Worship is Resistance

God and Country

God and Country

This weekend in churches all across the United States, Christians gathered to commemorate the crucified Christ right alongside the Pax Americana. 61% of Protestant pastors believe it is “important to incorporate patriotic elements” in the worship service. The most egregious instance occurring at First Baptist in Dallas where the choir premiered a song titled “Make America Great Again“. Just imagine the early church belting out “Make Rome Great Again”! The civil union of church and state that began when Constantine bedded the bride of Christ birthed American civic religion: a toxic amalgamation of God and country linking the Kingdom of God with the American experiment. It’s an understandable confusion given our country’s history, but that doesn’t make it any less perverted.” The church that was once a thorn in the imperial flesh now rests as a lap dog on the empire’s bosom, swaddled in the American flag. What happened to the church “that once gave the empire fits, but now fits right in with the empire“?

Thankfully, in Donald Trump’s brave new Alt-Right world, woke white folk are starting to resist, but nationalistic worship expressions aren’t idolatrous just because Trump is the POTUS, they’ve always been. For 1,600 years the Western church has been at the bidding of the state, reducing her once prophetic function to an impotent acolyte of empire. This is especially true in America where Christianity acts as a preserving agent of empire, instead of corrupting yeast in the imperial leaven. As Craig Watts reminds us:

“No clear distinction between being American and being Christian is even a possibility because the two have become one in the hearts of many.  The God being worshiped is the American God and the nation they love is in some fashion God’s nation.  Consequently, many Christians find it incomprehensible that incorporating the rituals of America into the worship of the church could be anything other than a positive, edifying practice.”

 

A church that co-ops Christianity with nationalism not only worships a false god, but also practices a faulty ethic by instituting the social, economic, and political platform the state sanctions.  American Christians thus assume that capitalism, democracy, individualism, wealth, freedom, and redemptive violence are intrinsically Christian virtues. But the Gospel of Christ refuses this marriage of empire and Kingdom, realizing the Christian ‘we’ and the American ‘we’ are not synonymous. When acts celebrating The United States enter the worship space, our Christian identity and the nature of the church are compromised.  Do we worship God or Caesar?

 

The answer to this question is essential because what and who we worship shapes our soul.  The practices and rituals that become the liturgy of our lives direct our devotion in certain directions. Are we to be a people of peace and unity or war and division? American Christians cannot in good conscious worship the rightful king who reigns from a tree alongside the imperial, militaristic cult of nationalism.  We cannot serve the Prince of Peace while idolizing Mars.

If the message of Jesus is to be implemented today as a political praxis, most American evangelicals would be appalled at Jesus’ platform that distributes wealth, accepts refugees, loves enemies, cares for the climate, and elevates the poor. These are anything but conservative family values! And while theology and political action are conjoined in daily life, in worship, there must be an absolute separation since “the church that sees the cross of Jesus as the central event in history can never identify any political order with the reign of God.”

Why? Because worship is overtly political. It may well be the most public act of resistance you make each week, declaring that Jesus Christ is Lord and Donald Trump is not. Worship is also subversive, it reminds us that the church was born as a collective act of defiance and it prospered best not from the seats of power, but as an underground community of resistance. Scripture itself is a political manifesto against the dominations systems of empire. “Resistance is in our DNA“, we are “holy troublemakers who do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way God wants it to be“. The adoration of the crucified King is a revolutionary stance against the powers that be who ask humanity to draw boundary lines around race, creed, language, and nationality. Gathering each week to remember that in Christ God reconciled all humanity back to Himself leaves no room for nationalism. His sovereignty nullifies such differences, since “Now you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens.” In Christ, there is no ‘other’, there is only brother. We now stand side by side with the aggregate of believers world-wide who have been called out of every nation as a chosen people and a holy nation. And in so doing we resist the cultural temptation to venerate our nation alongside our God.

The church functions in the midst of the nations as an alternative community whose social, economic, political and ethical allegiance is to Christ alone.  She is “a new people who have been gathered from the nations to remind the world that we are in fact one people.”  Coming together each week is an eschatological act; it is a foretaste of what the world will be like when the Kingdom of God is finally fulfilled. May the American church, in our public acts of worship, reject the false doctrine that the church exists as a subordinate of the state, “as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.”

The Politics of the Church

politics-of-jesus-buttonFor Christians, the political question isn’t “who should I vote for?” but rather, “how do the politics of Jesus inform my public action?” It is fitting then that yesterday, on the Sunday preceding America’s presidential election, the Gospel reading came from Luke 6: 20-31 which lays out the political platform of the Son of God: enemy love, economic liberation, a special concern for the poor, condemnation on the rich and powerful, welcoming the refugee, and neighborliness. When one views the Beatitudes up against the Bill of Rights, it is striking how dissimilar they are to one another. For Jesus, politics were nothing if not personal, local, liberating, and selfless. And like us, his formal political options were limited.

