Journeying Into Lent

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You Are Dust, And to Dust You Will Return

If February wasn’t already bleak enough, Lent makes it almost unbearable. Much of North America is covered in a blanket of cold, and the warmth of Spring is a distant dream. And while at Christmas and Easter our churches are filled with joyful celebrants, most parishes were all but empty on Ash Wednesday, and emptier still on Shrove Tuesday. Hanging the greens is far more exciting than burning them. Baby Jesus is to be adored, the risen Jesus is to be worshipped, but the cross is to be hidden, or tidied up a bit. And in reality it most certainly can’t be loved. Which leaves us wondering just what we are to do to properly commemorate Lent.

Yet, as odious as the cross is, this is where our faith begins, in the cold, dark night of the soul when we dare to believe in the very God who is fully revealed in the suffering and abandonment of Jesus by God. This is indeed a scandal, and foolishness to the Greeks! “The cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian.” Meaning, there can be no Easter without Good Friday. There can be no resurrection of our Lord without first joining Him on the painful journey to Jerusalem. There can be no forgiveness of sins without first acknowledging that through our violence, ego, and rebellion we are complicit in his torture. To rush past the tomb on our way to the mountaintop is like opening a gift without the heart to embrace it. Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace, its “a grace we bestow on ourselves”. It is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance.

You cannot truly celebrate the end of anything without first starting at the beginning. That’s why on Wednesday the faithful few gathered to begin the long, penitent journey of Lent by being reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. The Lenten rituals of prayer, fasting, and self-denial remind us who we really are by preparing our heart and soul to meet the risen Lord on Easter. In fact, these spiritually forming activities pre-dates the established church, with evidence that first century Christians formalized a time of intentional self-reflection, taking seriously Christ’s commands to “deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me continuously”.[1] 

Christ’s three-fold challenge (deny, pick up and follow) is the foundation of Christian discipleship. Lent becomes the opportunity whereby we align our soul and will more deliberately with the Spirit of God. It is living for forty days how we should be living 365 days a year.  And while the setting down of habits, addictions, and luxuries is the first step toward change, self-denial is much more than first-world, bourgeois asceticism. Your very choice to fast or deny your physical needs provides both existential and spiritual freedom. “It should be accepted as a most elementary human and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say ‘no’ on occasion to his natural bodily appetites.”[3] No one who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating or drinking, or gratifies his every physical urge and impulse can ever consider himself free.[4] If so, you are a slave unto yourself.

However, self-denial isn’t an end in itself.  It is never enough to simply put aside this thing or that, we are required to pick up something else altogether. The specific turn of phrase echoing down through the ages to ‘pick up your cross’ has no other meaning than an invitation to share in Christ’s suffering love for the world. According to John of Chrysostom, “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”  So maybe this year, instead of passively giving up something like chocolate or beer, choose instead to actively take something on. Because to journey with the crucified Christ towards Golgotha means solidarity with the sufferings of the poor and the misery of both the oppressed and the oppressor. During the next 40 days, actively confront evil, right a wrong, heal and do not hurt. Picking up your cross might be as simple as giving your seat to someone else on the subway, carrying spare change to give out to the needy, praying for someone every day, waking up early to meditate, forgiving an enemy, or confessing your sins to your spouse and children.

As we move deeper into Lent, as one spiritual season gives way to a new one, urge one another on to follow him unceasingly on the journey.  After all, obedience is never an accident.  You will never fortuitously fall into faithfulness, it requires intentionality and action. Join the saints in this season of spiritual change repenting of sin, renewing of faith, practicing the traditions of the ekklessia and preparing to celebrate the joyful mystery of our salvation: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

Amen.

[1] Mark 8: 34.

[2] Fears, J. “Rome: The Ideology of Imperial Power.” 1980.

[3] Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation.

[4] Ibid.

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Ted’s Talk

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Modern Crusader

In his own words, Ted Cruz is a “Christian first, an American second”.  And, as America’s “most Christian” presidential hopeful, he won the Iowa Caucus this week and gave “God the glory” for his victory. With 56% of Iowa’s voters as self-described protestant Christians, Cruz relied on a surge of evangelical voters to give him a narrow victory over the evangelical come lately, Donald Trump. In January, Cruz created a National Prayer Team “To establish a direct line of communication between our campaign and the thousands of Americans who are lifting us up before the Lord.” And, while Cruz sounds more like a Southern Baptist preacher than a presidential candidate when praising the redemptive power of Jesus Christ and promising to defend religious liberty, it’s his violent rhetoric toward Muslims that is causing many thoughtful Christians to question his knowledge of, and relationship with Jesus of Nazareth.

In a December speech in Iowa, mobilizing his evangelical followers, Cruz said America “Will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb (ISIS) into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”  So much for loving your enemies.

Cruz is no different from the rest of the Republican hopefuls, who with one breath praise God and with another define how they as Commander in Chief will hunt down and kill America’s enemies. Gentle Ben Carson, referencing ISIS, said American must “Eradicate them now”. In the fifth Republican debate, Donald Trump publicly admitted that his policy would be to kill non-combatant women and children. Was I watching a Republican presidential debate or a Nuremberg Rally? And, as much as I’d like to think that American evangelicals would be appalled at such hate speech from fellow Christians, most whole-heartedly agree. Of the 1.4 million people on active military duty in the United States, 77% profess Christianity. In a 2002 poll, 69% of conservative Christians supported direct military force against Baghdad, a full 10 percentage points higher than the U.S. population as a whole.  In fact, this study by the Washington Post shows that U.S. Christians are more supportive of CIA torture than non-religious Americans. How is this possible given the life and teachings of Jesus?  Why, in the face of such direct commands to love our enemy can Christians adopt a theology of redemptive violence, calling on God to divinely sanction our manifest destiny?  Killing your national enemy isn’t Christian, it’s making Jesus dance a jig for your imperial hubris. When God conveniently hates the same people your nation hates, be sure you are worshipping an idol.

There are a myriad of social and sexual issues that Christians can agree or disagree on, and still be Christian. But Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemy is the sin qua non of discipleship. Scripture reminds us that to shed human blood is an offense against God Himself, making it qualitatively different from other sins. Therefore, peacemaking isn’t a pious appendage to the Gospel for the liberal few, it is rather “the very form of the church, insofar as the church is the form of the one who is our peace”. As Miroslav Volf reminds us, “If you take the ‘love your enemy’ out of the Christian faith, you’ve ‘un-Christianed’ the Christian faith.” Or to put it bluntly, if war is right then Jesus was a liar.

Historically speaking, the church in America must confess that what we call public Christianity is actually “A fusion between something from Christ, and a whole lot from the Roman Empire”. In fact, it’s not Christianity at all, it’s civic religion. Prior to 400 C.E., Christians unilaterally refused service in the military, stemming from the belief that Jesus was Lord and Caesar was not.  In fact, their belief in nonviolence was so robust and universal that Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians to serve in the Roman Legions. And yet, just 100 years later with the unification of church and state under Constantine, no one could serve in the Roman imperial army without first professing faith in Jesus Christ. What a dramatic conversion! The church, which used to “give the empire fits, now fits so well within the empire”. What was at stake then, and continues to be at stake now is our ultimate allegiance. For many evangelical Americans, national loyalty almost always trumps their allegiance to Jesus.

