks about living in the light of God’s love and “making every minute count” as we do so because “these are evil times,” and then begins to move into more instruction about how to relate to one another “in light” of all of the above. The “two tiers” of Paul’s theology again becomes helpful here. At the end of chapter 5 Paul discusses how to get along in marriage, and much damage over centuries has occurred because of Paul’s accommodation to patriarchy as he describes male “headship” in these verses. The two tiers are quite evident here, though. Paul goes along with (accommodates) the culture of his day in describing husbands as “the head of his wife,” (tier 2) but then he goes against the grain of his culture and maybe gets timeless as he moves to tier 1 and says that if men are going to be “head” of their wives they are to do so like Christ does for his church: they are to love their wives and lay their lives down for them, just as Jesus has done for all of us. In a world where men could give their wives a “certificate of divorce” on a whim, Jesus in the gospels tells men that this can no longer be the case, that only adultery is sufficient cause to even consider such a move. Now, Paul goes further and describes what marriage should look like, using the dressing (language) of his culture not to enshrine it for all time but to render it near meaningless. The point is NOT that male “headship” is God ordained. This should be more clear in the NIV version of chapter 5, in which before Paul says that wives should “submit” to their husbands, he says to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Again, the point is not that male “headship” is God ordained. The point is that suffering love is. This is subversive and radical, but again only for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

At last, then, we get to chapter 6. The two tiers of Paul’s theology have been evident in his description of how we are to live in light of God’s love, including/especially in marriage. Remember, Paul begins Ephesians by describing Jesus’ power and saying that all rule and authority and power and dominion belongs to Christ, the executed outcast, the poor wanderer of an occupied people who “had no place to lay his head.” This same Jesus is now the ultimate authority in the universe. To one powerless group in the society of Paul’s day, women, Paul describes how the powerful- men/their husbands- are to lay down their lives for them. Paul now in chapter 6 moves to another powerless group in the society of his day, children. Look for the two tiers again, and remember that of all the powerless groups in Paul’s day, including women, children, and slaves (all of whom are addressed here in what is surely not a coincidence), children were the least powerful of all in the household economy. I’ve written about this. To children, sure, Paul says they are to obey their parents (tier 2), but then he goes back to the Ten Commandments and reminds his readers that of all the commandments, “The commandment Honor your father and mother is the first one with a promise attached: so that things will go well for you, and you will live for a long time in the land.” This is tier 1 (the eternal, timeless tier that most fully reveals God’s intent for us) in spades, and Paul doubles down on it next when parents get a command too: “As for parents, don’t provoke your children to anger…”

Paul talks to slaves next, with the two tiers again very evident. You see Paul accommodating the culture of his day in his practical, tier 2 instructions as he tells slaves to “obey their human masters” and “serve their owners enthusiastically, as though they were serving the Lord and not human beings.” But then Paul moves to tier 1 as he reminds slaves and masters both that “…the Lord will reward every person who does what is right, whether that person is a slave or a free person.” And so, like husbands and parents, masters get instructions too: “As for masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Stop threatening them, because you know that both you and your slaves have a master in heaven. He doesn’t distinguish between people on the basis of status.” Revolutionary! Paul tells “masters” that they have a master too. All authority has been given to Jesus. These instructions render status differences between slaves and earthly masters (and parents and children, and husbands and wives) moot. All power is given to Jesus, who wields it by dying for those he loves.

Image Credit

At long last, finally indeed, we move to the armor of God. How are we to be strong? “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” To his readers who were all too familiar with the violent military garb of the Roman soldiers who patrolled the streets they walked daily, keeping “law and order,” he says:

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Remember, Paul has already declared that these same “rulers” and “authorities” and “power” are already subject to Jesus, the same Jesus who did not violently struggle against the “flesh and blood” of the Roman soldiers that crucified him at the behest of the empire- the Roman one and the Jewish religious one of his day. Jesus did not need to employ violence against the flesh and blood acting on behalf of the rulers and authorities because the freedom he offers is much deeper than any they could take away. As Rod White of Circle of Hope put it, as “slaves of Christ,” we are “being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you.” So in our struggle against the schemes of the devil, the Accuser who would blind us to the truth that his power is at an end, Paul reminds us of all the tools- not weapons- that God has given us. In place of a Roman soldier’s belt, we are to wear Truth. Where a Roman soldier’s breastplate would be, we put on Righteousness, the reality that all the wrong things are being made right, that justice is and will be done. Where the fittings for a Roman soldier’s feet would be, we are fitted with the “readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (which surely has nothing to do with flesh-and-blood war!). Where a Roman soldier would take up a shield, we are protected with faith, and in place of a helmet and sword, we are given God’s Spirit. We are given Jesus, the living word of God. And beyond all that, Paul says, we are to pray.

Upon further review, this text is indeed troubling, but not because a violent God is calling us to think and act violently. It’s troubling because it subversively reveals how no violence can stand against the Prince of Peace and those with feet ready to follow him in preaching with their lives the gospel of peace. This is what I would have said to the kids of Mill City, if I could have. May we all live like children of our Father in heaven, who calls us to just such a generous, peaceful life. May we put our trust in the name of Jesus Christ, not in chariots or horses, or gold or earthly riches. Amen.

P.S. I should note that in this post Circle of Hope recently wrestled with this text too, in their daily prayer blog for folks just starting to follow Jesus. It’s worth a read, and also has a link to the song above.

Capitalism Rocks!

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I can’t stop thinking about this since reading it this morning. The good folks who make up Circle of Hope, our former faith community in Philly, put out not one, but two, daily prayer blogs. One is for folks a little further down the road with Jesus; the other is for those taking the “first steps on the journey of faith and community.” Remarkably, what I’ve re-posted below, in its entirety, is from that latter daily prayer blog, for those maybe just starting to follow Jesus (or perhaps, if you’re like me, just starting to follow Jesus in a new way and hopefully with new depth). I’ve written recently about my growing awareness that “capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from.” This post is a reminder of that, and in spades. Here it is:

Generating justice and hope in our neighborhood must be at the heart of us.
Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.

Today’s Bible reading

Hear this, you who trample the needy
    and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

“When will the New Moon be over
    that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
    that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
    boosting the price
    and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals,
    selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done. — Amos 8:4-7

More thoughts for meditation

Many people say American Christians have generally reduced their faith to “moral therapeutic deism,” where the shapes and colors of religion are imported into mass-market self-help schemes. Meanwhile, the “Christian right” persevere in old political battles (sexuality, marriage, education, etc.) for which they sold their souls to the “economy.” But the strength of their efforts appears to be waning; the once coherent evangelical voting bloc is splintering. The titans of industry intent on fostering a pro-capitalist politics can no longer rely on them to bolster their project. The most ardent pro-capitalists, don’t generally speak in terms of Christ and country any more; they are more likely to talk about self-improvement and actualization.

Why pray about this? Why give ourselves proverb to remember? We are all in the grip of capitalism and tend to believe its narrative about life more than the Lord’s. Whether with or in spite of Oprah or Franklin Graham, we’re moving with or resisting the flow.

Free-market economics and Christianity were not always the twin pillars of a uniquely American gospel. Yet the last election was kicked off by Ted Cruz spinning a free-market yarn to the student body of the world’s largest Christian college. He wanted to get the born-again Christians into the voting booth giving him dominion over the economy. At this point, thanks to the tireless efforts of the pastors and politicians, the disparity between the Christian ethos and the spirit of capitalism is now little more than a periodic gurgle of protest from believers who lean “left.” Most pastors preach some variation on self-help and self-reliance.

Capitalism needs a story to make its excesses and failures palatable to the masses. Regular people need to be convinced that the system that benefits the rich actually benefits them too. Lately there have been stories about the prophets of capital like Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg. The stories about the rich and successful have different plots, but the same goal: to patch up leaks in capitalism and advance its shuddering bulk for one more day. In the 1950’s it was Christianity that was deployed to offer this endorsement, now it is more likely the Koch brothers or Mark Zuckerberg.

Each of the stories keeps a glimmer of the past pro-capitalist Christian crusades burning — they are all sermons about the economy with moral imperatives, altar calls and an application that will not only save your finances but save the country, if not humanity.  As religiosity drops off in the United States and is replaced either by faithlessness or individual spirituality, capitalism is reformating its defenses to match those changes. That could be the best possible thing for true Christianity in the United States. If the Christian story is the latest to be shucked aside by capitalism, then Christianity might find itself slipping the grip of a rather oppressive relationship.

Out of the grip of capitalism, American Christians would be free to offer up a genuinely revolutionary Christian politics: one that neither seeks to bolster capitalism blatantly nor offer meager patches for its systemic problems. Having an historical perspective on the ways in which Christianity was co-opted in service of the capitalist cause could help new Christian activists avoid the pitfalls of the recent past.  Our proverb names the problem and calls us to enact the transformation that makes us truly free, not just free to pay the system for the privilege of consuming.

Suggestions for action

Pray: Make me a heretic in the religion of capitalism and a prophet among those who follow Jesus.

It takes some study to see beyond the ocean of capitalism in which we swim. We have all bought the story to some degree, as follows: Holiness and profit go together. The special capacity of capitalism to help the poor is assumed. The respect due to those who “make it” is something to which children are taught to aspire. We elect millionaires to lead the country. It goes on, often unexamined.

Take some time to ponder our proverb and Amos’ prophecy again. What does your participation in the “economy” do to your ability to follow Jesus? Don’t immediately figure out how you will fit more of Jesus into your busy schedule. First consider just what it costs your faith to have it married to capitalism, if it is. How does Jesus speak into you life in the U.S. and direct you?

Watering Weeds

Kudzu (an invasive plant introduced from Asia) has completely enveloped a barn in Tennessee. (Image HT)

Congruity

Life in 2017 has been interesting, to say the least. Our efforts to “get small” so we can follow Jesus from “under,” not “over,” is well documented on this blog. A word I’ve been using to describe all this of late is congruent. I’m sure you know that congruent means “in agreement or harmony,” but I really like the geometric meaning: “(of figures) identical in form; coinciding exactly when superimposed.” I’m talking about integrity of course, about living a life in which one’s stated values, beliefs, goals, and desires match up with how one actually lives. In many ways, this has been lacking in our lives for far too long, and while we’re nowhere close to the way we live our life “coinciding exactly when superimposed” over the way we say we want live our life, I’m grateful that we’re probably closer to that being true than we’ve ever been. Remembering that we’re trying to “get small” so that we can better be in solidarity with those we’re called to love, serve, and learn from- those on the margins of U.S. empire- and remembering that solidarity requires proximity, this is then what we’ve been aiming for- proximity. We want to be close to those who again are “on the margins” of the dominant society. In all honesty of course we’re not there yet, but hopefully we’re on our way.

We moved from an outer ‘burb in Coon Rapids to northeast Minneapolis. It’s true that this area is gentrifying and you can see pockets where “trendy” shops, restaurants, and people with means are displacing whatever and whoever was there before. One anecdotal way to look at this is through the lens of educational attainment. For example, according to City Data, where we live now 90% of folks have a high school diploma and 43% have a bachelor’s degree vs. 94% with a high school diploma and only 28% with a bachelor’s degree in Coon Rapids. However, data for racial diversity tells another tale. Here’s a comparison of three zip codes courtesy of this very helpful site. Moving from right to left, the first column is our former zip code in Coon Rapids, the second is our current zip code in NE Mpls., and the far left is a nearby zip code in North Minneapolis:

Racial makeup of our former zip code in Coon Rapids (55448), our current one in NE Mpls. (55413), and a nearby one in North Minneapolis (55412)

What this tells us is that compared to our zip code in Coon Rapids, our little part of NE Mpls. is proportionally far more racially diverse, though not nearly as diverse yet as nearby north Minneapolis. Ironically, perhaps, unemployment in Coon Rapids is a little higher at 6.9% vs. 5.6% in NE Mpls., but there’s a fairly stark difference in household income:

Income data for the same zip codes as above

While a few more people might qualify as “middle class” according to USAmerican standards in our part of NE Mpls. vs. Coon Rapids, a lot more people are undoubtedly poor (again according to USAmerican standards- with household income of $30,000 or less), and a lot fewer are among the very wealthy ($100,000 or more). Taken together, where we came from in Coon Rapids about 30% of households earn $50,000 or less. Where we are now, it’s 53%. I could go on. There’s a wealth of super interesting data over at the sites I linked to above, but you get the point. Where we now live in NE Mpls. is not “the ‘hood” by any means, but if we desire to be proximate to those on the margins, we’ve taken a step in the right direction, considering where we came from. Lord willing, more such steps will follow.