Jesus had three political choices in first century Palestine. He could align with the conservative Herodians (think Moral Majority), who colluded with Rome to carve out their own religious and political hegemony. In one of the grossest acts of religious nationalism, Herod the Great rebuilt the Temple, and put a Roman eagle on the entrance. Or, Jesus could reject co-opting religion and power by joining the Essenes, who refused social and political involvement by retreating to the desert to carve out their own sectarian community. Finally, he could bear arms with the Zealots by rising up in violent revolution against the jackboot of Rome.

Instead, like most “lesser of two evils” positions, Jesus chose neither. Refusing collusion with Rome and violent revolution against her, he instituted a third way of being political by putting to speech and action the kingdom of God. As a colonial subject, Jesus never tried to redeem the empire’s politics, nor has he asked us to do so. In fact, from his first temptation in the wilderness to the final temptation of Christ in the garden, Jesus resisted political power as a just means to His Kingdom’s good ends. Instead, he instituted his kingdom to earth as it is in heaven by modeling faithful presence and redemptive suffering in a violent world.

Sadly, since Constantine wedded and bedded the church at Nicea, Western Christians have believed that the best way to bring about the Kingdom of God is in and through the kingdoms of this world. It’s an understandable mistake whereby church and state became consensual partners birthing a culture uniting 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. Christendom converted the church from a subversive community of Jesus followers into a compliant acolyte of the empire. Think about it, when was the last time you saw the American #church significantly challenge institutional power instead of defending it? And in their will to power, many evangelicals continue to confuse their particular and fallible political opinions with the cause of Christ. Lacking both the education and imagination to realize that the church has transformative agency without power, they demand a Christian assault on Washington. Having “power over” the culture is the only way they understand the political process.

But that isn’t revolutionary enough. In this modern version of Christendom, the oppressor and the oppressed simply switch seats, and the throne of power remains unshaken. But Scripture never endorses such an strategy. In fact, it calls into question any political power that protects it’s own vested interests at the expense of the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. “Can the one who goes the way of the cross sit in the seat of Pilate when it falls vacant?”

On the contrary, the Biblical narrative is a revolutionary manifesto against vested institutional power. Whether its Egypt, Babylon, Persia, or the Davidic Dynasty, God’s judgment falls on the predatory imperial claims of permanence, totalism, and invincibility. Truth rarely if ever resides within established institutions of power. Instead, it is delivered through the un-credentialed: poets, prophets, and the poor. Scripture “shows us two major political strains: the kingship/priestly hierarchy, and the prophets who critiqued the crown and temple.” Walter Brueggemann reminds us that Scripture presents us with a continual contestation between imperial power and God’s truth. It’s Moses confounding Pharaonic totality by delivering God’s people from bondage. It’s Elisha turning poverty into abundance at the exclusion of the king who is both unable and impotent to do so himself. It’s the state execution of Jesus and God’s utter refusal to allow the empire to have the final say over life and death. While the empire may have power, the people of God have agency. We are his faithful presence in the world offering new ways of being political without force and dominion.

The Politics of Jesus is a clarion call is to wake up the American church resting far to comfortably in the bosom of the empire. In fact, the church has always been most effective at doing what she was designed to do during a time in which she had absolutely no political power.

It is therefore possible to be political without power. As Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “Christians should get involved in politics the way porcupines make love, very carefully.” Here are 6 ways the Body of Christ can impact key platform issues without coercion, dominion, or power.

  1. War: We will no longer send our youth group to fight in America’s wars. We will no longer kill other Christians simply because they wear a different uniform. We will finally take seriously Jesus’ command to love our enemies and confront the demonic lie of redemptive violence.
  2. Immigration: We will convert our empty church buildings into housing for the immigrant and the refugee.
  3. Abortion: We will provide healthcare, counseling, and homes for women with at risk pregnancies and we will critique the systems of gender inequality and injustices that lead to so many marginalized women becoming pregnant against their will.
  4. Welfare: Following the example of Acts 2:42 we will share our resources openly and liberally ensuring that not one person in the community of Christ has any physical need.
  5. HealthCare: Believing in a holistic theology of life, we will appropriate 10% of our operational budget to provide for the basic well being of every member of our community.
  6. Education: Believing that children are people and not products, we will provide a living educational experience that exposes students to the “Great Recognition”, that all learning is sacred, that the goal of education is to produce life-long learners who are known more for what they care about than simply what they know.

Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord means that the President is not. Jesus was incredibly political, he just refused to play by the rules set down by the powers that be. He never petitioned for female equality, he gave it to them. He never voted to end poverty, he fed the masses. The politics of Jesus, and the faithful politics of the church will come about not from the center of power, but from the periphery as we daily offer the world an alternative to the politics of scarcity, monopoly, and violence.  Do you want to make a difference in the world?

Be faithful to your wife.

Become a foster parent.

Befriend a person with a different skin color.

Invite your neighbors over for dinner and a beer.

Raise nonviolent children.

Hire a female as your senior pastor.

Support your local food pantry.

Give freely to that guy at the corner.

Yes, vote. But as you vote ask yourself this question: Which candidate will do the least amount of harm to the ‘least of these’? And after you leave the ballot box, do the real political work of bringing about the Kingdom by practicing the subversive politics of Jesus. Re-read the Sermon on the Mount and put it into practice. Bring the Kingdom to God to life on your street and in your neighborhood by being his faithful presence in a world that only recognizes power and dominion.

God has given Jesus dominion over the nations. “The task of the church is to bear witness to this reality and embody the reign of Christ here and now in our daily life.” Then, and only then will we offer the world a Christian alternative to politics as usual. And finally, love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly before your God and your neighbor.

American Time or Church Time

pentecost and memorial day

Pentecost & Memorial Day

Stanley Hauerwas wisely said, “To live like Jesus is Lord is going to make my life dysfunctional in relationship to a good deal of American practices.” In fact, a Christianity centered around the politics of Jesus radically conflicts with and even subverts American culture on a number of levels. Never more so than this weekend as Christians all across the U.S. are presented with two observances, one on the American calendar and the other on the church calendar, forcing us to choose whose time we’re telling:”American Time” (Memorial Day) or “Church Time” (Pentecost Season). As followers of Christ, who also happen to be Americans, it’s important to distinguish between the American “me” and the Christian “me”, especially in the liturgies,  commemorations, and stories that shape our identity.

And while it might seem hyperbolic to pit Memorial Day against Pentecost, it’s a perfect example of the tension American Christians face when trying to be faithful citizens in the Kingdom of God while living in a kingdom of this world.

Pentecost anticipates peace. Memorial Day remembers violence.

Pentecost celebrates unity in the midst of diversity. The Holy Spirit weds believers worldwide to share in the one, living Body of Christ. Memorial Day on the other hand is a high holy day within America’s civic religion consecrating men and women sacrificed on the alter of empire. Pentecost emphasizes our communal and diverse humanity as God “poured out His spirit on all people.” Memorial Day tempts us to venerate war, dividing the world into ‘us vs. them.’ Pentecost makes people from every tongue, tribe, and nation one in Christ, unifying a world filled with diversity. Memorial Day reminds us that our racial, linguistic, religious, and national distinctions are often worth killing for.

 The way we tell time, the rituals we keep, and the holidays we commemorate reinforce reality. The American calendar tells Caesar’s story, and is filled with holy days remembering presidents, wars, military conquest, and nationalism. They act as sign posts, guiding us to what the empire believes really matters. The Christian calendar tells time radically different, and points to an alternative reality. We are a people called out of every tribe and nation to be the very love of God in the world.

And yet, yesterday I found myself in our parish cemetery, placing flags on the headstones of veterans in memory of their service. I wasn’t motivated so much by patriotism as by a mournful sadness for the casualty of all human lives spent in war. Saddened that men and women the world over continue to kill and be killed for the nation-state. Sad that American Christians are Americans first, and Christians second, especially when dealing with our enemies. Sad that war for the United States has become a moral necessity. Sad that war is a sacrament, and that the liturgy of war continues to capture our imaginations. Sad that Christianity and democracy in America continue to be inextricably linked through the experience of war. Sad that Christians are willing to kill other Christians for America. Sad that the military is worshipped as the greatest salvific force in the world instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, how do we as American Christians commemorate Memorial Day within the Christian spirit of Pentecost Season?

Remember. Remember and lament the loss of all life. Mourn for Iraqi’s, Kurds, and Russians the same way one mourns for your own nation’s fallen. For, she to is made in the image of God and is therefore our sister.

Resist. Resist the temptation of American exceptionalism. Resist the notions that America is great because America is good. Resist the temptation to fear ‘the other.’ Instead, walk toward them to better glimpse our shared humanity. Resist the urge to demonize, villainize, and stereotype our nations enemies.

Repent. Repent for the rape of the West and the genocide of Native Americans. Repent for slavery and the continual racism that guides our social policies. Repent that we are the only nation to unleash nuclear holocaust on a civilian population. Repent for Vietnam. Repent for the Bush lies and the murder of millions of Iraqi civilians. Repent for our imperialism. Repent for our part in the destabilization of the Middle East, leading to the rise of ISIS.