Therefore, no matter how ‘Pro-Life’ our politicians claim to be, the church can no longer stay silent amidst wars and rumors of wars, as our nation spends billions of dollars every year on creative ways to destroy our enemy’s women and children.  What then, would it take for the Body of Christ in America to live a consistent ethic of human life that valued not only the fetus, but the fully formed and broken human person as well?

From Augustine to Tolstoy, generations of believers have wrestled with the problem of evil, and the temptation of redemptive violence.  But now, with feet firmly entrenched in the chemical and nuclear age where human beings have the capacity to destroy the earth 15 times over, we need room in our Biblical worldview to reconsider Jesus’ theology of nonviolent resistance.

For starters, we must dispense with the labels and negative identify formation that comes with ‘pacifism’. Nonviolent resistance is more than passive or willing suffering, Jesus never asked his followers to stand idly by in the face of evil. The spiritual poverty embraced in the false, uneducated dichotomy of ‘kill or be killed’ fails to account for the myriad of active ways Christians can respond when confronted with evil.  This break from Darwinian determinism is an evolutionary progression away from the trademark ‘pacifist’ to a more appropriate moniker ‘nonviolent resistance’.[3]  Modeled by Christ himself, nonviolence is not passivity or quietism, but an active application of truth and love in the face of a violent world.  The nonviolent resister promises never to kill, or to be complicit in killing. Instead she offers the world an alternative paradigm. One that loves the enemy while confronting his evil. Simply put:

“Nonviolence is a way to fight against injustice and war without using violence. It is the force of love and truth that seeks change for human life, that resists injustice, that refuses cooperation with violence and systems of death. It is noncooperation with violence. It says that the means are the ends, that the way to peace is peace itself.”[4]

Nonviolence isn’t meekness in the face of evil, it is the courageous and oftentimes creative task of disarmament. To be nonviolent means to deal with an aggressor as God through Christ dealt with me. In God’s willingness to take on suffering, to right wrongs and overturn evil, He himself refused to let rebellious mankind be identified as His enemy. From this perspective, the cross is the ultimate paradox. It is the embodiment of suffering power, not weakness.  Creative nonviolence acknowledges that loving one’s enemy is far from easy, but incredibly liberating. “When am I more a slave to my adversary than when I allow him to define our relationship as my being his enemy?”[5] In Christ, one’s enemy becomes a privileged object of love since God himself worked out the reconciliation of the world at the cost of his own suffering.[6]  As Father John Dear reminds us,

“As our adversaries begin to recognize our humanity, the sacrifices made, the risks taken, and the violence hidden in their practice of injustice or evil, their eyes may be opened and their own participation in the injustice becomes apparent to them. In that instant of recognition and subsequent shame, the violence and injustice can stop—forever.”

Beating swords into plowshares is liberating action on behalf of the suffering and oppressed. It is freedom from our enslavement to violence.

In a world where smart bombs are smarter than our presidential candidates, it is time for Christians to shed the vestiges of our Constantinian past and rediscover Jesus. Nonviolence is the foundational ethic of Christ, who in disarming Peter, disarmed us all.

As American politicians hijack Christianity to provide divine sanction for our manifest destiny, may we remember how God in Christ dealt with His enemies. Look afresh on the crucified God and ask yourself: ‘What kind of God does the crucifixion reveal’? Can this God, whose full revelation to the world is manifested as a defenseless man on a cross be a tyrant who returns evil with evil? “When the crucified Jesus is called “the image of the invisible God,” the meaning is that THIS is God, and God is like THIS. Are we called to imitate this crucified God or Mars?

Radical Christian faith means committing your life to the crucified God, whose death wasn’t so much about delegitimizing violence as completely overcoming it. Jesus gives us tangible ways of dealing with evil, injustice, and violence without resorting to evil, injustice, or violence. The stumbling block for American evangelicals and our Christian politicians isn’t just that our God in His divine defenselessness would choose to die for His enemies rather than destroy them, but rather that we as His people must go and do likewise.

[1] Isaiah 2: 4.

[2] Dear, Father John. Our God is NonViolent.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pg. 7.

[5] Yoder, John Howard. Nonviolence: A Brief History.

[6] Yoder, John Howard. What Would You Do?.

[7] Ibid., pag. 1.

 

The Progressive Prophet Without Honor

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Driving Jesus Out of Town

This week’s lectionary reading is a strange little story detailing the auspicious start of Jesus’ ministry. Driven by the spirit, He returns home to Nazareth to preach in the synagogue. His family, childhood friends, and old neighbors anxiously await the return of the native, whose fame was spreading throughout the region. It seems this local boy finally made good on his promise to become a rabbi.

Jesus enters the synagogue, opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, finds his place, and begins to read.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

So far, so good. Jesus adopts Isaiah 61 as his mission statement, proclaiming that He, acting as God’s servant, will bring freedom and restoration to the marginalized. Interestingly enough, Jesus omits reading verse two which references “the day of vengeance of our God”, figuratively taking scissors to the Bible, signifying a dramatic distinction between his merciful announcement of the Kingdom and that of his predecessor John the Baptist. No doubt, his listeners would have noticed his refusal to include the verse in his messianic announcement. Finished with the reading, Jesus sits down as “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Then, He offers this famous, one sentence sermon:

“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The lectionary does us little favors by dividing this story into two parts, because it’s what Jesus says next that causes everything to go wrong. Jesus tells two stories about two of Israel’s favorite prophets, Elijah and Elisha. The problem is that of all the accounts he could have chosen to tell, Jesus picks two scandalous tales of prophetic ministry done on behalf of and for Gentiles, honoring the dirty, sinful people this hometown crowd despises. Jesus reminds them,

“There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and unto none of them was Elijah sent, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

Oh snap he didn’t.

To the horror of everyone gathered, Jesus does the unthinkable, he tweaks the message and the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy by announcing God’s “jubilee of liberation, amnesty, and pardon” to everybody, including Israel’s enemies. Reminding us all in the process that the text is always subordinate to the infallible word made flesh. Filled with self-righteous indignation at his progressive use of Scripture, the crowd turns on Jesus and tries to murder him on the spot! A prophet has no honor with hometown crowds.

And, as much as we’d like to distance ourselves from Jesus’ friends and neighbors, we aren’t so different. Like them, we believe that our righteousness, proper sexual ethic, doctrine, skin color, and privilege constitute our place as God’s chosen people. We believe that Isaiah’s words are our words, written for our deliverance, and our deliverance alone. Israel in fact would have first heard this prophetic song during their Babylonian captivity, and now they hear it afresh as subalterns living under the jack boot of Rome. For centuries, they had waited on the fulfillment of these promises, and today in their very midst Jesus declares that the wait is over, that the Kingdom of God is being fulfilled in their midst. But that kingdom includes the very people that are socially, economically, and politically oppressing them. They were so hell bent on defending God revealed in the text, that they failed to experience the God in flesh standing in their midst. Our modern equivalent would be Jesus preaching at Liberty University, announcing that homosexuals, Muslims, democrats, and communists are entering the kingdom ahead of us. You can understand why they wanted him dead.