We chose NE Mpls. because that’s where our faith community is rooted, and it was through our faith community that we had the opportunity to move here in the first place. Taking that leap of faith proved to be a key that has opened up a lot of other doors. It meant the kids changed schools, and I took a job just 2.6 miles away- by bike- meaning I could bike to work. I’ve been doing that for over a month now, which has meant we could give away one of the cars we had, which we did. Let me again be clear, I know that in no way have we “arrived.” We aren’t yet where Jesus is probably leading us, but we hope we’re a little further down the road, and we know the key again is proximity. We have to stay close to Jesus of course, and we know we do so much better when we stay close to those on the margins.

Incongruities

Despite all this, there are still incongruities in my life that trouble me. Two big ones come specifically to mind- my work for my employer, and my work to raise money for clean water in Africa through Team World Vision. Let’s talk about my job first. Again, let me be clear, I love my new employer. I now work for a non-profit social service agency operated by a larger faith-based organization. That larger organization does a ton of great work in the community. They’re a leader in institutional anti-racism efforts. They say their mission is to serve those “no one else will.” They work to promote healthy habits among their employees, and they strive to make sure their employees find meaning in the work they do to serve others. I’m thrilled to be a part of the organization. My particular case management type role now, though, is a little less “hands-on” than others I’ve had, which is to say that I don’t often see the folks I hopefully am helping, and most of what I do is behind the scenes of the services the people I serve receive. I do financial work, basically, in my new role, working to ensure that funds allocated to help people experiencing a disability to live independently in the community are properly channeled to where they need to go. I actually tend to like Excel spreadsheets; so in some ways this is a good fit, but larger questions remain.

Toxic Asset-Based Community Development

The largest question is posed to the entire social service “industry,” and it simply is this: to what degree do all of our efforts to help actually do harm? I chose those words intentionally, because as I’ve written previously I am not a proponent of the approach taken by Robert Lupton is his book Toxic Charity or by Corbett and Fikkert in their book When Helping Hurts. I think I get what they’re trying to do/say- and I appreciate Lupton’s emphasis that helping should “do no harm.” However, I think in too many cases “do no harm” winds up becoming do no help, and I think the approach of these folks and others in the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) “movement” is only a half-step, and I fear it’s a half-step in the wrong direction. Before getting to that, however, I should simply say that I think ABCD is right to regard poor communities (by USAmerican standards) as having not just “deficits” in the form of needs that need to be met but also “assets” in the form of gifts, talent, and local associations and institutions that might be utilized to better contribute to their own development.

Even more, there is a critique of social service underneath what ABCD tries to accomplish that is spot on, and it’s one I’ve been aware of for a while. Lupton wants us to “do no harm” because there is a very real sense in which all of our efforts to address systemic racism and poverty with systemic social service only perpetuates the former and makes permanent the need for the latter. There’s a yin and a yang here. Systemic, generational poverty, driven in no small part by systemic racism, seems to require a systemic response, but the very real help that social service is able to give to very real, hurting people only serves to dull our collective awareness that profound change is needed.

Some would say that government, for example, should get out of the “business” of helping people and essentially leave them to fend for themselves, somehow believing that the causes of poverty lie in the motivations of individuals and that, if properly motivated- by starvation and deprivation presumably- they will “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” I would hope it’s obvious that this approach ignores the very real systems and institutions that actively work, violently if necessary, to keep some people poor so that others can be rich. There are reasons why people of European descent in the U.S. are far richer than people of color, and why the U.S. is the richest nation in the history of the world, and if you don’t think violence has anything to do with it, you’re not paying attention. Sure, choices that individuals make have a lot to do with their fortune, no pun intended, but people rarely make choices merely as individuals. We are connected to the systems that make our society possible, some of which we have little awareness of and littler still control over.

In any case, there is a line of thinking by some (not necessarily the ABCD folks) that would suggest that if social service was done away with, the suffering that would result would create mounting pressure underneath the fabric of our unjust society, so much so that the real change that is necessary might be forced to occur. A revolution might be born. Meanwhile, people would probably be dying (even more than they already are), and a cynical response would be to ask if even this would be enough to bring about real, lasting change. A related concern is that if violence is used to keep some people poor and others rich- and it is, even/especially here in the U.S.– would violence be the only means deemed sufficient to bring about the kind of “revolution” that might be needed? I fear it would be.

Jubilee

That said, I spoke above of ABCD being a half step “in the wrong direction” because I think it fails to connect the poverty of the poor with the wealth of the wealthy. I think what ABCD seeks to do is essentially to help people be better capitalists, and I believe that “capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from.” I’m a proponent of God’s economy, an economy that exposes the myth of private property as a lie that keeps us from living like everything belongs to God. God’s economy, unlike capitalism and socialism or any other ‘ism, is one in which there is abundance, and all is shared. It is an economy that responds to God the Giver by allowing each of us to live into our vocation as givers. We don’t need to harness the “assets” of under-privileged communities so that they can develop to the point where their members have a “decent” middle-class USAmerican standard of living without government help; we need to recognize that absolutely everything- including the air we breathe- is a gift from God, given for the good of all. We’re all playing with “house money.” What we really need, is Jubilee. We need Jubilee on a global scale. Most of us in developed nations need to give away much of our wealth, privilege, and power. Our standard of living needs to come way, way down, so that the standard of living of the poorest of the poor and everyone in between can come way, way up. After all, what if God doesn’t want us to “help” the poor, but rather wants us to become poor (by USAmerican standards)?

How do we do this? Of course I have no idea how to bring about global Jubilee, Biblical instructions to ancient Israel notwithstanding. However, I do have some clues about how to spread God’s economy. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests that God’s Economy will grow like kudzu, a plant that only needs a small start to overtake a garden. Or maybe it grows like a mustard seed, another plant that begins humbly before reaching a strength and stature that wouldn’t have been thought possible. The point is, it starts small, and Jesus says it starts by giving to those who ask of you:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

It’s worth noting again that the command to give to those who ask of you is nestled in the imperative to love one’s enemies. The poor become our enemies when we become rich by hoarding what God has given to all, for the benefit of all. It is Jesus here who makes a connection between giving to those who ask of us (presumably the poor or those who lack what we have) and violence. I’ll have to explore that in another post. Meanwhile, the critics of a government response to poverty and injustice are right to say that government can’t supply the answers we need. A big government initiative or program, even arguably good ones like the New Deal or the War on Poverty, can’t finally eliminate injustice. However, those same critics are wrong inasmuch as they think the answer lies in utilizing the assets of underprivileged communities to help develop said communities through capitalism, as if the world’s economy could ever be anything other than self-serving. Meanwhile, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests another way:

 

 

We need to end the poverty of the poor, to be sure, but also need to end the wealth of the rich. Jonathan reminds us that Jesus says it’s hard for the rich to enter God’s kingdom, and he says this is because “if a rich person gets in he won’t be rich anymore” and likewise “if a poor person gets in he won’t be poor anymore.” Why? Because “we’ll share with whoever has need,” like Jesus taught us. We simply have to give to those who ask of us. When we do, more and more we become children of our Father in heaven.

But I digress.

Small Steps

All of this is why I struggle with my current professional role, one which has me firmly entrenched in the social service “industry.” My challenge is to keep reminding myself that just like our move to NE Mpls. and relatedly our enrollment of the kids in new schools, moving to the job I’m at now is but a step in the right direction as I keep seeking proximity to Jesus and to those on the margins. I’m not “there” yet, and I know I never will be. Still, being at this job, so close to our new home, again meant after all that I could bike to work and we could therefore give away one of the cars we had to someone who asked, to a family that had need of it.

It’s a very similar struggle that has me wondering about my commitment to run for Team World Vision and raise money for clean water in Africa. Surely the need is real, and profound, and every time I succumb to temptation and drink anything but the abundant clean water I have access to I flaunt my great wealth and privilege. I would like to believe, too, that World Vision does what they say they do, that every $50 I raise does indeed provide clean water for life to a person that didn’t have it. I can’t help but wonder, though, along the lines of the above, if the “help” World Vision provides fosters dependency so long as the domination systems that have created the unjust world we live in continue unfettered. After all, I of course have clean water that flows from my tap in multiple places in my home, but I’m so rich I ignore it and instead spend hundreds of dollars per year on sugar-filled carbonated water that will eventually kill me if I let it. If we think there’s no connection between my conspicuous “water” consumption and the lack of clean water at all for too many around the world, we’re fooling ourselves. Let’s say I’ve embarked on a long fundracing career with World Vision and over the course of the rest of my life I help raise thousands of dollars for clean water in Africa so that some kids stop dying of thirst or diarrhea, that would be good, to be sure. But would I have done more good than harm if I otherwise lived in such a way that the domination systems that again created this unjust world were allowed to go on? So again the rub has to do with congruence. Yes, there is a very real, immediate, life-or-death need that I can help address, and I have been asked to do so, but this is only the beginning. This is only a step. What I do with Team World Vision must be part-and-parcel of a life spent working to bring about God’s economy, however, whenever, and wherever I can.

It’s true too that the problems I’m wrestling with are big (“global Jubilee,” anyone?), while if I am to live the most congruent, faithful life I can, if I am to live in proximity to Jesus and those on the margins, then I must become small. There’s nothing smaller than a step, even a step of faith. Lord willing, these steps I and my family have taken of late are steps taken in the right direction on a lifelong journey. Undoubtedly other such steps will come. Right now, though, I’m glad for the ones we’ve taken, and I’ll sure be keeping my eyes and ears open as we try to keep close to Jesus, ready for whatever step might be next. Until then, I’ve got some kudzu to water.

While Jesus Slept Outside on a Bench, We Went Inside to Ring Gongs and Clang Cymbals

A homeless camp being bulldozed (HT for the image)

Keep It Covered

She had one sock raised higher than the other, which I thought was a little strange. She came to the rear of the church building to the little room where I was passing out sample size toiletries and the like to people experiencing homelessness who were coming to use the showers. This is a great ministry an urban congregation offers to their downtrodden neighbors three Sunday mornings a month, along with access to a clothing closet and a free hot breakfast. The missional community I’m a part of from Mill City Church volunteers at this ministry once a month, and my job this past Sunday was to serve in the shower area. This brings me back to the woman I met whose socks were not at the same height. She asked me for the usual items she’d need if she were going to take a shower- soap and shampoo, etc., but she wasn’t taking a shower; she wanted to take them with her. We also had toothbrushes and toothpaste, some razors, etc. to give out, and lotion. She kept looking for a particular kind of lotion, which it turns out she had found to be most helpful with the very bad eczema on her leg. It was so bad she had been hospitalized for it recently, and the doctor told her to keep it covered or it would get infected and she’d be back in the hospital. It’s hard to keep your eczema covered when you live on the street, but she was trying- hence the raised sock. She was older than me, I’m guessing in her 50’s or 60’s, and naturally there’s a lot more to her story. We didn’t talk long as she was looking for the lotion that would help her most, but I did learn that she had been “staying” at an “artist’s camp” somewhere- obviously an outdoor encampment of people experiencing homelessness, but had left one day to visit her daughter. When she came back, the city of Minneapolis had come in and bulldozed the camp. All her stuff was gone or destroyed. She was most upset about the two sleeping bags she had recently been given that were now gone. She said a young man came around doing homeless outreach and gave them to her. She said he told her they were donated, but they were nice; so she thought he must have bought them and given them away. They were now gone along with any toiletries she might have had with her belongings. So she said she was “starting over,” and she wasn’t the only person I heard say that. Before she left she asked if she could keep one of the towels and a washcloth that are there to be used for the folks using the shower, and are not supposed to be given out. As she said, she was starting over.

I’ll Just Start Over

The church that offers this ministry three Sundays a month goes a step further and will wash whatever the people who use their shower are wearing. They can come back in subsequent weeks and pick up their washed clothing. The clothes are in plastic bags with the person’s name written on the bag with a Sharpie, hopefully. As I was working last Sunday, I had a few people ask me for their clean clothes; so I went through the bags a few times. Some didn’t have a name, or had “no name” written on them. Those will likely be donated to the clothes closet the church runs to then be given away to others. I was able to find the person’s bag I think two of the times I was asked; another time I could not. That gentleman- whose clothes I couldn’t find- explained it had been a few weeks since he left his clothes to be washed, and he hadn’t come back he said because “honestly last week I was high on meth and I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to come.” I couldn’t find a bag with his name on it. He said it was no big deal, that he too would “just start over.” He may have only had the clothes he was wearing; I don’t know. He wasn’t too attached to the clothes he had left to be laundered, though. He was willing to start from scratch, perhaps for the umpteenth time.