Yet, in referencing these stories, Jesus resists the most dangerous idea of all, that God’s love is for some people, and not for all people. Think for a minute about his ministry. He’s always dragging his innocent disciples into regions where the people are spiritually oppressed: he goes to “the other side” to heal Legion, he talks openly with a Samaritan women, he restores the Syrophoenician’s daughter because of her faith, he eats with sinners and tax collectors who have defiled hands, he’s soft on whores, he drinks with drunks, he touches the unclean, and even has the audacity to make women disciples. The entirety of Jesus’ ministry can be read as unadulterated resistance to the conventional religious wisdom that God’s love is only for those who deserve it.

2,000 years later, things aren’t much different. In fact, the church today fears this resistance against rigid orthodoxy almost as much as they are afraid of their own irrelevance.  In every religious community there exists those who believe that their mission statement is to protect God from the very people he came to save. When challenged to consider a wider view of God, their orthodoxy becomes even more uncompromising. This inflexible faith causes them to live in fear of ‘the other’, and they see it as their duty to protect God and doctrine, because it is clear that they are no longer capable of protecting themselves. Such fundamentalism “occurs wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age, the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaced by the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality.” As I write this, Franklin Graham just proclaimed on Christian radio that “We have allowed the Enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church…We have to be so careful who we let into the churches.” While Graham consistently makes himself an easy target due to his hate speech toward homosexuals and Muslims, he represents a vast majority of American evangelicals who champion the religion of fear.

So, as the Anglican Communion threatens schism over homosexuality, as Wheaton College browbeats a tenured professor, and as conservative evangelicals continue the culture war against progressive Christians and their ‘liberal, secular agenda’, let us be reminded that Jesus himself was rejected by the religious in-crowd for standing in solidarity with outsiders, because only “someone who finds the courage to be different from others can ultimately exist for ‘others’”.

Authentic Christianity requires our own identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent that we understand that in him “God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God”. The more we identify with Christ, the more we are able to identify with others. “Scripture is filled with one person recognizing, welcoming, embracing, and releasing the strength of unfamiliar other.” Therefore our commitment to be a community of inclusion is not based on cultural capitulation or social pressures, but on the “belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

It seems God’s people are always learning the hard way that the thrust toward unity must find a way to include the very people we wish to exclude. Much to our discomfort, God really does work on both sides of the street. And as his followers, we can either be a people that stands with clinched fists in open opposition to those we believe are unworthy, or we can join the Jesus movement, a movement bringing good news to the poor, and release for the captives. As Bishop Michael Curry reminds us, “It may be part of our vocation to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us. And we can one day be a church where all of God’s children are fully welcomed…And so we must claim that high calling…We are part of the Jesus movement, and the cause of God’s love in this world will never stop, and will never be defeated.” Amen, and Amen.

 

 

To Olivia On Your Baptism

360px-Perugino,_battesimo_di_cristo_01Dear Olivia:

Today is one of the high feast days on the church calendar, and it is one of four Sundays reserved throughout the year for baptisms in the Episcopal Church. At least in my experience, maybe because it comes so close on the heels of Christmas and our secular New Year, this feast day is one of the most overlooked. Today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany and it is the Sunday in which we celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ. And this presents to us a question: What does Jesus’ baptism, and our celebration of it, have to do with you? What does it have to do with anyone who has been baptized?

First of all, I think it is a mistake to view the baptism of Christ as simply a past event, something that happened long ago. There is no doubt that Jesus met John in the river Jordan and there John baptized him. And there is also no doubt that this had a profound impact upon John, Jesus and those gathered along the shore. It was, among other things, a revelation, what the church calls an Epiphany, the manifestation of the long-awaited savior, Jesus Christ, in our world. It was a moment of material realization when the identity of Jesus Christ becomes known to a seeking yet questioning world. But if that is all it is, a historical landmark which we remember like a birthday or anniversary, then we risk missing the true significance and meaning of this feast day. The reality is that the baptism of Jesus Christ is not just an isolated event, is not trapped in the past, but rather it lives now and continues; it lives in the transformed lives of the faithful and in each new baptism. So, even though your baptism will take place in a moment in time, it likewise will not be trapped in your past, only a memory; it will live on in you for all time and beyond.

Because that is what your baptism is all about, it is about the material realization of who you are and to whom you belong. In all the prayers, in the holy water and in the seal with oil of the Holy Spirit, you join the history, present, and future of the church. The story of Israel becomes your story. The words of the prophets throughout the ages become your words. The forgiveness of sins and the salvation through Christ become your forgiveness, your salvation. Today, through the waters of baptism, you join with us as the Body of Christ, the love of God in the world. This is a blessing that will carry you, and a burden that you will carry, all the days of your life.

And as you live your life, I wish I could tell you that you will find the world to be entirely peaceful, loving and supportive. I wish this was true, but it is not. As you go through life’s journey, you will find darkness around you. You will discover among your joys, satisfactions, triumphs, hopes and dreams that there is also hatred, cruelty, and suffering in the world. You will wonder and perhaps struggle at the meaning of it all. St. Paul wondered about it. Even though it is not part of our readings for today, Paul likes to speak of life as some type of race with a spiritual rather than a material or worldly finish line. I have to be honest with you. I think our modern ears make a mess of Paul’s theology. Your life, and everything in it, is a gift from God, not a competition. You do not need to be stronger or smarter or more attractive or popular or richer or better than anyone else. Competition is folly; you cannot compete with what you do not own. Life does not have one winner, with everyone else destined to be a loser. But if we use Paul’s vision of a race, then you will cross the finish line today. While baptism in some ways marks the beginning of your life in the church, it marks the end of your individual life. It is an epiphany. You are being revealed as what you truly are. You are the love of God, sharing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and reborn by the Holy Spirit.

This revelation will always be part of who and what you are. During what I hope is a long, joyful and productive life, Olivia, you will brush up against forces of the world that will leave you feeling alone, outcast, ignored or meaningless. But through your baptism, you are never alone or outcast, ignored or meaningless. And all of us gathered in this place will shorty promise to support and uphold you with everything we have. During difficult times, come to us and lean on us all that you need to; we will not let you fall away. At other times, you will find yourself faced with a choice of whether to reach out and help someone else, someone who needs you to lean upon. It is my prayer that on those occasions that you are empowered by your baptism, by the example of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, to always reach out and touch those in any kind of need. It often will not be easy but do it anyway. Let go of the blessing that is your baptism and give it to the world. Share your heart. You are the love of God. Amen.
–Sermon delivered by Father Andrew McMullen at St. Matthias Episcopal Church, January 10, 2016.

Why Beauty Matters

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The Hay Wain

I work at an organization that helps parents start faith-forming conversations with their teens. Our mission is to bring families together through the art of culture translation, which means that much of our time and energy is spent becoming experts on pop music, movies, television, and technology. It’s both a blessing and a curse. While it’s important to have the knowledge of, and ability to exegete culture, to merely live at the crossroads of mass entertainment can feel pretty shallow, at least to this 44 year old. Whenever we reference Iggy Azalea, Drake, or Kendrick Lamar I often think, will anyone even remember these artists names in 50 years? There is no doubt that pop artists are creative, but are they taking responsibility for what they are creating? And, more important, is their art expressing and manifesting beauty to the world?

The ancient Roman writer Seneca said, “Life is short, but art is long.” So, what makes a poem, song, movie, or painting last through the ebb and flow of cultural trends and tastes? Why has Augustine and Austen, Byron and Bronte, Michelangelo and Monet remained revered when Beyonce and Bieber will be forgotten in our lifetimes?  Lasting art, real creativity reveals whatever is good, whatever is true, and whatever is beautiful. Creating beauty is living into our vocation as image-bearers. Everyone is called to nurture beauty, to cultivate their own garden by offering in their own way whatever is good, whatever is true, and whatever is lovely. Living into our role as co-creators means creating beautiful worlds of peace and harmony in the midst of the fallen and the broken. There is an incredible mystery in human nature, where beauty exists, peace is real. It is rare to find cultures who value beauty but who live violently. Goethe said, “One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” This is what it means to be fully human, to nurture beauty outside of the garden, where thorns and weeds cover the earth. Being fully human means taking our vocation as co-creators seriously, by nurturing the good and the beautiful in the midst of a fallen world.

But how do we cultivate beauty in the midst of banality? Beauty is attained by setting our own interests aside and letting something particular dawn on us, to allow something specific to elevate us into a state of wonder. Beauty asks us to look on it directly and precisely, to see it not in the abstract, but in concrete singularity: this tree, this flower, this sonnet, this song. It takes one thing to pull you into the depth of anything. And when you get to the depth of anything, for some wonderful reason, you have the power to get to the depth of everything. And God is found at the depth of anything. In this way, lasting, transformative art points us toward the divine. To understand great things, you have to experience them in small ways. When we start with something specific, we have a doorway to the universal. Beauty allows us to experience the eternal in the ordinary. There is an old Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the ‘thin places’ that distance is even smaller. Beauty reveals these ‘thin places’, where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted if only for a brief moment, when both the seen and unseen world come together as the door between this world and the next is cracked open for just a moment and we glimpse the glory of the eternal. Such experiences elevate us from the cliche to reverence. As Thomas Merton said, “Art allows us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

Practically speaking, how do we foster communities, churches, and families that appreciate and create beauty in the midst of brokenness? First, do hard things. Instead of reading a that self-help book you bought at LifeWay, pick up a piece of literature by George Elliott, Thomas Hardy, or James Joyce. It will be a struggle at first, but persevere, your brain will thank you. In this way, you will re-train your senses to recognize and enjoy beauty instead of twaddle. Second, surround yourself with classic artistic expressions as an alternative to the mass produced entertainment most of us currently consume. Because in very real ways, we grow accustomed to, and appreciate the things that surround us. Our sense of what is beautiful, and our ability to appreciate beauty is cultivated by what we take in. If we are surrounded by synthetic pop songs, touched-up photos of anorexic models, and block-buster blow em up movies, this is what we will assume is beautiful. We begin to prefer these things simply because they are familiar. As a substitute, listen to a concerto by Rachmaninoff, go to an art museum, or attend a play in the park.  Maybe this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” And finally, turn off the television, shut down your Mac and go outside. Take a walk in the woods, climb a mountain, look up at the stars, feel the breeze on your face, take in the full revelation of the glory of God in and through his good creation. After all, the heavens do declare the beauty of God.

As Western Christians, we’ve spent a large portion of our time offering the world the good and the true. Libraries are filled with treatises on Christian ethics, morality, and apologetics. But, what we haven’t done is offer the world, through our life and posture, a Christian aesthetic of beauty. It isn’t enough to ask if our posture toward the world is good and true, we must also ask, is it beautiful? It could be that our greatest calling as God’s image-bearers in the world is to cultivate and nurture whatever is just, true, good, and most importantly, beautiful. To open up little thin places all around the world where everyone can come face to face with the magnificence and redemptive power of real beauty.  Because in the end, beauty just might save the world.

Making Modern Disciples

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Last week I had coffee with a mega-church pastor whose congregation numbers well above 10,000 members.  It’s an impressive operation equipped with escalators, elevators and espresso.  Half-way through our conversation I asked him, “how do you all make disciples”?  His honesty was as refreshing as it was terrifying.  “We don’t, we’ve completely missed the boat”, he said.  “It is the single greatest failure in our attempts at mega-ministry.”  Upwards of 15,000 people come in and out of his doors each Sunday, and to his credit, he realizes their failure to develop disciples.  Sadly, modern American spiritual formation, or discipleship, tends to consist of large-scale programs and gatherings, where individuals come together for the greatest show on earth.   We wow them with lights, sound and visuals, and move them to tears with our carefully orchestrated song service.  And, week after week, our “revolving door” spirituality fails to touch the significant depths of the soul. Our congregants long for something more than an opening ceremony of spirituality.   They want lasting change, but where do we start?  Developing and implementing a philosophy of discipleship does not happen through programs or education alone, it involves an intentional, holistic view of formation that understands the complexity of the human person.  It involves seeing the world the way God sees it, and acting in that world the way God acts.  It is living in the place where “to do what God wishes is our pleasure and desire”[1] as we bend our will and passions into alignment with His.  In short, it is our journey toward wholeness.

Christian discipleship is the way we express a living faith in the real world.  It is the sum total of our attitudes, beliefs, practices and actions. Christian spiritual formation is the life-long pursuit of the imitation of Christ.  What makes this so difficult is our natural self, which seeks to fulfill our own desires and our own will.  Spiritual formation is thus the process of bringing our “unruly wills and affections” into right alignment with Christ’s.  In so doing, we restore our mind, heart and soul into right relationship with God.  Learning, being and doing form the foundation for our spiritual pursuit of God.  And, according to Lesslie Newbigin,

“One does not learn anything except by believing something, and — conversely — if one doubts everything one learns nothing. On the other hand, believing everything uncritically is the road to disaster. The faculty of doubt is essential. But as I have argued, rational doubt always rests on faith and not vice versa. The relationship between the two cannot be reversed. ”[2]

In order to be like something, we must first believe in it, and part of believing is knowing.   We are made to learn, form opinions, believe and apply knowledge to every sphere of life.  Cognitively speaking, holistic spiritual formation must include the shaping of what we believe about the nature of reality.  All of us seek to provide systematic answers to life’s big questions:  Does God Exist, What is the Meaning of Life, What Does it Mean to Be Human?  Our ideas and beliefs on these matters form the foundation of our worldview, which shapes how we relate to the biosphere around us.