I saw an older couple come through. The woman in the couple seemed to be in poor health, with the guy doing some caregiving for her, even as both lived on the street. I saw a family come through- a mom with teen and tween boys, a younger girl, and a toddler. I thought I heard the girl call the woman “grandma;” so I can’t say for sure what all of their relationships with one another were. The young men played basketball for a while in the nearby gym. At one point the woman sent the toddler into the gym and as she walked away, over her shoulder she hollered for the boys to “watch him.” I don’t know if that message was ever received. Soon the toddler got in the way of their game, and the oldest (teen) boy bounced the basketball off the toddler’s head to get him to move. It wasn’t vicious, but it sent a message. Later in their game the younger (tween) boy fell, hitting his arm hard on the gym floor, hard enough he started to whimper, if not cry. I asked if he was alright, and he didn’t respond. The teen just looked at him. His attitude could have been interpreted as cold, but I suspect their life is such that the teen knows if the tween is to survive, he’d have to learn how to not let a little pain bother him, or at least not to expect anyone to rescue him if he gets hurt.

More happened that morning, of course, but those are the stories that stand out, now a week later. What, then, am I to make of all this? Am I to make anything at all, or is my role simply to show up when I can and love the people in front of me as best as I can, whatever their circumstances? I’m me, of course; so I can’t help but think about the implications of it all. One thing I was struck by was how willing the folks I served that morning were to simply “start over” with possessions as basic as having more than one set of clothes. Of course this may be a willingness born of necessity, but it was there nonetheless. This is one of the gifts the materially poor have to offer we who are materially rich. I and my family have been struggling to learn how to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, and have therefore been working through what it looks like to hold possessions loosely, recognizing that everything belongs to God, not us. The materially poor do this as a matter of necessary habit. We do well when we do likewise. This is at the heart of our recent efforts to “get small.” We know that we follow Jesus more closely when we do so from “under,” not “over.” Those on the margins of society- the poor, the disenfranchised, the dominated- not the dominators- they are much more ready than we who are privileged to both receive the good gifts God the Giver wants to give his children, and to embrace, I think, a kingdom that is not of this world.

The Gospel Breaks Out

An old acquaintance of ours recently posted a link to an article and YouTube video featuring Jim Carrey talking to a group of formerly gang involved and incarcerated folks who are part of the amazing Homeboy Industries. In our acquaintance’s intro to the link/video, he said:

Throughout history, when God’s “official” messengers get off track and begin to seek power, spew condemnation, and set up walls of exclusivity, God gets his message of grace, truth and forgiveness out in unconventional ways. I think I see that happening more lately in this day and age.

Meet Jim Carrey, preacher of grace. This is powerful. Praise God.

Here’s Jim, in his own words:

 

If you’re short on time, just watch the first half of this 7-ish minute video; if you get nothing else from this post, but watch that, my “work” here is done. Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, says: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” Indeed, as I said above and keep learning, the poor have much to teach us. When I was a student at Luther Seminary, I had a great old prof.- Dr. James Nestingen- who always talked about the “gospel breaking out.” In Lutheran theology, there’s much talk of “law and gospel,” of sin and grace. The law serves to show us our sin- to highlight the condition in which we are caught in which we are unable to live and love as we should- and the gospel is the good news that God has already saved us, that we are set free from this entrapment. Too often this gospel word can get cloudy, muddled, and muddied, lost amidst all the other things would-be “Christians” dare to say on behalf of God. Too often the good news that we have been set free from a life enslaved to sin and death gets lost in the midst of the condemnation of others, and especially in the midst of our own self-condemnation. In such times, Dr. Nestingen would say, the gospel “breaks out.” Good news of God’s grace comes from unexpected places. When “professional” would-be Christians bless the greedy violence of empire and insure their place within the fold of worldly power….

 

Image HT

 ….rock stars remind us that while “God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill,” we can far more readily find him with the poor, with the sick and suffering, among the ravages of war, and therefore “God is with us, if we are with them:”

Image HT

Ironically, as we drove to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering this morning, we passed a scene not entirely unlike the one above in our own NE Minneapolis neighborhood. A man was sleeping on a bus bench, kind of like this:

HT for the image. The irony in this picture defies words.

Instead of continuing on our way and attending the worship gathering, which we did, no doubt the best worship we might have given this morning to Jesus- that (homeless) “preach of peace-” would have been to be good Samaritans and stop and render whatever assistance we could to our bench-sleeping neighbor. Instead, it was more important to us to go hear a sermon that would in some way, I hope, touch on how to follow Jesus by loving our neighbor, never mind the one we passed by who, just like Jesus, had no place to lay his head. Thus, if the mission of the church is, like Jesus’ mission, in no small part to proclaim good news for the poor, the irony of a person experiencing homelessness sleeping on a bench festooned with an advertisement for the “new life” that comes through the covenant to be had among God and his people is no greater than that of I and my family this morning ignoring an opportunity to love an actual neighbor so that we could go hear about how to be in right relationship with God and our proverbial ones. Even worse, if we meet Jesus among “the least of these,” we skipped right by him this morning on that bench, preferring to meet him in a more comfortable setting, among other privileged people like us.

Give Away Your Shirt(s)

During that worship gathering we skipped out on loving our neighbor in order to attend, Jesus drove home the point. I didn’t get to hear all of Pastor Michael’s sermon due to an unruly 6 year old (mine :/), but the passage he opened with was in itself sermon enough for me, from Luke 3:

…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[a]

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.

Just like a valley is exalted when it is filled in, again and again the way of Jesus is revealed to be a way that exalts the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the sick and in prison- those on the margins. Just like a mountain or hill being made low, likewise the way of Jesus is revealed to be a way that humbles the rich, the oppressors, those who can easily access worldly political systems, the well and those who can easily access healthcare, and those who leverage the language of “law and order” to maintain their systems of power and control. In case the point is missed, John makes it plain. To we rich (do you have more than one shirt? I do), he says:

“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none…”

To we well-fed he says:

“…anyone who has food should (share with the one who has none)…”

To tax collectors, he says:

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to.”

The importance of God’s economy is so very important that to soldiers, instead of addressing the violence of their occupation, he makes an economic appeal:

“Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

I was able to be present toward the end of the worship gathering, when we sang the Chris Tomlin version of Amazing Grace, which quotes this part of the original:

The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures

If you hear those words as I do, Jesus is still making his point. God the Giver has promised good to me. In other words, he who causes bread to rain from heaven and supplies enough for today, day after day after day, promises to continue to give us this day our daily bread; so we need not store away “bread” for tomorrow here on earth, where thieves break in and steal and “moths and vermin destroy.” The point is again reinforced in the lyric above with the reminder that the Lord “will my shield and portion be.” Jesus is our “portion;” he gives us enough, and we need not violently defend the good gifts of God the Giver, because Jesus is our “shield” too. He has defeated the power of violence by surrendering to it; thus, it was put to death with him on the cross. As a result, violence has no more power over us than death or sin does.

Again and again I see more and more every day the interlinking of violence and the world’s economy, and conversely how both are put to an end through Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we live as part of God’s economy in which there is more than enough for all; if we share freely and give to those who ask, what reason would anyone have to take up arms against us, and what reason do we have to take up arms ourselves?

Am I saying (repeatedly now) that following Jesus is mostly about how we order our economic lives and whether or not we reject or embrace violence? Yes…and no. To speak of the creator God is of course to speak about cosmic, spiritual truths that defy any words we might seek to ensnare them with. Who God is and what God does, and who we are and what we ought to do in response, is a sublime mystery. But if the gospel is true, God has chosen to reveal the fullness of who he is in Jesus, the one in whom all things hold together. It can be said, and I have often said, that God hides. We do not find him where we expect to. But that it not to say that he cannot be found. God, after all, can be found “in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house.” He can be found “in the cries heard under the rubble of war.” He can be found lying defenseless in a manger, or on a cross.

God may very well be found in me, and in you.

Because God chooses to be with us, how we order our lives and live in relation to one another matters profoundly, and we ignore at our peril the fact that in John’s ministry and in that of Jesus himself, both lead with literal “good news” for the poor. Most of us spend the majority of our days pursuing economic activity. We work. We spend. We consume. We buy, and we sell. We barter. We support the bottom lines of multi-national corporations, or resist them. Likewise, most of us spend much of our days deciding whether or not to live peacefully together. We honk at the person who cut us off, or not. We return a smile, or we don’t. We respond to a harsh word with one of our own, or we swallow hard and forgive right then and there by choosing not to retaliate. We consume violent media, or try not to. Often, the two are inextricably intertwined. The cheap shirts we buy at Target and Wal-Mart may have been made by basically enslaved people half a world away who are prevented from leaving their workstations by violence or the threat of violence. The taxes we dutifully pay to our government support the ever-growing military-industrial complex, and are used to rain death from the sky around the world, all in the name of “keeping us safe” or “defending” (our) freedom.

Sure, God wants to heal our broken hearts, make us whole, and bring us into right relationship with God’s self and with one another, and with God’s good world. The good news is that God has done this, and still is. Just because this is so, we are entrusted with the family business of reconciliation. We are charged with the sacred task of practicing resurrection. We are to live as if God’s other-worldly kingdom really is upon us, already. We don’t have to serve Mammon anymore. We can freely give to those who ask of us. We can share with one another in radical, counter-cultural ways that can’t help but facilitate the gospel breaking out. Following Jesus means following him into such a life. Maybe we just need to be willing to start over. The poor can show us how. We just have to believe that another world is possible, but that’s not so hard to imagine, is it, especially if even in this world Bono is among our most truthful prophets and the good news of God’s grace keeps breaking out such that even Jim Carrey can be heard proclaiming it.

No Rival

I’ve been spending my lunch break lately in Luther Seminary‘s (my alma mater) Chapel of the Cross, where this challenging-and-inspiring-all-at-once piece of art can be found.

Jesus’ rail thin body still hangs from a cross in Minneapolis, a discomfiting sight that begs a lot of questions. Among them are: Did this really happen? Are we capable of such violence? As I wrestle with these questions, I’m reminded of my privilege. Far too many around the world know such violence all too well, and all too often Jesus seems far away from them. Meanwhile, I’m struggling to write. I start posts, and don’t finish them, or scrap them and start over. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say; the torrent of observations, reflections, and new learning continues much as it has, especially over the past year or so, and I clearly have no deficit of words to offer in response to all that I’m learning. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to produce the volume of writing that I had been for a while. I think some of this has to do with the time, energy, and effort involved in putting into place all that we’ve been learning. In short order over the past few months we’ve moved, the kids have started new schools, I’ve started a new job, we switched banks, and more recently, we gave away the newest of our two vehicles and I’ve begun biking to work. Here’s “my” bike parked at work:

This bike was a gift from a fellow member of Mill City Church whose health prevents him from using it any more. Having it allows me to bike to work, and freed us up to give away the vehicle mentioned above. So I’m doing this all wrong if I’m not using my time spent on it every day to pray both for the person who gave me the bike and the family we gave the car to.

Meanwhile, truth be told, I’m tired.

I think some of my struggle to write also has to do with just what I’m learning, I suppose. The way that we’ve been talking about what God is teaching us and calling us to is to say that we feel called to “get small,” to give up some of our wealth, position, privilege, and power so that we can experience the generosity that God wants for us both as givers and receivers. We experience it as givers when we lean into God’s economy and give freely to those who ask for anything from us, remembering that everything belongs to God and nothing is truly ours, that God asks that we acknowledge our dependence on Him by asking for what we need for today and no more. When we do this, what once we would hold on to for tomorrow or in case of a rainy day or so that we can retire, etc., now becomes a blessing we’ve been made stewards of for the sake of others, making us conduits of God’s provision. Likewise, the “smaller” we get- the more money, privilege, and power we give away- the more ready we are to grapple with our own need and the more likely it is that we will be open to receiving through others God’s provision and blessing for us.

As I keep saying, we wasted two full decades as adults hoping God would see fit to give us a little more, to bless us with enough money to pay down our debt so that we could be more generous and faithful. Living within our means was thus to be achieved by hoping God would increase our means. When we did get a raise or a new job with more pay, our selfishness grew right with it, and still we found ourselves struggling to keep up as the debt kept growing. We’d go through cycles of  being a little more restrained and paying the debt down, only to find some circumstance or situation that provided a convenient excuse to revert to our more selfish ways, and thus the debt would accumulate anew. Sure, some of those situations involved outbursts of generosity on our part, but they were always the exception to the rule, and they usually gave us fodder for trying to bargain or negotiate with God, believing that our hospitality or generosity had somehow “earned” us the right to expect more from God.

Why is it different this time around? Maybe it won’t be, I will admit. The lure of Mammon is strong. It’s tempting to want to fall in line and be a good consumer. All I can say is that there is a depth to both our learning this time and our willingness to do the hard work of following Jesus instead of Mammon. Our minds have been renewed, and thus we are being transformed. Things we thought we really needed (smartphones, two cars, more than 1200 feet of living space, etc.) we’re learning that we don’t, and we’ve given them away. Forgoing those things, coupled with forsaking our retirement plans and savings accounts- which we came to see as “treasure stored up on earth” instead of in heaven- has opened our eyes anew to just how much God already has blessed us, just how much he’s been trusting us with all along. No longer willing to hoard God’s goodness, in probably less than four months we’ve wiped out much of our personal and consumer debt, and expect to have much of the rest of it eliminated in less than a year. All this capacity being created in our budget will very soon mean that we can give a large percentage of our income away, and/or have the capacity to work less so that we can give a large percentage of our time and energy away.