Yet, spiritual formation isn’t just about what we know; it is about what we love, what we do and how we relate to the world.  Sadly, our post-Enlightened schools and churches have seen the human person as primarily ‘thinking things’ and not ‘feeling’ and ‘loving things’. Therefore, spiritual formation and discipleship have been more about ‘thinking the right things’ than creating a holistic approach acknowledging the human person as lovers and feelers as well.[3]  Effective spiritual formation deconstructs the Cartesian cognitive model and replaces it with a holistic approach to discipleship. Discipleship and spiritual formation are less about erecting an edifice of knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively understands the world in light of the Gospel.  Yes, we are formed by what we think, but we are also formed by what we love and how we act.[4]   Proper spiritual formation returns us to the pre-modern faith-based paradigm which views the human person as a thinking, feeling, believing and loving creature shaped not just by information, but by liturgy, practices and ritual.  To be human is to love, to desire, to know, to believe and to do.  Lasting discipleship consists of forming our humanity so that our precognitive selves can find the proper end for which we were made.  As Augustine reminds us, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.

The goal of Christian spiritual formation is the knowledge, love and imitation of Christ.  “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2: 20).  This life in Christ is best achieved within the context of a diverse confessing community, public worship, the Sacraments, Biblical scholarship and the spiritual disciplines of prayer, study and service.

Community is therefore the sin qua non of a distinctly Christian understanding of the world and our place in it.  In fact, our place in it is with others, doing life together.  This foundation for life is modeled by God himself, who has lived in community from eternity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  God as Trinity is the core reality of the universe, meaning that community is the primacy of humanity.   Our life in Christ only makes sense as a shared journey of togetherness toward the likeness of His image.

Liturgy or public worship is a second qualifier within the formative process.  The centrality of worship is integral to the task of spiritual formation.  And, at the heart of worship are the Sacraments, those tradition laden acts passed down for centuries by the church, interpreted in various ways by sundry congregants.  Sacramental worship, for all ages, roots us in the habits of the disciple, which when done over and again, constitute an almost second nature.   “Our habits incline us to act in certain ways without having to kick into a mode of reflection”.[5]  For many of us, our spiritual journey started at the baptismal font, recalibrating our lives as we died to sin and took on the new self through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  However, in terms of spiritual formation, baptism has a dual role.  Beyond a public declaration of faith performed once and forever there after considered accomplished, baptism also “provides an orientation to ourselves, our world and our God that must be appropriated day after day”.[6]  The baptismal rite confers upon us certain spiritual gifts that allow us to become more and more like Christ while confirming our place in the Christian community by helping to remind us that our true identify is found in the suffering savior.  Baptism then acts to sustain our spiritual formation, becoming “the daily garment which the disciple is to wear all the time…every day suppressing the old person and growing up in the new”.[7]  Finally, baptism directs our attention to our responsibility to one another in community as we confirm over and again our shared role in the shaping and equipping of the saints.

Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is a second sacramental act that sculpts us into the image of Christ.  If baptism begins our journey, Eucharist provides the nourishment for the road ahead.  The bread and wine confirm Christ’s new covenant within us while continually requiring the remembrance of his death and resurrection.  More importantly, at this alter we encounter the risen Lord.  The layers of profound depth and meaning birthed in this little solitary act are hard to describe.  In breaking the bread and drinking the wine, we actively express our belief in Christ’s historical redemptive act on the cross, while allowing us to taste his sorrow and bear witness to His risen reality. Jesus’ real presence here enables us to recognize Him in the face of the hungry, in the hands of the broken and the feet of the needy.  Our action of welcoming Him here, empower us to love Him more out there.

Common and private prayers are yet another formative action.  At home, at church and within our small groups, we join the human chorus of praise directed toward our God.  Our common prayers remind us over and again that this thing called spirituality isn’t just about me and God.  It is as much about me and my wife, my neighbor, my kids and my enemies as it is about my relation to the Almighty.  We must divest ourselves of the notion that just because our prayer lives are personal, they must also be private.  “Community prayer is meant to bind us to one another and to broaden our vision of the needs of the world and to give us models to steer by and friends to uphold us and encourage us and enable us to go on”.[8]  Prayer, when used as a communal practice, is integral for spiritual formation.  The Lord’s Prayer alone is a prayer of and for community.  ‘Our’ father; give ‘Us’ ‘Our’ daily bread; forgive ‘Us’ as ‘We’ forgive  ‘Others’.  Common prayer, especially in a small group setting, is a powerful tool for spiritual transformation.

One final aspect of ‘doing’, which shapes us spiritually, is service.  Our example is Christ the Lord, who came not to be served, but to serve.  All the books, all the sermons and all the prayers combined cannot change our stubborn hearts like one humble act of service.  It is here, serving the least of these when our hands and feet become His.  Our service in His coming kingdom is not only the public proclamation that a new order is dawning; it is the bodily reminder that to be fully human, we must give our lives for others’ sake.

Beyond these traditions, practices and pursuits, I’m quite certain there isn’t a formula for making disciples.  If there was, the church would have figured it out by now.  Due to our proclivity toward sin and self-reliance, it’s an arduous, life-long journey to put the old self to death and take on the fullness of Christ.  Thankfully, Jesus left a helper, the Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts, hearts, actions and desires as we seek to become more and more like the Nazarene.

Advent Or Apocalypse

“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory…Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come…Therefore, stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come…lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay Awake!”

At first glance, this lectionary reading seems strange for the first Sunday of Advent.  It sounds like we’re celebrating the first Sunday of Apocalypse. Heavens torn asunder, the sun darkened and stars falling from the sky replace our iconic images of lowing cattle, a dark cave with kneeling shepherds and a star in the East. And yet, these highly charged metaphors of cosmic cataclysm are the perfect starting point for a season of expectation as we not only celebrate Christ’s birth, but we anticipate His second coming and His great day of vindication.

Mark’s audience also awaited something: primarily, messianic deliverance from their Roman overlords. Like them, we too find ourselves in exile, waiting patiently for the ultimate restoration and redemption of this world. In this election year, we’ve grown weary of the rulers, powers and principalities of this world and anticipate the day when Yahweh will make all things new. But we are still waiting, and some of us are even losing hope. Mark’s readers thought the day would come in their lifetime, but now, some 2,000 years after his word’s were pinned, Christ’s Kingdom on earth is still not complete, causing all of creation to groan expectantly as in the pains of childbirth.  We join the first century church yearning for Christ’s arrival as the satisfaction of God’s ancient promise to bring all of creation back under his rightful rule.

But, in the meantime, we turn our full attention to the ambiguous face of human history. Mark’s choice of apocalyptic language has little to do with holding the carrot of eternity before our nose. The precise raison d’etre for apocalyptic language is to deny the imminence of easy kingdom victory, to force us to accept the agony of history. With millennia in the rearview mirror, this kingdom fruition stuff ain’t happening overnight. The total effect of the ever-retreating horizon of kingdom fulfillment is to support an atmosphere of genuine hope amid our current frustration. Mature faith in the cross understands the enduring struggle that historical existence entails.  We want absolution now, but eagerly wait his coming again in glory. It is precisely the conviction that the new order is ‘here but not yet’ that motivates each Christ follower to join in the unfinished, genuine struggle for new creation.  Advent season compels us to enter into our historical moment, to choose between the old order which is passing away, and the new world which is coming through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

And so, we wait and watch for His coming like the disciples in Gethsemane who also heard the command to “watch and pray…” And like them, we now see the entire world and our call within our world through the lens of Gethsemane: to stay awake in the darkness of history, to refuse to compromise the politics of the cross and to follow Christ through the crucible of suffering.  Advent takes us beyond the stable, up Golgotha’s hill and to another cave, but this one is empty, save a young man proclaiming glory to God in the highest. The resurrection of Jesus is the boundary event of our existing paradigm; it is the starting point for this expectant new creation.  It provides a wholly new way of understanding our human experience.  And as we celebrate his birth, we join the litany of disciples awaiting his second coming when God will be all in all as the waters cover the sea…

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind

In one the hearts of all mankind;

Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,

And be yourself our King of Peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to you, O Israel!

Beating Swords Into Plowshares

Unknown-1Several weeks ago ESPN reporter Chris Broussard made headlines answering a question he was not asked on whether or not a homosexual can be identified as Christian. And while the church should be very careful receiving her theology from an NBA reporter, his comments did incline me to ask a more statistically valid question: “Can Christians Kill?”  Can followers of Jesus, who profess faith and hope and love in the Prince of Peace, engage in the planning, preparation and execution of violence for the sake of family, kin or nation?  More specifically, in light of the recent chemical weapons abuses in Syria, can Christians support and engage in retaliatory violence against an evil regime for the sake of the suffering?  Is it ever appropriate to return evil for evil?

These are statistically and philosophically valid questions.  Of the 1.4 million people on active military duty in the United States, 77% profess Christianity, not to mention the hundreds of thousands employed as sub-contractors producing and exporting weapons of mass destruction.  In a 2002 poll, 69% of conservative Christians supported direct military force against Baghdad, a full 10 percentage points higher than the U.S. population as a whole.  How is this possible given the life and teachings of Jesus?  Why, in the face of such direct commands to love our enemy can Christians adopt a theology of redemptive violence?   Historically speaking, the church is returning to her vomit by repeating the acculturated sins of her past. Prior to 400 C.E., Christians unilaterally refused service in the military.  In fact, their belief in nonviolence was so robust and universal that Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians to serve in the Roman Legions. And yet, just 100 years later with the unification of church and state under Constantine, no one could serve in the Roman imperial army without first professing faith in Jesus Christ.  It seems the twisted notion of ‘God and Country’ isn’t a new phenomenon after all.

But let’s get back to the original question. If the answer is ‘We are not allowed to kill’, then the church is in dire need of repentance.  If the answer really is no, then this transformative cultural institution can no longer stay silent amidst wars and rumors of wars, as our nation spends billions of dollars on creative ways to destroy our enemy and his family.  As one Twitter user recently posted, “Those  same #Xtians who are the loudest in protecting the unborn are damningly silent when it comes to killing our enemy’s women and children.” What would it take for the Body of Christ to live a consistent ethic of human life that valued not only the fetus, but the fully formed and broken human person as well?

From Augustine to Tolstoy, generations of believers wrestled with the problem of evil, and the tempting philosophy of redemptive violence.  But now, with feet firmly entrenched in the chemical and nuclear age where human beings have the capacity to destroy the earth 15 times over, we need room in our Biblical worldview to reconsider Jesus’ theology of nonviolent resistance.

For starters, we must dispense with the labels and negative identify formation that comes part and parcel with ‘pacifism’.  Nonviolent resistance is more than passive or willing suffering, Jesus never asked his followers to stand idly by in the face of evil. The spiritual poverty embraced in the false, uneducated dichotomy of ‘kill or be killed’ fails to account for the myriad of active ways Christians can respond when confronted with evil.  This break from Darwinian determinism is an evolutionary progression away from the trademark ‘pacifist’ to a more appropriate moniker ‘nonviolent resistance’.[3]  Modeled by Christ himself, nonviolence is not passivity or quietism, but an active application of truth and love in the face of a violent world.  The nonviolent resister promises never to kill, or to be complicit in killing. Instead she offers the world an alternative paradigm. One that loves the enemy while confronting his evil. Simply put:

“Nonviolence is a way to fight against injustice and war without using violence. It is the force of love and truth that seeks change for human life, that resists injustice, that refuses cooperation with violence and systems of death. It is noncooperation with violence. It says that the means are the ends, that the way to peace is peace itself.”[4]

Nonviolence isn’t meekness in the face of evil, it is the courageous and oftentimes creative task of disarmament. Nonviolence deals with the aggressor as God through Christ dealt with me. In God’s willingness to take on suffering, to right wrongs and overturn evil, He himself refused to let rebellious mankind be identified as enemy.  In this praxis, the cross is the ultimate paradox, it is power not weakness.  Creative nonviolence acknowledges that loving one’s enemy is far from easy, but incredibly liberating. “When am I more a slave to my adversary than when I allow him to define our relationship as my being his enemy?”[5] In Christ, one’s enemy becomes a privileged object of love since God himself worked out the reconciliation of the world at the cost of his own suffering.[6]  As Father John Dear expresses,

“As our adversaries begin to recognize our humanity, the sacrifices made, the risks taken, and the violence hidden in their practice of injustice or evil, their eyes may be opened and their own participation in the injustice becomes apparent to them. In that instant of recognition and subsequent shame, the violence and injustice can stop—forever.”

Beating swords into plowshares is liberating action on behalf of the suffering and oppressed. It is personal as well as global. It impacts how I treat my family, my neighbor and especially my posture toward this latest national enemy.  It is freedom from the enslavement to violence; freedom into a life lived in the Spirit of God.  And, it is a real possibility even here, even now.

In a world replete with injustice and brokenness, do we dare discuss nonaggression?  Is there yet any room in our world to move from the visceral to a rational conversation on this topic?  The skeptic  of course must ask, ‘Aren’t there many other issues to decry or to defend’?  Of course there are. But in a world where 45,000 people starve to death every day, in a world that spends $1.7 million every minute on weapons of death and over $800 billion annually, when else should we talk about this?[7] What better time to lean into a paradigm as fundamental to the Gospel as Jesus is himself.  In the words of Jesuit priest, poet and peacemaker Daniel Berrigan,

“The only message I have to the world is: We are not allowed to kill. We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name, with our money. I have nothing else to say in the world. At other times one could talk about family life and divorce and birth control and abortion and many other questions. But (violence) is here. And it renders all other questions null and void. Nothing can be settled until this is settled. Or this will settle us. It is terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, ‘Stop Killing.’ There are other beautiful things that I would love to be saying to people…And I can’t…Our plight is very primitive from a Christian point of view. We are back where we started. Thou shalt not kill; we are not allowed to kill. Everything today comes down to that—everything.”[8]

[1] Isaiah 2: 4.

[2] Dear, Father John. Our God is NonViolent.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pg. 7.

[5] Yoder, John Howard. Nonviolence: A Brief History.

[6] Yoder, John Howard. What Would You Do?.

[7] Ibid., pag. 1.

[8] Berrigan, Daniel. Opening Statement in The Trail of The Plowshares Eight.