All of this represents our effort to live as participants in God’s economy rather than capitalism or any other system this world can dream up. In God’s economy there is always enough. The hand that guides God’s economy is visible, not invisible, and it has nail marks in it. God’s economy is one of giving and sharing, of blessing and being blessed. In God’s economy we give to those who ask from us so that we might be children of our Father in heaven, because whatever we have to give was already given to us in the first place by our good, good father, and it was meant for the blessing of all. Thus, if we have two coats and our neighbor has none, we are called to give him (at least) one along with our apology for hoarding God’s provision that was meant for him. If we are so rich that we can poison our bodies with carbonated, caffeinated water while our neighbors around the world die because they lack access to clean water, or sometimes water at all, then we are most faithful when we skip the soda aisle and make a donation (at the very least) to a water relief agency.

Astoundingly, this is but one of the two big revelations over the past few months that we will likely spend the rest of our lives trying to respond to. In the first, we were broken to realize that we were wholehearted consumer capitalists but lousy lovers of God and neighbor. After all, the love of money really is the root of all evil, for the first part of the Great Commandment is to “love the Lord you God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” I can’t love God with my whole heart if part of it can’t stop thinking about my Amazon cart. And I can’t love my neighbor very well either if I won’t think about the modern-day enslaved persons that made the cheap clothes I got from Wal-Mart, or if I can’t come up with resources to bless my hungry and thirsty neighbor around the world while I throw away nearly half the food I buy, in part because I eat out three times a week.

The other big revelation that we’ll be trying to respond to probably for the rest of our lives is simply that Jesus really is the Prince of Peace. He really meant that we shouldn’t kill one another, and that we should turn the other cheek when confronted with violence. He really meant that we have not been given a spirit of fear and that nothing, not even death, can separate us from his love. And if it’s true that we not only shouldn’t commit adultery but shouldn’t lust after one another, isn’t it even more so that we not only shouldn’t kill one another but shouldn’t entertain ourselves with killing every time we watch TV, go to a movie, or play a video game? Isn’t it true then that we likewise shouldn’t participate in violence vicariously with our tax and gas dollars as our Mammon-loving economy and warmongering country trudges along, raining death from the sky around the world in the name of “freedom-“ to buy cheap gas?

If in the end capitalism is just another “–ism” Jesus wants to save us from, and violence is a way of life that was put to death with Jesus on the cross, then the way of Jesus insofar as it passes through the good ol’ U.S. of A. is a hard way, indeed. Some well-meaning would-be Jesus followers have the sense to wonder why they aren’t persecuted if Scripture promised they would be, and I was among them for most of my life, but no longer. If I and my family continue to lean in a direction that runs counter to the greedy (read: capitalistic), violent ways of our culture, I trust that our persecution, in one way or another, will come. Kirsten has been reluctant to explain to a member of her family of origin that we gave away a newer car we’re still paying $17,000+ for, while I wonder if I’m getting funny looks for showing up to work on a bicycle (full disclosure here: I’m not showing up drenched in sweat, but I may not smell like I’m fresh from the shower either). These obviously aren’t “persecutions,” though. What if we take the next step, however, and become war tax resisters? What if, as we plan to, we start joining with a few others to build up a mutual generosity fund out of which we’ll give away hundreds of dollars a month to those we meet around us who are in need? What if we start talking openly about our budget and finances, revealing how much we make and how we spend it, and asking others to hold us accountable to our ideals and perhaps risk such vulnerability themselves? What if the Spirit inspires us to ever more creatively subvert an economic system that keeps creating more “have-nots” than “haves?” What if we refuse to pledge allegiance to anyone or anything but Jesus and his kingdom?

A line from Hillsong’s recent song “What A Beautiful Name” keeps playing in my head and heart: “You have no rival; you have no equal. Now and forever, God, you reign.” Here’s the requisite video:

I listened to this song repeatedly in the car today (my first time driving all week!) and every time through I heard a new allusion to- or direct quote from- Scripture. I should probably write a separate post breaking all that down (scratch that- Hillsong already did; you can find it here). But right now I want to focus on the line I quoted above: “You have no rival; you have no equal. Now and forever, God, you reign.” What does it mean to declare that Someone is without rival, without equal? Every time I hear that line I think of the two pretenders who keep vying- often violently- for the throne that only Jesus can or will occupy- Mammom, and “Uncle Sam.” Singing those words- declaring that Jesus has no rival, no equal, that now and forever he reigns- has to mean something. Remarkably, I know folks who can sing those words on Sunday and then can remove their cap and place their hand over their heart to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag on Monday.

 

I simply can’t anymore.

 

If God reigns without rival in this land that European settlers violently seized from its original inhabitants while decimating their population, then we descendants of those European settlers have much to repent of and many amends to make, and it all starts by forsaking all others and living as if God is our only true King, as if Jesus really does have no rival.

If God reigns without rival in this land that European settlers built the world’s most powerful economy in, then we descendants of those European settlers must recognize that that economy was only possible through violence- because of slavery and its aftereffects-  and again we have much to repent of and many amends to make, and we must start by forsaking all others and living as if God is our only true King, as if Jesus really does have no rival.

Living in such a way doesn’t mean attending every protest, though some protest attendance will probably be required. It doesn’t mean everyone has to quit their job, though some very well may. I did, and I can imagine it being hard to continue working for some employers when your only true King continually calls you to participate in an economy that will not only decimate your corporation’s bottom line, but even worse, may very well make it irrelevant. Likewise, I can see it being hard to continue working for some employers when your only true King continually calls you to give up violence forever because it was put to death on the cross with Jesus.

Living as if Jesus has no rival means that while all the external things out there- in the world- are in dire need of attention and there are many urgent causes to be taken up, even so the most profound change that has to occur is in our own minds, hearts, and souls. If we really do work at loving God with all of our mind, heart, soul, and strength- forsaking all others- then we begin to see with new eyes. We begin to be transformed. Things that weren’t possible before suddenly are. And none of it’s because we’ve successfully organized around all those urgent causes; none of it’s because we’ve finally achieved the social progress we were hoping for. It’s because to whatever extent Jesus has no rival, to whatever extent we forsake Mammon and violent “Uncle Sam” so that we can follow “that preacher of peace,” to just that extent we will find that we really can love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.

I think of the anti-religious vitriol of the “new Atheists” and all the popular backlash in our culture against so-called “Christians” who are too busy pursuing secular political power to notice the neighbors they’re harming along the way. What if instead of trying so desperately hard to pass or repeal Obamacare or establish or reform “Entitlements,” what if the people for whom Jesus has no rival instead devoted all their energy to loving and serving those around them, to giving to those who would ask of them, to being people who practice a ministry of presence with profound sincerity, effort, and steadfastness? Wouldn’t people know we were really Christians then, because of our love?

Still, I remain tempted to want to be great. I like to be able to tell a splashy story about that big thing I did. I’m far too easily seduced by the proverbial search for significance. I keep hoping someone will discover my blog and offer me a book deal, or a pulpit to supply, or a writing gig. Yet that’s just the opposite of where Jesus is leading me these days. Jesus isn’t calling me to get big; he’s challenging me to get small. Jesus isn’t calling me to lead workshops and study groups; he’s calling me to love him like he has no rival, and not just to like my neighbor, but to really love them.

The great Henri Nouwen said it best:

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them.  It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.  Still, it is not as simple as it seems.  My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets.  It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.  But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but you truly love them.”

Amen.

God is With Us if We Are With Them, Especially When Your New Neighbor is Drunk and Lost

(Arguably the best part of this clip begins at the 4:47 mark; so skip ahead if you’re short on time.)

My new neighbor was drunk on a warm Sunday afternoon. It was just weeks after we moved into the Beltrami neighborhood of NE Minneapolis. Kirsten was gone loving and serving her mom in Coon Rapids; so the boys and I walked the few blocks from our new home down to the corner store (we have a neighborhood corner store!) to buy cheap candy (’cause that’s what you do at a corner store) and then we started walking about a block in the other direction toward the park. There were lots of people out on this bright, warm, late spring afternoon, including more than a few whizzing by on bikes (our home is located along one of Minneapolis’ many urban bike routes).

For some reason, she picked Sam and Nathan and I. She was maybe just out of her teens, though I doubt it. She was young, and looked younger. More than that, she was, as I said, drunk (I could smell it), and scared, and alone.

She came up to me and said she couldn’t find her way home. She didn’t know where she lived. No doubt the alcohol had something to do with it, but she had also apparently just moved into the neighborhood herself. We weren’t much help as she asked for directions, but she also wasn’t even sure of her own new address. We committed to help her, however. She said she had a phone that was dead that if she could just charge would enable her to look up her address. I suggested walking back to the corner store and asking if they would let her plug her phone in for a minute (she said she had her charger with her). Kirsten, the boys, and I had been in the corner store enough since moving in that we knew the folks who run the corner store “are really nice,” and indeed the guy who was working agreed to let her plug her phone in (I never caught my drunk neighbor’s name; things were a little awkward). She plugged it in, but that was useless as the screen was so cracked you couldn’t see anything on the screen. She had asked me to look up her address (somehow) on my phone, but I don’t have a smartphone any more, and so could not.

I had asked her who she lived with, if it was her parents, given how young she looked. She said they hate her, and she did not live with them. Maybe that’s where she moved from. Even so, given the situation, she borrowed my flip phone to call her dad, whom she spoke with, along with her mom. There was arguing and cursing, but someone agreed to text her new address to my phone, which they did, and we agreed to walk her there. It was a block away. We got to her new place, and with obvious relief but not a word to us, she disappeared around back.

Did I help her, I wonder? No doubt she left a bad situation with her parents, but did she leave it for a worse one? And what responsibility do I have now? I don’t know her name, but I know where she lives, and I have access to her parents, I suppose. Would she even remember what happened if we saw her again? Perhaps I assume too much to think I even have some responsibility to “help.” What help could I offer? Obviously she might be a little better off if her life wasn’t such that she found herself drunk and lost a block from her new home in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. I can pray for her, to be sure. And perhaps as I and my family run, bike, and take walks in our new neighborhood we can be sure to go her way, just on the off-chance we might run into her again. This, I suppose, is part of the “art of neighboring.” It’s the next sermon series among the people of Mill City Church, and is based on the book of the same name. I’m praying it’s as useful as its promise portends.

I notice as I reflect and write about this experience that there’s something gratifying about it for me, and that troubles me. I wish that young woman hadn’t been drunk and lost, and therefore I wish I hadn’t had the opportunity to help her. I did, though, and I won’t deny that it brought a sense of confirmation that we were on the right path, the path my family and I have been on of late, as we try to follow Jesus more closely by getting “small” and hopefully getting just a little closer to being “under” vis-a-vis the powers that be rather than “over,” which is the position that our heritage and skin tone typically puts us in. I know this: while the ‘burb we came from likely has more than its fair share of drunk neighbors, there was something different about this experience in the city. I’ve written before, for example, about how much more densely populated our current neighborhood is compared to our old one. Thus, the streetscape here is simply much more conducive to precipitating the kind of interaction I write about above; whereas in our old suburban neighborhood the potential for such interaction is greatly diminished, if for no other reason than “white flight” motivated city planning.

My lack of altruism notwithstanding, I am glad that I was there to help her- however much “help” it really was- rather than someone else with less conflicted and more nefarious motives. And besides, if solidarity with the “least of these-” or in the case of this country- the “lesser of these” really does require proximity, as I keep learning it does, I’m glad to be just a little closer to the kind of folks Jesus spent most of his time with. That’s obviously a big part of why we made this move to NE Mpls. So here’s what we’re focusing on this summer:

Our Summer 2017 Family Focus: Trying to Go “Deep” as we “Get Small….”

If you can’t make it out very well, it says:

Phew! We’ve been learning about following Jesus, “that preacher of peace,” from “under,” not “over,” as we try to get “small.” Now it’s time to dig in and consolidate those gains. Let’s go deep and make these lessons ones that are learned and lived every day.

Learn: -Finish peacemaking books (I’ve read the first two of these: A Farewell to Mars, Free of Charge, The Politics of Jesus, & Nonviolent Action)  and complete the Mammon to Manna video series.

Pray: “God, you gave up your power and became small so that you could be close to the ‘least of these,’ our brothers and sisters. Help us to do the same so that we can meet you among them, and in ourselves as we become more like ‘them.’ Help us to decrease, so that you might increase. Amen.”

Do/Act: -Serve in the kitchen at Hope Ave. with our missional community and perfect “the art of neighboring.” Institute car sharing/biking to work.

Summer Family Memory Verse: “…Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” -John 3:29b-30. Background: Some thought John the Baptist was “the Christ.” John alluded to the Church being the bride of Christ and said he was a “friend of the bridegroom” who took joy at hearing the bridegroom’s voice. He then said the above, saying he (John) must get small so that Jesus could take center stage. We rich “white” people, denizens of the “American” empire, are trying to do the same.

Meanwhile we keep learning just how not only political, but economic, the way of Jesus is as we try ever more fully to live as citizens of God’s kingdom rather than the “little kingdoms of this world” and participants in God’s economy rather than unmitigated consumer (late) capitalism. Thus we’re dreaming up ways to share resources and looking for partners to join us, and we’re hopeful that God the giver is positioning us just where we need to be so that we can more fully live into our calling to be givers too. For my just passed 42nd birthday, I was glad to be able to give clean water to 1 person in Africa for life via Team World Vision, for whom I am- Lord willing- running the Twin Cities Marathon (more on that later). I tried to resist wanting any other presents in the form of material goods, but Kirsten and I did pick up a few very cheap secondhand books to continue our learning, which I’m excited about. They are:

We still have a lot to learn via The Powers That Be, Jesus and the Disinherited, God of the Oppressed, and “Say to This Mountain.”

If you’re reading this, whether near or far, might you consider joining our bit of rabble-rousing “foolishness?” We’re cashing in retirement plans to pay off debt and so to be sure not to “store up treasure on earth.” We’re giving stuff away and looking for neighbors to share cars and lives with as we try to take care of God’s good earth and limit the extent to which we live as consumers rather than Jesus-followers. We’re re-imagining savings accounts as generosity funds and conjuring up folks to be generous to. I know there must be others like us out there. After all, my old acquaintance Glenn, whom I know from youth and would call a friend in Jesus, posted this on FB tonight:

Screenshot 2017-06-12 at 11.22.08 PM
Occasionally something good comes from Facebook.

 

God is on the side of the oppressed, indeed. So often we want God to be with us in what we do, and He may well be, as Bono helpfully reminds at the end of the clip that starts this post. But whatever we believe, again as Bono says, we can be sure that:

God is with the vulnerable and the poor. God is in the slums and the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us, if we are with them.

Amen.

 

For Memorial Day, “We Need Alternativity”

HT to this interesting post for the image.

 

At the end of Mill City Church‘s worship gathering yesterday, we sang one of my all-time favorite hymns, Be Thou My Vision. We sang something close to the version I’ve posted above. Give it a listen as you read. Here are the lyrics, which are important as they will inform the rest of this post:

“Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, put first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

Oh, God, be my everything, be my delight
Be, Jesus, my glory My soul’s satisfied
Oh, God, be my everything, be my delight
Be, Jesus, my glory My soul’s satisfied

My Jesus, You satisfy
My Jesus, You satisfy

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, bright Heaven’s Sun
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Oh, God, be my everything, be my delight
Be, Jesus, my glory my soul’s satisfied”

There’s a reason why this is an all time classic hymn with deeply resonant lyrics still today, and writing those words reminds me why I lament so much worship music being written today. How much of it has lyrics that will still matter a few decades from now, let alone a few centuries or even millenia? Yes, millenia. Wikipedia notes what became Be Thou My Vision began as a text that was part of a monastic tradition dating back to the 6th century. Like the Biblical text itself, it existed for centuries as an oral tradition before being written down. Wikipedia says:

The original Old Irish text, “Rop tú mo Baile” is often attributed to Saint Dallán Forgaill in the 6th century.[1] The text had been a part of Irish monastic tradition for centuries before its setting to music.[3] There are two manuscripts, one at the National Library of Ireland, and a second at the Royal Irish Academy. Both manuscripts date from about the 10th or 11th century.

The oral tradition was no doubt different from what was finally written down, and what was finally written down in the 10th or 11th century was different from English versions of the text recorded in the early 1900’s, and that too from the “English Methodist Version” that was produced in 1964, which is obviously still being adapted to this day. Nonetheless, at the heart of this song is something timeless, but I’ll have more to say on that later. So as I said, we sang this toward the end of our worship gathering yesterday. Towards the beginning of the worship gathering, as likely took place in thousands of worship gatherings across the country yesterday, a prayer was offered in honor of Memorial Day, to recognize those who have served in this nation’s military (or, more accurately according to the designated purpose of the holiday, to honor and recognize those who died while serving). In some such gatherings the conflation of following Jesus with following “American” civil religion was more over-than-top than in others. Here are a few examples from a cursory web search:

 

I found this picture at the page for the “Southeast Texas Church Guide.”

The image above begs a lot of questions. For starters, is the instrument of Jesus’ execution at the hands of the occupying empire of his day, operating in collusion with the church leaders of his day, to be understood here as a patriotic “American” symbol? The U.S.A. is the closest thing to the Roman Empire the world maybe has ever seen, complete with direct comparisons which can be made between the “Pax Romana” and the “Pax Americana.”  Perhaps then this makes perfect sense. It is in the nature of empires to co-opt whatever symbols- not of their making- that are necessary to maintain and extend their control. Often this takes the form of wholesale cultural (mis-)appropriation (see Cinco de Mayo or the recent controversy surrounding the short-lived new piece of art the Walker Art Gallery here in Minneapolis tried to display). Beyond this, what is the relationship between the patriotic executioner’s tool above (the cross is so ubiquitous and has been so domesticated that it might be more helpful to replace it in your mind with an electric chair, guillotine, or hangman’s noose) and gun-toting soldier, aside from the obvious, that both are instruments of death, tools of the state to violently enforce its will?

 

That same Southeast Texas Church Guide page features this graphic.

What then, of this graphic? Clearly the folks who run the Southeast TX Church Guide want to bless folks on this “American” holiday, but then they include some Scripture for good measure. There’s probably some good hermeneutical work that should be done about that particular verse from Proverbs, but for now let’s take it at “face value” (understanding, as I do, that all reading is interpretation, especially when it comes to the Bible). Is the point that all fallen U.S. soldiers are necessarily and automatically “righteous?” In what way? Who says? For those with ears to hear, there is a litany of abuses and atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers at the behest of our government, in the name of myself and every U.S. citizen, that could be recited, right up to and especially including the present day. Is this to be ignored? Does service and especially death while serving=righteousness, always and forever, no matter what?

Similarly, on what appears to be the United Methodist Church’s official site, they offer “12 Ways to Observe Memorial Day.” Idea #5 is to “Wave a flag:”

Youth of First United Methodist Church, Koppel, Pa., raised money to buy an American flag for all 225 residences in the little town. “I’m a flag-waver,” admitted the Rev. Donald A. Anderson. Quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he expressed hope that the flags would “bring Koppel a sense of pride in participating in this great holiday honoring those who fought to protect our freedoms.”

Thankfully, “Idea #12” is to:

Glorify Jesus as the Prince of Peace and reach out to those whom others may forget. On Memorial Day – as he does throughout the year – John Alexander, a member of East Lake United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Ala., will be involved with Kairos Prison Ministries. A Christian, lay-led, ecumenical, volunteer, international prison ministry, Kairos brings Christ’s love and forgiveness to incarcerated individuals and their families.

Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Most of the other ideas the United Methodist Church presents on the page, with a few notable exceptions, focus again on the conflation of following Jesus with following “American” civil religion. Under such an arrangement, the U.S. flag is a welcome partner to the “Christian” one, and in too many church buildings across the country the two are displayed in tandem, as if they belong together.

Lest there be any confusion about the point here, here’s another image, this one from a church in Georgia:

 

So here we have the cross again, used along with the flag, again, as the backdrop for what appears to be a veterans’ cemetery, and again we get some Scripture, this time from the gospel of John, in which we read: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Clearly the makers of the image above think this somehow applies to those who died as U.S. soldiers. In truth, nothing could be further from said truth. Here’s that verse in context, from John 15:

 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

Do you really think what Jesus is saying here has anything to do with military belligerents dying sometimes to protect the “freedom” of U.S. citizens (lots to unpack there, but not now), but more often of late to protect U.S. “strategic interests” in the oil-rich Middle East? Take a look at the passage above again. Jesus is urging his followers to “remain in his love.” He says if they keep his commands they will do so; they will remain in his love. Then he tells them just what he wants them to do, what his command is: Love each other- as he has loved them. Then comes the misappropriated verse in the image above: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Notice what comes next, though. After talking about the love involved in laying one’s life down for one’s friends, he doubles down on just how they can remain in his love. He says: “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Remember that he’s just told them what his command is, that they would love one another as he has. Then he makes the point even more clear. He tells them that he no longer calls them servants, but instead has called them friends. They are his friends because they remain in his love by doing what he’s told them to do- by loving one another. And just how great is that love of his they are to remain in? It’s so great that he would lay down his life for them, which this passage is clearly foreshadowing. Thus Jesus is the one laying down his life for his friends- we who love as he has loved us.

A call to give the “ultimate sacrifice” on the battlefield- or to honor those who have- this is not. In fact, such sacrifices are not even “ultimate.” Responding violently to the threat of violence and thereby suffering the consequences of violence may be the way of the world, but it is not Jesus’ way. Jesus on the cross broke the cycle of the world’s violence by absorbing it without retaliating. As those who do indeed follow the Prince of Peace, we are likewise called to be peacemakers. Ironically, what comes next in John 15 is an admonition by Jesus, who tells his followers that they have been chosen out of the world, and so will likely be persecuted and hated by it, depending, I suppose, on how closely we follow him, how faithfully we love as he has loved us and remain in his love. If, as much as we possibly can, we live into this ministry of reconciliation and follow Jesus down the path of peace rather than violence, those who prefer violence (even/especially those who have subscribed to the myth of redemptive violence) may very well hate and persecute us indeed.

Going back to our part of John 15 above, in the last bit of the passage Jesus again reminds his followers that he chose them, not the other way around. He chose them so that they might “go and bear fruit,” and so that “whatever they ask” in his name, the Father will give them. Then, just to be sure they’ve gotten the message, he repeats his command that they love one another. It’s interesting that God the giver includes a reminder in this passage that he has chosen his followers not only so that they can bear fruit, but also so that they can receive from him whatever they would ask for in Jesus’ name. By so doing he reminds them of who- and whose- they are. They are children of their Father in heaven; they are the beloved of the Creator God, the one in whom “all things hold together.” Those who remember this know that they really don’t need to store up treasure on earth. They really can trust God each and every day for their daily bread, without worrying about tomorrow or the bread they’ll need then. Their Father, after all, is the keeper of the “cattle on a thousand hills,” and he knows what they need before they would even ask him. So then, if they are remaining in his love by faithfully following his command to love one another, they can ask their Father for anything, and he will give it to them. This is economic language that stands in stark contrast to the language of the world’s economies.

The “freedom” that we “Americans” of European descent enjoy most of all involves some basic human rights that ought be enjoyed by all- freedom of speech and of movement, religious freedom and the like, but a well-defended argument can be made that the most essential “freedom” “America” has been exporting for quite some time is an economic one- the freedom to consume as much as one’s hard work, credit, or inheritance will allow. It is, after all, a freedom that even the Chinese enjoy. But it does come at a literal “price,” and it’s often a violent one. There is a direct relationship between capitalism (aka our “economic freedom”) and violence. Don’t believe me? Watch this:

In contrast with “America’s” violent capitalism, Jesus tells us that we have only to ask our Father for “anything,” and he will give it to us. Why? How can this be so? Don’t those who peddle the so-called “prosperity gospel” use verses like this to justify their cheap grace? That may be. Be that as it may, if we who would follow Jesus are loving those around us like Jesus loved us (remembering that his love was so great that he laid down his life for us), isn’t it true that our heart’s desire won’t be for our own health, wellness, and prosperity, but for that of our neighbor near and far? Isn’t this what we’ll want to ask our Father for, knowing that he’s already got our own needs taken care of?

This is what I’m learning, slowly but surely, after lo these many years being so very focused on my own needs and wants. This is the vision that I find so captivating these days. It’s a vision placed in my heart by its Lord. It’s a vision so very captivating that all else is “naught” (nothing) to me.  “Be Thou My Vision” continues in the next verse:

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is our wisdom, our true Word, and because of the Holy Spirit we know that God is ever with us, and we with him. God’s Spirit within is the animating presence that continues to give us life from one moment to the next and enables us to remain in his love as we make our feeble efforts to love those around us like we’ve been loved by him. As true sons and daughters of the Father and those in whom his Spirit dwells, we experience unity with God, the most precious gift of all.

That’s what Mill City Church is “fighting” for these days in the current sermon series- unity. We’re being reminded that unity does not equal uniformity and that it’s okay to disagree so long as we do it well. We’re being reminded though that while uniformity is not required, unity is “non-negotiable.” As we sang that line from “Be Thou My Vision” yesterday morning, the one that goes, “Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one,” I was reminded that if we who would follow Jesus are indeed one with the Father, we are necessarily united with one another. We can’t be united with God and be separated from others who are also united with God. If we all are indeed united with the Father, it’s impossible to be separated from one another. This is convicting, as it means that to whatever extent we are experiencing disunity with one another, our unity with God is compromised.