The Third Way: Nonviolent Resistance

“He who says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

Most of us simply dismiss Jesus’ politic of nonviolent resistance as either impractical idealism or an outdated, extinct appendage to the Gospel.  Pacifism just doesn’t work in our world of chemical weapons, Delhi bus rapes, Boston bombs and Newtown shootings. To even discuss it draws the angst and ire of the most devout evangelical. Sooner rather than later, in every conversation about peace and nonviolence, someone will most assuredly ask the question, ‘What would you do if a criminal or insane person threatened to hurt or kill your mom, sister or daughter?’ As if the question alone provides the coup de grace for anyone naïve enough to believe Jesus really meant what he said.  Or, more timely, what should we do when a regime uses chemical weapons to kill innocent men, women and children? While serious doubt can be raised about the validity of the first question, the second is a shameful reality right here and right now. Thankfully we who inhabit this fallen world do not have to rely on hypothetical answers to guide us. We have as answer witness to the life, ministry and death of Jesus, the par excellence of nonviolent resistance who as God made flesh confronted injustice, violence and evil by dismissing the underlying assumption that the only two options are to ‘kill or be killed’.  This limited reserve of reaction reveals our own physical and spiritual poverty. Mahatma Gandhi even said that if the only two choices are to kill or stand idly by while the weak are exterminated by the strong, then of course, we must kill.  And to that end I acquiesce.

But thankfully, Jesus gives us a third way; a different path beyond quietism or redemptive violence.  It is the radical way of the omnipotent, which, when the hypothetical became a reality, practiced nonviolent resistance as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that opened up the possibility of the enemy, even an enemy brandishing chemical weapons, to become just himself.  Do you remember the scene in John’s gospel when the life of a defenseless woman was about to be taken?  With stones in hand and a terrified woman at their feet, Jesus interrupts the plans of the self-righteous by interceding on her behalf. He didn’t sit idly by or meet the Pharisees viciousness with force. Rather, he placed himself between the woman and her attackers and bore the brunt of their accusations on her behalf.[3] He met the Pharisees lethal force with an altogether different form of power, a power manifested in suffering love on behalf of the oppressed which when practiced, elevates the dignity of the downtrodden.  Christ’s third way of dealing with evil is therefore not some form of negative pacifism that we in the policing West can dismiss as superfluous in our attempts to meet evil with evil, it is active love and truth in the face of evil on behalf of the subjugated.

Consider Jesus’ most famous polemic on nonviolence in his political manifesto, the Sermon on the Mount.  Written as the platform for Jesus’ call to radical discipleship, the sermon commands his would be followers to confront evil in a third, revolutionary way.

“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, walk with him two miles…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”[4]

What is Jesus up to when he asks us to ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘go the second mile’ and ‘give up your cloak as well’? In the first instance, Jesus speaks of being struck on the right cheek and turning again the other.  In the Jewish world where the left hand was only used for unclean tasks, to hit the right cheek with the right hand required a backhanded blow, meant not to harm but to humiliate. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents their children; Romans, Jews.[5] A backhanded blow brandished contemptuous superiority over the weaker party, akin to kicking a stray dog.  Jesus refuses to allow both himself and his followers to accept such treatment.  Instead, he offers a creative way of resisting unchecked power.  As Walter Wink explains, “by turning the left cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again. The left cheek offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish through his brutality the equality of his underling.”[6]For Jesus and for us, turning the other cheek establishes equality; it is nonviolent resistance resulting in status equalization.  In the first century world of honor and shame, this brutal superior who relies on violence to maintain his status, is now the one publicly humiliated.[7]

Jesus’ second scene of assertive nonviolence is staged in a court of law. A creditor has taken a poor man to court for an unpaid debt.  Only the lowest of the low were subject to this form of duress. The Mosaic Law stipulates that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor person’s outer robe, but it must be returned each evening so the man can have something in which to sleep. Instead of accepting this form of economic inequality, Jesus commands his followers to oppose the entire system of prejudice by counseling the poor to give to their wealthy creditor all their clothing, willfully standing before the law and the community completely naked!  Can you picture the scene, a poor man, forced to give up his coat, removes all his tattered clothes standing completely  naked as public witness to an unjust system. And, since nakedness was strictly taboo in Judaism, the shame of such a public display fell not on the naked party, but on those viewing or causing the nakedness.[9]This very public, shocking display by the beleaguered debtor ironically restores his dignity while simultaneously rebuking the greed and power of the creditor. Again, Jesus’ third way of confronting oppression turns the tables on those in power, which should cause us who live in the first world to seriously ponder the weight of our economic, social and political decisions toward the vast majority of the underprivileged world.

Finally, Jesus’ third example of ‘Going the second mile’ is drawn from the common practice of impressment levied by Roman soldiers on subjected colonial populations who were forced by law to carry a soldiers pack one mile upon request.   Jesus offers yet again a third way of confronting power and injustice.  Instead of dropping the bundle the moment one reaches the mile marker, Jesus slyly urges the Jewish peasant to continue hauling the pack a second mile. In this way, the subjugated colonial assumes power over his imperial overlord since requiring an individual to carry one’s pack a second mile was a severe infraction of military code, met with strict punishment.  Our peasant takes back the power of choice. As Walter Wink so poignantly illustrates, “Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.” It’s no wonder Jesus is so loved by the marginalized.  It’s no wonder the powerful killed him.

In a world where smart bombs are smarter than our politicians and diplomats, it is altogether fitting to rediscover Jesus’ polemic on disarmament. Our world is replete with evil, the powerful consistently abuse the weak. The hypothetical is reality. Nonviolent resistance is not a platitude discussed from the safety of ivory towers; it is the foundational ethic of Christ, who in disarming Peter disarmed us all.  As our nation ponders military action against injustice, we Christians must remember the posture God took when dealing with His enemies. We must look again upon the crucified God and ask ourselves anew: What kind of God does the crucifixion reveal? “Can this God who is most frequently represented as a defenseless baby in a manger and as a defenseless man on a cross by a tyrant” who meets evil with evil? Are we called to follow this God, or the God of our civil religion? Jesus gives us real, tangible ways of dealing with evil, injustice and violence without resorting to evil, injustice and violence. But there are times when even this posture will not safeguard our lives, and so we look again to the one who was raised up on our behalf, who once again did not sit idly by, but stepped between us and a righteous God whose hands were raised against our evil, and, in Christ’s greatest act of nonviolent resistance, took upon himself the sin and shame of mankind by suffering on behalf of his enemies. If we who claim to be his disciples believe that the life, ministry, words and death of Jesus are more than mere pithy clichés for an ancient world, we must have the courage and creativity to go and be like Him.  After all, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

I John 2: 6

[2] Sider, Ronald J. “God’s People Reconciling”

[3] Aukerman, Dale. “The Scandal of Defenselessness”.

[4] Matthew 5: 39-41, 44.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Genesis 9: 20-27.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gandhi, Mahatma.