Just what is it, then, that all too often divides us? The next verse of “Be Thou My Vision” offers our first clue:

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, put first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art

“Riches, I heed not,” this English version of the ancient hymn says, and shortly thereafter explains why, because “Thou” (are) mine inheritance, now and always.” This is what God has been calling I and my family to over and over an over again in 2017 (and no doubt before, if we had been paying attention). What does it mean to live in this culture as if these words were actually true? What does it mean to live as if our chief task on this earth is not to accumulate as much wealth as possible for myself and then leave it to my children as an inheritance, but rather to live as a conduit for God’s many good gifts, knowing that Jesus is our inheritance? What does it mean to live in this culture with the knowledge that our heart will be where our treasure is, and so as followers of Jesus that treasure must be in heaven, not on earth? I am convinced now more than ever that Jesus spends so much time talking about money (and that so much of that talk touches on the relationship between money and politics) because truly “the love of money is the root of all evil,” and it is that temptation- to love money and the economic and political systems that get us more of it- more than Jesus that we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent are faced with more than any other. A recent FB post I happened upon makes the point for me. It’s a video of “10 Rules You Will Never Learn in School.” It’s paired with a cartoon-ish picture of Bill Gates. There are layers upon layers of disingenuous misattribution that led to the video being produced and shared on FB (in other words, it’s “fake news”), but the bottom line is that it doesn’t come from Bill Gates, and the version I saw on FB isn’t even a thorough copy of the actual source, who definitely is NOT Bill Gates. Nonetheless, people, would be Jesus followers even, believe this stuff; so I’ll show you the last “rule:”

Bill Gates did NOT say this.

From “life isn’t fair” to (don’t expect to) “make $60,000 out of high school,” but do expect to “flip burgers” and do expect there to be “winners and losers” in life, and to have to “leave your coffee shop to go to work” (for a “nerd,” apparently), to the final coup de grace- “being born poor” is “not your mistake,” but “dying poor” is, apparently; every one of the “rules” or life lessons in the “fake” video have to do with our relationship to money, and every one of them, I would argue, encourages us to love and pursue it in place of loving and pursuing Jesus. No, life isn’t fair, but instead of investigating why and working to subvert whatever powers promote the injustice and unfairness of life, this video would have us accept this “fact” and use our good ol’ “American” ingenuity and Puritan work ethic to overcome it, perpetuating the myth that this country is the “land of opportunity” for those with the gumption to seize it. All the other “rules” play in to this narrative. The last one, though, is of course the one that really gets me. Being born “poor” is rightly understood to not be the “fault” of the one being born, but it is someone’s fault, and the makers of this video and those who would spread it around seem to have little interest in this.

Moreover, they double down on the injustice that leads to the inequality of some folks being born poor by telling the lie that it doesn’t matter, and that if they would just work hard enough they too, could get rich (by historical standards, as even the “poorest” of the U.S. “middle class” truly is). What, then, of generational poverty even here in the U.S.? What of the legacy of 4 centuries of slavery and Jim Crow era de facto slavery up to, including, and even after the Civil Rights era in the U.S.? When will rich males of European descent like myself stop pretending that there’s some other reason why people of color in this country remain disproportionately poor, uneducated, and incarcerated? And of course all of this says nothing about the rest of the world. Is it the fault of poor North Koreans that they die poor? What of the poorest child in the most desperate part of Africa, whose mother spends much of her day trudging to get dirty water for him, which may very well kill him anyway, thus greatly decreasing the time between that child’s poor birth and poor death?

Meanwhile, Jesus tells us to give to whomever asks of us, to lend without expecting repayment, and that the widow who gives her only mite gives far more than the one percent-er who gave a much greater amount, but much smaller percent- by orders of magnitude- of his available resources. I would argue again that it’s not your fault if you’re born poor, but it is someone’s. Likewise, there’s much to be said about dying poor. Remembering that you “can’t take it with you;” that there were no needy among the early church because they shared what they had; that likewise one of the chief lessons of Israel’s wilderness wanderings was that they had to trust God for their daily bread and share such that “he who gathered little did not gather too little” and “he who gathered much, not too much-” a lesson repeated and expanded on in Paul’s letters to the early church(es); remembering that Jesus challenged the “rich young ruler” to go and sell all he had and give it to the poor- in light of all of this and so much more, I would argue that as Jesus followers our goal actually should probably be to die poor. Doesn’t “every good gift come from the Lord?” If God the giver gives for our flourishing but just as much so that we too can be givers because we bear his image, then we are duty-bound to hold the resources we’re given access to lightly, even those we think we “earn” at a job, because we’re only able to “earn” them using the brain power, heart, will, and muscles- not to mention air, light, and raw materials- that God the giver gave us in the first place. If we hold those resources lightly, we will allow them to pass through our hands freely to those who need them, and if we do this well, we really ought not have any left when our first go-round on this earth is complete.

The last verse of “Be Thou My Vision” goes:

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, bright Heaven’s Sun
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

What does it mean to be subjects of the “High King of Heaven” and to acknowledge that he has won our “victory?” What victory could this be? Is it merely some “pie in the sky” triumph over “sin and death” that has nothing to do with our lives here and now? Quite the opposite, it seems to me more and more these days. Some will use the occasion of this day- “Memorial Day” here in the U.S.- to again conflate following Jesus with following “American” civil religion, and the fact that so many uncritically do so is a devastating testament to the seeming triumph of the “powers” over that very High King of Heaven. This, by the way, is as intentional as it is insidious. The Wikipedia Memorial Day page notes:

Scholars, following the lead of sociologist Robert Bellah, often make the argument that the United States has a secular “civil religion” – one with no association with any religious denomination or viewpoint – that has incorporated Memorial Day as a sacred event. With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice and rebirth enters the civil religion. Memorial Day gave ritual expression to these themes, integrating the local community into a sense of nationalism. The American civil religion, in contrast to that of France, was never anticlerical or militantly secular; in contrast to Britain, it was not tied to a specific denomination, such as the Church of England. The Americans borrowed from different religious traditions so that the average American saw no conflict between the two, and deep levels of personal motivation were aligned with attaining national goals.

Memorial Day has been called a “modern cult of the dead“. It incorporates Christian themes of sacrifice while uniting citizens of various faiths.[61]

Did you catch that? “American civil religion….was never anticlerical or militantly secular” and “was not tied to a specific denomination.” Here’s the kicker: “The Americans borrowed from different religious traditions so that the average American saw no conflict between the two.” In other words, the “average American” is blinded to the fact that there is, indeed, a conflict between following Jesus and following the president, whatever party is in power. There’s a conflict between unmitigated consumer capitalism and God’s economy. There’s a conflict between the use of violent military force by this or any other government and the peacemaking ways of Jesus. Many of us in this country sadly just don’t see it.

Being a subject of the High King of Heaven means you can swear no allegiance to any earthly king, or president, or flag. Following Jesus as your Lord, Savior, and Leader means no other leader ought hold sway over you. Participating in God’s economy marks you as being in rebellion to and only a reluctant participant in the economies of this world. What we are called to and what we must live into is alternativity. We’re supposed to be different, so different that we get persecuted and hated for it. While I’m grateful my church didn’t embrace the worst excesses of “American” civil religion in the passing allusion to Memorial Day yesterday, what I didn’t hear was anything that called me to alternativity. I didn’t feel challenged to acknowledge that the U.S.’ soldiers are probably honored best when the Church holds the government to account for its oil wars, for its military drift, for its exploitation of the poorest among us as canon fodder, and for its call not to sacrifice for the common good but to shop more. We can do better than this. Lord willing, we will.

So by all means, honor those who have died while serving as soldiers, but do so as a Christian. Maybe hug a soldier today, sure. Then call your congressperson and argue for more spending on healthcare for veterans and less spending on new guns, bombs, and missiles- tools which beg to be used. Lobby for the winding down of the many wars the U.S. is fighting right now and the ending of current deployments so no more soldiers on either side have to die, let alone the many civilians our soldiers keep killing as “collateral damage.” Then do something even more radical. Go find an enemy soldier, and hug him or her too. Honor the fallen sons and daughters in Iraq, or Vietnam, or Korea. Or, if that proves difficult, sign up for Christian Peacemaker Teams. Find a way to do your duty as a subject of the Prince of Peace and sojourner in the world’s latest empire, the U.S.A. March for peace. Write letters to the editor of your local paper. Consider engaging in war tax resistance. Don’t worry about your life, or the bread you’ll need tomorrow, or the danger of standing between two warring parties. Your Father has the cattle on a thousand hills, and the High King of Heaven has already won your victory. Live like it. I and my family are going to try to. Won’t you help us?

Why Am I Still So Rich? Why Are You?

Our new place in NE Mpls. We have the 2nd floor unit.
It’s been over a month since my last post, an uncharacteristic drought for me, at least of late. I’ll chalk it up to the incredible busy-ness surrounding our move from the ‘burbs into the Beltrami neighborhood in NE Mpls.

That’s an attribution I could get away with, but I’ll confess that there’s a little more to it. Forcing myself to be honest, I think I’ve experienced our arrival here and the aftermath as a bit anti-climactic. Of course, that’s only possible because clearly I had built this move up in my own head to entail something of a climax. In the space of a month I’ve found myself with a new place to live, a new job, and even a new bank, and with all that change has come all the disruption you might expect. I didn’t quite plan it this way, obviously.

As we began to, I hope and believe, really listen to what God might be saying to us in new ways and with a new willingness to literally follow where we were being led, we found ourselves open to new possibilities as they began to present themselves, and present themselves they did. While we knew we probably weren’t long for the ‘burbs, this move to Mpls. only came about because we were talking to some folks from our church about what we were learning and our sense that our calling to get “small,” coupled with our realization that solidarity (with the “least of these”) requires proximity, would likely mean moving. Out of that conversation the opportunity arose to move into the space we’re living in now. There was a little more intentionality behind my job change, though not in regard to the timing. As my former employer, a for-profit social service agency which had recently given its CEO job to a former investment banker/pharmaceutical industry type, began making ever more changes under that new CEO’s leadership that reflected the priorities of the Mammon-serving industries from which he came, it became ever more clear that I would need to find another job soon. It just so happened that the opportunity arose to work for a faith-based non-profit I’ve long respected and have some familiarity with, and it just so happened that this opportunity included working less than 2 miles from our new home. Thus, as I’ve been so grateful for of late, the “rare trifecta” has been achieved in which I live, work, and worship within the same community- all within a 2 mile radius of our new home.

Is this “Overdraft?” HT to this page for the pic.

We had been planning to change banks too, though again hadn’t quite planned to do it just yet. Our soon to be former bank began locally but now has a footprint in a number of states, and its former CEO infamously has a boat named “Overdraft” after all the $ collected from charging fees when overdrafts occur. When we learned that there was a much smaller, “certified B corp.” bank whose mission is to give financial access to under-served communities, we knew we had to bank with them as soon as we could. When it became clear that we were not only moving but I was changing jobs at the same time (and therefore our direct deposits would be disrupted due to the job change anyway), it made sense to just make all the changes all at once. So we did.

Still, we’re not just doing all this because we felt like it. We truly have experienced a profound sense of calling to again get as “small” as we can, and this move represents a significant step of faith in that direction. Though our place in the ‘burbs was not huge (by rich Western USAmerican standards) and represented downward movement (in terms of space) from what I still describe as our “modest” home in OH, we’ve now cut our space down by probably a third again with this latest move. We share a garage in our new space, and our side is relatively full, and sadly we do have some stuff in storage at Kirsten’s mom’s; nonetheless, we got rid of a lot of stuff as we moved here, and I’m grateful. As I keep saying, we shouldn’t have more stuff than can fit in our current space.

We went from a street on which the houses/townhomes were widely spaced out and one could really go a long while if one desired without interacting with or even hearing one’s neighbors, to a neighborhood in which the houses are tightly packed together with some so close to each other that you could literally pass items through open windows from one house to another. Many of the houses on our current street aren’t all that much smaller than those in the ‘burbs we came from, but many of them here in the city have been converted into multi-family homes with several rental units in each, including ours. That, plus the much greater density of the housing stock means that there is much greater density of people to go with it. Our street is busy with frequent foot and bicycle traffic, and we often interact with our neighbors (well, some of them anyway). There’s a real sense of community here- desired or not- that was designed away in the ‘burbs from which we came. We’re glad for that.

NE Mpls. is a haven for artists and is the setting for the just completed Art-A-Whirl, an annual open house of all the local galleries packed into this part of the city that showcases local art. It’s the largest event of its kind in the country. One of those galleries is at the end of our street. Right across from that gallery, also at the end of our street, is what we already know to be a delicious Asian food restaurant from which we had take-out last weekend. Across the street from our house, a few houses up, is a house at which folks frequently come to the stoop to smoke. Whenever they do, they almost always sing- loudly, beautifully, and in harmony. I don’t know if all the singers live there or if they sing vocationally or if they just can’t help themselves, but they do it well, and I always appreciate it and try to listen. It’s less than a mile from our new place to the only vegan “butcher” in the country, which is very close to a taco chain from TX that has some good vegan options and one of our favorite running stores. While this particular section of Minneapolis is still fairly Caucasian, there’s much, much more diversity than there ever was in the neighborhood from which we came. Both of the new schools the boys go to are very diverse, and Samuel is in fact a minority at his. We can see some of the landmark skyscrapers of downtown Mpls. just over the tops of the trees from the windows on one side of our new place. The ‘burbs this is not.

Of course, it’s not exactly the “ghetto” either. Like many urban settings, NE Mpls. is gentrifying, and it gave us pause to consider that we would be contributing to that phenomenon by moving here. We only hope that on balance our presence does more good than harm. Obviously, it remains to be seen if that will be the case. Nonetheless, being here, especially taken with all the other changes in our lives, is a step in the direction of much more consistently and with integrity living into our values. Our rent here will be cheaper than in the ‘burbs, and as we moved here we made many, many changes to try to live more simply and more consistently act as if we really believe that everything belongs to God, that everything is a gift from God, including the money we “earn” using the gifts God has given us. As has been well documented on this blog, prior to moving here we gave up our  smartphones and “cut the cord” again. We quit contributing to our retirement plans because of all the unjust ways in which those funds were being used and because we’re supposed to be storing up treasure in heaven, not on earth.  We gave away a lot of the stuff we had accumulated and sold some other things, and we pray that this purge represents changes to our way of life that we will be able to sustain. Doing all this has freed up a lot of money in our budget, and with it we’re more rapidly paying down debt than we ever could have imagined just a few short months ago. We’re building capacity into our lives, both financial and otherwise, to much more faithfully be who we feel called to be.

We know we’re called to be generous, for starters, that this is something God the giver wants for us, not from us. We know we’re called to tread lightly on God’s good earth and to be present to our neighbors, let alone to one another in our own immediate family. We know, as I’ve been saying, that we’re called to get as “small” as we can, to live as citizens of God’s kingdom from “under,” not “over” the kingdom(s) of this world, especially the kingdom which is the U.S.A. and the unmitigated consumer capitalism and war-making empire for which it stands. All of this means that we’re more keenly aware perhaps than we ever have been of the degree to which we’re called to swim upstream in the culture(s) we’re immersed in. We’re immersed in the culture of consumer capitalism, for example, but we now know more clearly than ever before that we can’t follow Jesus and the dictates of that culture. We can’t serve Jesus and Mammon, and that actually means something. It means we have to act in contradistinction to what most consider to be wise and prudent financial behavior. Many think it wise if possible to not be in debt (though few seem to live this out). On this point, we agree, and we’re grateful that all the other financial choices we’ve made of late to help us get “small” have built up capacity in our budget to enable us to rapidly pay off some debt we’ve been accumulating for many years (not counting student loan debt, which we’ll continue to carry for quite some time, sadly).

Image HT
That said, most would say it’s wise, prudent, and faithful to not only not carry debt but also to save- preferably up to three months’ worth of salary or more to help provide in the event of illness, injury, or job loss. Most say it’s wise to save for retirement and to plan for it someday. Most say it’s wise to own a home and take advantage of the chance to build equity and maximize tax savings. I could go on, but on these points we’re just not so sure anymore, and again we must consider: what if Jesus really meant what he said? He said, after all, that our hearts will be where our treasure is, and that we should store up for ourselves treasure in heaven, not on earth. The hard truth is that every savings account, IRA, and disability insurance policy is a tool meant to do just the opposite of what Jesus called us to. They’re tools meant for no other purpose than to literally store up treasure on earth, however virtuous one’s intentions might be regarding that earthly stored-up treasure. Though we’re still figuring (all) this out, we’re not even sure of the logic of home-ownership any more. I wouldn’t suggest that every home purchase represents something less than what God wants for us. Buying a house certainly helps one be rooted in a community, and that is a good thing. However, I’ll say again that when we gave up the home we had owned for 10 years to come here in part, but certainly not solely, to help Kirsten’s mom, we readily accepted the frequently used and seemingly Scriptural logic that “…no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age.” I’ve written a lot about this passage from Mark 10 and the stunning realization I had about it as I heard it used in several Mill City Church sermons and especially in Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s seminal book, God’s Economy. I’ll give you the verse again, with a little more context. Just after Jesus has said to “let the little children come to him,” thereby radically giving prestige and status to those whose socioeconomic position in the household economy of the day was lower even than that of slaves, and then after the “rich young ruler” has “gone away sad” because Jesus has told him to go and sell all he has and give it to the poor because this is the “one thing he lacked,” after all this, this is what happens next:
 

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[e] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

 
I’ve written a fair bit already about my stunning realization that after learning, I thought, so well that so many of the “you’s” in the New Testament that talk about how to live the Christian life and follow Jesus were plural, addressed to you, the church; somehow I still managed to think this particular passage was about me (the individual). Of course it’s not. Jesus isn’t saying that I and my family will be rewarded handsomely with material goods if in fact we have given any up for his sake. He’s saying we don’t need them. He’s saying that we’re part of a community that collectively has so much more than any one of us or any one family among us could ever want or need. So, thanks be to God and still, Lord willing, I and my family are doubling down on our “downsizing” ways. Thus, we find ourselves here in our new space in the Beltrami neighborhood.
Our daily “bread?” Image HT.

Interestingly, I had yet another of those stunning Scriptural revelations within the last couple of weeks. As someone who supposedly has been trying to follow Jesus for most of his life, I’ve probably said the Lord Prayer’s thousands of times- without ever fully realizing what I was really asking for. As I’ve also written about recently related to all this, in the desert God rained down manna from heaven daily (except on the Sabbath), and he who gathered much never “gathered too much,” and he who gathered little “never too little,” because they shared. And those who tried to hoard and save some for the next day found it spoiled the next day (except on the Sabbath). Thus, each and every day they had to trust God for their “daily bread.” In the prayer Jesus taught us, he invokes this bit of Israel’s collective history and invites his followers to continue to trust God for their daily bread with the simple words: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Again after 41 years on this earth and 20 of them as an adult trying to follow Jesus, I realized that Jesus doesn’t say to ask God for our weekly bread, or our monthly or yearly bread, or enough bread to hide some away so that some day we can retire and stop collecting bread. Jesus doesn’t say any of that. He invites us to trust God every day for just what we need for that day. Capitalism and good, common sense financial wisdom- even what most consider good stewardship- this is not. This is utter nonsense, utter foolishness in the eyes of the world and I would argue in the eyes of most “Christians,” but this is the life Jesus invites us into.

And it kind of makes sense, if we’re also invited to “give to whomever asks.” Especially in this society and especially for people of my gender, location in history, and skin tone, I have access to more “bread” than I could ever possibly need. Thus a life of radical generosity is not only possible but clearly demanded of me. What other reason could there be for the unimaginable bounty I’ve been given? So then why am I still so rich?

That question- why am I still so rich?- has been haunting me of late in terms of my own life of course but also as I’ve wrestled with the ideas and thinking of Bob Lupton in his much talked about (at least in the circles I’m a part of these days) book, Toxic Charity. Let the reader of this post beware that I myself have not read Toxic Charity. Naturally, I’m not in the habit of commenting much on books I haven’t read, but obviously I’m about to. The book has generated enough “buzz” since it came out a few years back that there’s a lot of discussion of it to be found online. It also seems to be well-esteemed among the leadership of my faith community; so I’ve found myself repeatedly encountering some of the ideas Bob and his book(s) present, and am feeling more and more compelled to respond to them even as I continue to learn about them (learning which, I assure you, will include reading the book in the near future!). At first glance, Bob should be someone that I would be inclined to like, respect, and esteem myself. He’s a Christian Community Development practitioner and has spoken at the CCDA conference. He’s a Jesus-follower who was himself compelled to respond to the “good news for the poor” by moving his family from the ‘burbs to the “inner city” to live among, love, and serve his neighbors there, thus enacting one of the “three R’s” of Christian Community Development- “relocation.” As is often said about this principle, “Jesus didn’t commute from heaven every day when he walked the earth and loved and served us.” There’s a lesson there. Bob took it to heart and has lived in “inner city” Atlanta for 40 years, and for that I do indeed think well of him. Moreover, he’s calling the church to “do no harm” in its efforts to love the poor and wants to see all God’s children realize their full potential and not be dependent on government entitlement programs for their sustenance and well-being. This, I suppose, is what he says is often “toxic” about charity, that by indiscriminately giving “handouts” to the poor- apparently whether it’s the church doing so or the government- the “have’s” create dependency in and “destroy the work ethic of” the “have-not’s.” There’s a lot to be said about that, which I’ll get to shortly.

 
All that said, it’s precisely because of Lupton’s history and associations (with CCDA, with many church leaders who think well of his message, including the leaders of my own faith community) that should incline me to want to agree with him or at least give him the benefit of the doubt that I find myself struggling so mightily because I just can’t. The more I learn and reflect on what Lupton’s message seems to be, the more I discover that I simply don’t agree with him, and this has bugged me enough that I’ve been compelled to research, think, pray, and now write about it all. Lupton seems supremely interested in the results of charity work, while Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Miroslav Volf might say that the act of giving to whomever asks is as much about us as givers and therefore image-bearers of God the giver, as it is about those to whom we give or the “results” of said giving. Nevertheless, Lupton wants to center the conversation on “results-” what lifts people out of poverty- but is overly critical of the poor along the way. One reviewer wrote:
One criticism is that Lupton moves uncritically between uplifting the capacity and creativity of the poor and degrading them as lazy and dishonest.  “Most [panhandlers] are scammers,” he states (45).  Most poor people in the United States “assume that their subsistence is guaranteed” and so lack any kind of work ethic, he claims (121).  I won’t dignify his words with the verb “argues” because Lupton doesn’t argue his points; he simply states them.  I would be concerned that statements like this, when coupled with his criticisms of charity, would motivate more people to avoid service work in the first place than to engage in the community development he suggests.
Another reviewer of his follow-up book, Charity Detox, which builds on the ideas presented in Toxic Charity, said:
…the author seems unwilling to address (or even admit) that some of the root causes of and root solutions for poverty are related to social policy. It is hard not to sniff ideology. The author talks more about the rich than the poor, telling story after story of rich entrepreneurs whose faith and business acumen change impoverished communities. Meanwhile, too often “the poor” are mostly faceless, nameless, and never described as “low-income communities” or even “our sisters and brothers.” It makes for uncomfortable reading.

Interestingly, when Jesus tells stories, he seems to take the opposite approach. In the story of the “rich man and Lazarus,” for example, it’s the “rich man” who lacks a name while the poor man is named- Lazarus- and known. Indeed it is the poor man who is “carried to Abraham’s side” when he dies, while the rich man is “in torment” “in Hades.” This is a subject for another post, one I’ve already written. Meanwhile, Lupton seems to want to say to the rich two things, one of which I wholeheartedly agree with. On the one hand, he encourages rich folk to live alongside poor folk (he did it, and again I respect him greatly for it). He seems to think that by doing so rich folk will “see” (and hopefully “hear” through meaningful relationships with their neighbors) what poor folk “really need.” By virtue of proximity with poor folk, rich folk will then on the other hand be better able to invest in “good” charity. Meanwhile, the effective message he seems to have for the poor is essentially to ask, “why aren’t you less poor yet?” There’s a corollary question that goes unasked, that might be asked of the rich, “why aren’t you less rich yet?” Lupton seems silent on this subject, but it’s a question I can’t avoid, especially as I direct it at myself.

What bothers me most about Lupton’s “argument(s)” is just how firmly they seem to be rooted in the economy of this world- capitalism, specifically, and thus just how firmly they are out of place in God’s economy. Lupton’s ideas for helping poor folks pull themselves up by their own bootstraps so that they can better participate in consumer capitalism simply have no place in an economy where everyone shares everything because every good thing is an unearned gift from God the giver. They have no place in a world in which we give to whomever asks, without judgment. They have no place in a world that lacks only one thing- scarcity. In God’s economy, there is more than enough for all and since all share freely there finally “are no poor among us;” neither are there any rich. This is the world I want to live in, and as for me and my house, we will be living as if we do.

Our challenge is to find partners who want to live in such a world too. I suspect that may be why our move to our new place and everything it represents for us may feel a little anti-climactic now that we’re here. We’re excited to get to know our neighbors here, and some- though not all- of our new neighbors seem to feel likewise. Still, while we’re so very grateful to now be leaning into the life we feel called to much more than we have in a very long time, it still feels a little…lonely. We remain convinced we simply can’t live this life alone, and we believe that this is not what Jesus wants for us either. So then perhaps our biggest challenge is simply to be patient. It took us 20 years to finally be “ready” to follow Jesus like we should have all along. Lord willing, there are partners who will join us- or whom we can join- along this way with Jesus; I only pray they learn a little faster than we do.