The Death of a Dynasty

duck-dynasty-season-4-ae

A couple of weeks ago, at the height of the Duck Dynasty controversy, as conservative evangelicals sparred with both progressive Christians and the secular Left regarding Phil Robertson’s cherry picked hermeneutic, blogger and speaker Shane Blackshear captured the essence of the hullabaloo with one single Tweet.  He wrote, “The scariest thing about the #DuckDynasty situation is that it shows how ill equipped American Christians are for a post-Christendom world”.  And who can blame us since Christians have enjoyed cultural hegemony in the West for the last 1,600 years.  But the church’s status as benefactor to a patron state did not come without a high price to the message and methods of the Gospel.  If one can even remember her humble origins, Christianity existed for 300 years as a minority religion in a Roman world that was largely hostile toward it. This fledgling Christian community saw the cross of Christ as the central political event in all of history, and realized the blasphemy of identifying any earthly political order with the reign of God.  However, with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 346 A.D., a cosmic revolution took place resulting in the alignment of the church with the ruling political regime of the day.  Constantine therefore became the “symbol of the decisive shift in the logic of moral argument when Christians ceased being a minority and accepted Caesar as a member of the church.”[1]  For a religion existing up until this point as a social ethic critiquing domination, violence and oppression, this move toward cohabitating with empire was catastrophic; it meant embracing, rationalizing and becoming the very oppressing agency the church had for so long fought against. Thus, the history of western civilization is one where church and state became consensual partners birthing a culture marrying clergy and emperor, Bible and sword, God and civil authorities whereby the church legitimized the activities of the state and the nation enforced the decrees and status of the church.[2]

But if we’ve learned anything from the incessant culture wars, it’s that “the project, begun at the time of Constantine, to enable Christians to share power without being a problem for the powerful” is thankfully coming to an end.[3]  But not without grumbling, peevishness and the wolf cry of persecution from the far Right.  American Christians echo the complaints of the Israelites during the Exodus, “Oh that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Christendom, as we sat by at our Presidential prayer breakfasts and ate our fill of bread! But you have led us into a post-Christian desert to die!”[4]  Having experienced special status as the favored social institution of empire, American Christians cannot imagine life apart from their dependence on the very system that perverted and enslaved the Gospel in the first place.[5]

Since her inception, American Christians have had a hard time resisting the temptation to confuse our particular and fallible set of political and economic ideologies with the cause of Christ, justifying the use of power and cultural dominance to coerce cultural morality.[6] Generation after generation of evangelical Americans believe that America is great because America is good, leading to the false assumption that insofar as The United States is a capitalistic democracy, she is Christian, and that supporting democracy is a means to support Christianity and vice versa.  The first step in shedding this over lording past is to confess our national sin of compromising the lordship of Christ by identifying God’s kingdom with the American establishment, creating a dangerous patriotic fervor promoting the sweeping sanctification of American political, economic, social and foreign policy.   But thankfully, as religious pluralism expands in the U.S. and the fallacies of Christendom are unmasked, this era of Christian cultural dominance is finally coming to an end.  Rising up in her place is the existence of a peripheral, multi-cultural church living as seeds scattered in the global diaspora, prevailing as witness against the poverty of our accommodating civic religion.  As Stanley Hauerwas states, “Christians would be more relaxed and less compulsive about running the world if we made our peace with our minority situation.”[7]  As citizens of heaven, living in pluralistic communities here on earth, the church must re-educate her residents for a brave new world where she no longer has the power and authority to bend society to her will. Perhaps the toughest habit to break deriving from our privileged past is the assumption that if Christians do not rule society, it will surely slide down the slippery slope to anarchy and chaos.[8]

A new culture is emerging where Christianity exists as the marginal minority seeking fresh ways of thinking, speaking and acting as an alternative community with different social, economic and political paradigms. Western Christians no longer enjoy the seat of power, but rather find themselves in a world of plurality, where all worldviews and religions are welcomed in the public square.  And, much like the first three centuries of Christian history, this new era provides incredible opportunities, not least of which is to purify the message and the methods of the church.  For starters, Stuart Murray writes that in this new age, the church will be characterized by mission instead of maintenance. We’ve lived far too long under the false ideology that the church was established to manage the apparent downward spiral of culture, giving validity to the will to power so needed to control the institutions that shape culture.  “Yet the effects of seeing the world this way have not been encouraging. The points at which we have felt most sovereign over our neighbors have been the points in which history has most evidently ‘gotten out of hand’”.[9] And while Christendom allowed the church to exert control over society, in the post-Christian West, the Body of Christ can only exert influence through invitation, functioning as a signpost for the coming Kingdom of God.

As expatriate’s in a strange land, the church has the opportunity to offer the world a new ethic, if for nothing else because she finally understands what it means to be the outcast.  When this new, disenfranchised community is now confronted with evil, she models forgiveness instead of vengeance, because she knows what it is like to feel the wrath of empire.  When she is tempted to engage in social stratification, this new powerless community of Christ equalizes the status of women, slaves and the immigrant because she has become of them.  When the world is fat on the gluttony of economic self-consumption, the church can finally act to transform economic principals by insisting on the economic principals of Shabbat and Jubilee instead of further defending and exploiting unfettered capitalism.  Ultimately, in this new environment, the post-Christian church moves from colonizers to subalterns, seeking to find our way in a world we no longer create and control.  And, much like Daniel in Babylon, we bear witness to a new way of life by exposing the lies, domination and violence so readily available and utilized by the powers that be. It’s an incredible opportunity. As Murray points out:

“We really do need to embrace post-Christendom now.  The term ‘post-Christendom’, contrary to the claims of some critics, does not imply the withdrawal of Christians or the church from the public realm. Rather, it suggests that the nature of our involvement in politics, culture and society needs to be renegotiated in light of changing circumstances and changing theological convictions. The ‘post’ aspect of the term invites us to leave behind the compromises of the past; the ‘Christendom’ aspect is a reminder of the legacy with which we must grapple and from which we must learn as we explore uncharted territory”.[10]

The end of the Christian world as we know it will create space for the recovery of authentic forms of Christianity. In fact, ‘Post-Christendom’ may very well prove to be far more Christian than Christendom.[11]  As Christians embrace the reality of this new age and recognize the opportunities as well as the challenges, perhaps we can find the courage and creativity to re-imagine a church on the margins of empire that abandons her propensity to rule and instead accepts her God given role to serve.

Let us welcome a return to the worldview of the early Christians who saw their countercultural lifestyle without power and privilege as the liberating work of God, freeing them, and us in the process, to live as a faithful witness to His coming kingdom.

 

[1] Hauerwas, Stanley. The Hauerwas Reader. “A Christian Critique of Christian America”.

[2] Murray, Stuart.  “Post-Christendom, Post-Constantinian, Post-Christian…Does The Label Matter?

[3] Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society.

[4] Paraphrased version of Exodus 16: 3.

[5] Myers, Ched. “Led by the Spirit Into the Wilderness: Reflections on Lent, Jesus’ Temptations and Indigeneity.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hauerwas, Stanley. The Hauerwas Reader. “A Christian Critique of Christian America.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Yoder, John Howard. Nonviolence: A Brief History.

[10] Murray, Stuart. Post Christendom, Post-Constantinian, Post-Christian…Does the Label Matter?

[11] Ibid.