Trampling the Flag on Palm Sunday: A Word to the Irrelevant “Powers-” Freedom Is Coming

HT to this site for this Palm Sunday art by Bill Hemmerling

I woke up primed for Holy Week, which begins today with Palm Sunday and the remembrance of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. The crowds were ready to anoint him king in their hope that he was the Messiah, the one who would violently overthrow Rome’s occupying power and “make Israel great again.” Of course, once they realized that his “kingdom” was simultaneously “upon us” but also “not of this world-” and that therefore he would not overthrow the Roman occupiers violently- the crowd quickly turned on Jesus and would soon join in encouraging that same foreign occupying power and the complicit religious leaders of Israel in their plan to execute Jesus. Usually we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent spiritualize all this, taking it to mean that the kingdom Jesus inaugurated, the love revolution he began, is a strictly a matter for the heart in the present age as we await the age to come “in the sweet by and by.” But as with so many things, this is more of a “both/and” than an “either/or.” We cannot take the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom- symbolized in the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry as he announced the fulfillment of “good news to the poor,” the proclamation of “freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,” the setting free of “the oppressed,” and the proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favor”- to mean simply that God wants to save us from personal immorality so that we can enjoy a heavenly retirement plan. Nor, on the other hand, can we take it to mean that God has nothing to say about spiritual realities and our own broken spirits.

Surely Jesus wants to save us from the “sin that so easily entangles” so that we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This “salvation” is very “personal,” indeed. Likewise, it is very communal, and very, very political. This is the tension we must always keep before us, and it was with that tension in mind that I read Circle of Hope‘s daily prayer this morning, which focuses, rightly, on Jesus’ “triumphal entry” to Jerusalem that we remember on Palm Sunday. The post is good enough to join the featured poet, Malcolm Guite, in envisioning the…”final leg of the journey of Lent” and reminding us “that Holy Week is both about the Lord’s outward, visible, historical entry into Jerusalem for Passover Week and what he did there; but it is also is about his entry into the city in each of us where God claims his residence and what he will do there.” The post…

…lets the outer story of Palm Sunday present some questions to our inner lives. Will I welcome Jesus to be the King in my heart? Is my inner city occupied and governed by a foreign power? Are inoffensive rituals practiced in my temple that do not offend the rulers? Has buying and selling colonized the space where there should be prayer? Are there crowds in me who are swayed this way and that by whoever seems most compelling or powerful? Can I welcome Jesus into all of that?

Something powerful is happening here. The tension I spoke of above is held and allowed to speak to us all the more powerfully because it is maintained. Yes, we must welcome Jesus to be “King” in our “heart,” but to do so requires us to wonder if our “inner city” is “occupied and governed by a foreign power,” if “inoffensive rituals” practiced in our temple “do not offend the rulers,” and if “buying and selling” has “colonized the space where there should be prayer.” These are terribly communal, political realities.

Then, of course, the post ended by reminding us that it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer day over at the Transhistorical Body of Christ blog that Circle of Hope maintains. Being a Bonhoeffer “fan” and appreciating the witness of the “great cloud of witnesses” that Circle reminds us of through this blog, I clicked over to read about Bonhoeffer, again. Guess what the “Bible reading and excerpt” that most of these Circle of Hope devotional posts start with was? I can’t make this stuff up; it was:

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Matthew 5:38-42

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few months, you’ll know that I can’t turn around these days without bumping into this passage. It forms the basis of probably the most memorable part, for me, from God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, in which Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove said:

Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.

Here’s Jonathan talking about this, in a little video about, of all things, Lent:

Jonathan’s good to remind us that the passage from Matthew in which Jesus tells us to give to the one who asks comes in the midst of Jesus talking about enemy love. He says this is a “cue” to those of us who have money that in some way the poor are our enemies. I have felt this to be true in my own life, to my great shame. I may not want to think of the poor as enemies, but because like the rich young ruler I have so much (worldly wealth) to lose, I see the poor and am afraid, afraid that they may in some way take what I have (illicitly) gotten. Sharing with those in need invites me to have my imagination renewed and my mind transformed so that I can see that I have something to learn, to see that I am in my own way just as impoverished as those who lack the basic resources I so readily take for granted. I like the quote Jonathan speaks of in the video above as well, that “People come to Christian community because they want to help the poor; they stay in Christian community because they realize that they are the poor.” We are, indeed.

Similarly, as my Lenten journey has been about, in part, learning better to follow “that preacher of peace” so that I may be discipled in the ways of nonviolence and peacemaking, I’ve found that there is an inextricable connection between peacemaking/enemy love and the call to participate in God’s economy that so much of the Sermon on the Mount deals with. This has come up over and over again in the books I’ve been reading for Lent: A Farewell to Mars and Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace and now as I’ve started The Politics of Jesus. It came up in Circle of Hope’s Transhistorical Body of Christ post about Bonhoeffer today too. They note that we remember Bonhoeffer today because he “was executed on this day in 1945, two weeks before US soldiers liberated his prison camp.  He is largely considered a martyr for the faith, for peace, and as a Nazi resister.  Among two of his most influential works are Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.” This takes a little teasing out, but bear with me. The post also says the following in speaking of Bonhoeffer’s response to the rise of the Nazi party:

Bonhoeffer was overtly critical of the regime and a resister from the beginning.  While Hitler and the Nazis infiltrated and found a stronghold in the German church, Bonhoeffer was building something new in Germany through the Confessing Church.  After only a few months under Nazi control, Bonhoeffer moved to London to work on international ecumenical work, highly frustrated with the state of the German church.

Two years later, rather than going to study non-violent civil disobedience under Ghandi he returned to Germany at the repeated pleading and demanding of Swiss theologian…Karl Barth.  The Confessing Church was under fire by the Nazis.  Barth was sent back to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer soon lost his credentials to teach because he was a “pacifist and enemy of the state.”   He began underground seminaries and further resisted the state.

Bonhoeffer became more involved in direct resistance and was arrested in 1943.  He was part of a group that was responsible both for attempts at liberating Jews and attempting to assassinate Hitler. His pacifism has been widely written about, especially in light of this glaring contradiction.

Bonhoeffer’s whole life was pointed in the direction of nonviolent resistance to state power, precisely because of the way in which Jesus had “saved” him. Obviously, there was a notable exception to this direction in which his life pointed, and responding to that is beyond the scope of this particular post. But I do want to highlight the link between Bonhoeffer’s life of peacemaking/enemy love, and the “life together” which is a necessary component of it. As the Transhistorical Body of Christ post from Circle of Hope noted, Bonhoeffer’s short and powerful book Life Together is one of the two that he is most known for, and I suspect that Christian community was so important to him because Bonhoeffer knew, as I keep saying, that we just can’t do this alone. Following Jesus means continuing to resist “the powers” that he has already defeated. To do so without resorting to “cheap grace” quite simply “takes a village.” As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminded us in the quote he spoke of in the clip above, “we stay in Christian community” when we realize that “we are the poor.” Participating in God’s economy requires us to pass on the many good gifts God has given us, and as Miroslav Volf reminds us, this is a communal act. And it is an act that is as hard for we rich as peacemaking and enemy love are for we who have been brought up in a culture as violent as the U.S.’ Isn’t it clear that we need a Savior?

The writer(s) of the “Transhistorical” post about Bonhoeffer end it with the following “suggestions for action:”

Bonhoeffer applied himself to unmasking the lies of his culture and the ideologies that took God’s place. It was not easy, since the church was generally in line with them. In spite of state threat and lack of support from the church, he took risks to teach the truth, even moving back to Germany when it was not safe and he would have been safer elsewhere.

That kind of courage is demonstrated in the Bible repeatedly by people whose loves (lives?) are trained on God. What threat do you feel from those you know and from the great “other” of the powers that be when it comes to expressing your faith in word and deed? Pray for courage.

All these thoughts were again swimming in my head as I did a little more reading and research about Palm Sunday this morning. While doing so, I came across this amazing post, “Palm Sunday is the Most Political Sunday,” from Trip Fuller’s blog. It’s short and worth a read, in fact so short and so worth the read that I give you most of it here, in which the author, Bo Sanders, begins by discussing the “politics of Palm Sunday:”

The Jewish people were under occupation. Roman occupation was especially repressive and brutal.IMG_0332.JPG (2)

The last time that the Jewish people had been free and self-governed also meant that they had their own currency. On their big coin, a palm branch was prominently displayed.

Laying down palm branches ahead of a man riding a colt/donkey was an act of defiance and an aggressive political statement…

(like saying)… “We want to be free. This guy is going to change things and restore what was lost.”

 

Having children wave palm branches in the equivalent to teaching a child to stick up her middle finger in anger… only more political. kid_soccer_fan

 

I am troubled by the lack of context regarding the palms of Palm Sunday. It reeks of both willful ignorance and religious disconnect.

In so many ways we have sanitized, sterilized and compartmentalized the teaching of scriptures. We proudly and loudly defend the Bible – all the while neglecting the actual reality talked about in that Bible.

We complain that Christmas and Easter have been commercialized and secularized all the while partaking of the consumerism and cultural complacency that those two celebrations are meant to challenge!

Palm Sunday might be the most flagrant example of this ignorance and misappropriation. Palm Sunday is call for revolution against the powers of oppression, the systems and institutions that occupy foreign lands and repress its citizens with unjust practices and economic policies.

 

Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday of the year – but in our more therapeutic approach that assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones, the meaning is lost.

This is not just symbolic but emblematic of our watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity.

We do this with everything. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley are talking about how we will do it with the Dr. King celebrations this coming year. They are calling it the Santa-Clause-ification of MLK. He will be a man with dream but little else … and his politics will be lost in the focus on children not being judged by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.

Just think about this: what would it take for us next year, to teach our children to drop the palm-branches and lift their middle fingers? What would we have to believe about oppression and empire to reclaim the original intent of the palms on Palm Sunday?

I’m not saying that we should do that – I am trying to utilize it to get at how much we have assumed, conceded and ignored about the political realities that we find ourselves caught up in.

What conversations would we have to have with our kids about:

  • foreign occupation
  • injustice
  • politics of empire
  • economic policies

in order to explain why they were laying down palm branches or raising their middle fingers to the powers that be?

There seems to be a theme here, doesn’t there, in the all these Palm Sunday musings? Do you want to continue participating in a “watered-down, imperial, and impotent brand of christianity” that “assumes empire and concedes political realities in favor of spiritual ones?” I, for one, can’t and won’t, and so was compelled to share on Facebook (again, God help me for even being on FB again at all) that post from Trip Fuller’s blog and say about it:

Palm Sunday is the most political Sunday. If only the palms our kids will wave were understood to be middle fingers waved at the powers-that-be…Of course, it bears noting that the U.S. is an occupying force not just in countries around the world, but in North “America.” To really understand the political implications of Palm Sunday, we’d have to imagine a charismatic Indigenous leader processing into Washington, D.C. over trampled U.S. flags, or something like it. This might help us understand what was expected of Jesus, and how he defied those expectations with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent.

As Kirsten and I discussed this on the way to Mill City Church‘s worship gathering, I noted that whether the power in question is Rome or “America,” Jesus has defeated them through the inauguration of his kingdom and especially through his death on the cross and resurrection which we look forward to in the coming Holy Week. Their reign is at an end. Jesus is Lord; Caesar/Obama/Clinton/Trump/Wells Fargo/Google are not. Jesus is “one like a son of God;” Caesar/the U.S. are not.  Again as I said above, Jesus defied the expectations of those who hoped during the triumphal entry that he would violently overthrow Rome with a revolution that was no less “real” or significant because it was non-violent. In fact, because it is non-violent it is all the more powerful. If you live by or secure your “power” by the sword, you can die by it and lose your “power” in the same way. But if you are a citizen of God’s kingdom, a subject of the one true King and so have been “freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you” and so are “a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us,” then “the powers” have suffered a fate worse than military defeat. They have been made irrelevant.

Those who have been so freed will indeed have the courage of Bonhoeffer, or a MLK, Jr., etc. They will have the courage to “get small” because “solidarity requires proximity” as I and my family have been learning. They will have the courage to give to whomever asks and see the poor as their teachers and friends because those so freed have been so faithfully sharing what God gives them that they don’t have so many material goods to “lose” anyway. They will have the courage to see that capitalism is just another ‘ism Jesus wants to save us from (like socialism and all the others you might name). If the Son has set them free, they will be free indeed. It’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about this old song from the Circle of Hope community that they were good enough to put online. Give it a listen, will you? Freedom is coming. Thanks be to God.