Living into the spirit of Pentecost on Memorial Day weekend will most certainly make your life a bit dysfunctional in relation to American cultural practices. If American Christians are to be a faithful witness to the Lordship of Christ, we must continue to challenge the cultural norms and practices that tempt us to root our lives in the story of the American experiment, and not the Kingdom of God. How we tell time, and what we choose to commemorate is one simple way to remember that following Christ is often resistance to the dominant cultural narrative.

 

 

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

Unknown-2

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.

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.

Coffee With Stanley Hauerwas

UnknownCoffee with Stanley Hauerwas, it’s not something I ever expected to check off my bucket list, but there I was, and there he sat next to me discussing peace, nonviolence and radical discipleship. After about five minutes he asked ‘How do we engage and re-educate the church, socialized by the American story of autonomy, consumerism and power, to see the Gospel and Jesus’ revolutionary call to discipleship in a fresh perspective’?  I didn’t dare brave an audible answer, but I did think of my wife and kids and how we are attempting to raise little radicals by rooting our family’s story in the upside down narrative of God’s kingdom, not in the prevailing milieu of American cultural life. Let me explain.

Last week, my wife Jennifer was reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie to our children. I was half-way listening and half-way wondering if it would ever stop snowing long enough so I could shovel the drive when I heard her telling about the  building of the trans-continental railroad stretching far across the ‘great empty country’ of the American West. Suddenly I was very interested in the story, or at least the version of the story that Mrs. Wilder was telling.  “Whoa, stop there, we need to address that” I told her. For in fact, the West was never ‘empty country’ or virgin land saved by God for the white man.   Ethno-historians estimate that over 25 million natives lived in the pre-Columbian United States, but a couple centuries of displacement, disease and racial cleansing turned the West into a widowed land whose blood-drenched soil still cries out from under the hoof prints of western expansion.  Mrs. Wilder, though with her best intent I am sure, was telling her story from the perspective of the American empire, whose own version of events supports the worldview of the privileged at the expense of the subjugated.

It’s amazing how the meaning of our stories change depending on who is telling them. History has almost always been told from the perspective of the victors. It is told to support and ingrain a distinctive worldview. The American story, passed down from the mouths and pens of white men, is a story of progress, growth, wealth, opportunity, individualism and discovery.  And when Christians cojoin the story of God with the story of empire you get “the elite and entitled using the Bible to endorse their dominance as God’s will. This is Roman Christianity after Constantine. This is Christendom on crusade. This is colonists seeing America as their promised land… This is Jim Crow. This is the American prosperity gospel. This is the domestication of Scripture. This is making the Bible dance a jig for our own amusement.” This is revisionist theology.

But when we change the voice and hear the story from the mouths of the displaced, conquered and subjugated, the story and the meaning changes drastically.  Which is why I wonder if privileged, modern Americans will ever fully understand and follow the real Jesus of history? Is it even possible for us the priviledged to have the ears to hear, and come to terms with this subaltern Jesus born to displaced and disenfranchised parents eking out a living under the thumb of imperial Rome?  If we are going to be honest with ourselves as the progeny of empire, the historical Jesus as a poor Colonial oppressed by imperial Rome is much more similar to Powhatan, Pocahontas or King Phillip than any of our conquering European ancestors.  After all, ‘access to the Christ of faith comes only through our following of the historical Jesus’.[1]  So, how can we identify with Jesus and finally embrace his call to radical discipleship while living as the benificiaries of empire?
For starters, we must recognize the tendency and temptation to link the story of the American project with the story of God’s kingdom. The myth of American exceptionalism is so deeply engrained within us that American Christians assume that the Christian “we” and the Americam “we” are synonymous, making it absolutely crucial for Christians to develop an alternate historiography. “We” the people of God, must divorce ourselves from the national story of conquest and power, and root ourselves in a different story altogether, a story of a God who Himself came into the world as a victim of empire, who still stands shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed demanding that we the privileged recognize their full humanity. And in full repentance, we must cease compromising with ‘the powers that be’, with wealth, nationalism and economic ideology, and admit “we” Christians have become far too comfortable with Caesar.

This is never better expressed than in Mark’s subversive story of Jesus and his radical call for social, political, economic and racial salvation that brings into question the cultural norms of empire and her dominion systems.  His narrative and his Jesus can be characterized in two words, civil disobedience.  Jesus resists the powers that be, both spiritual and imperial. He resists the current socio-economic system that levies heavy taxes on the poor and turns small farmers into debt ridden share croppers.  He resists the male dominated culture that views women as property, whose place is only ever in the home.  And, most of all Mark’s Jesus resists the worldview of redemptive violence, which for the first century world as well as for ours, is to the spirituality of empire what love is to the teachings of Jesus. But ultimately, Mark’s Gospel gives us a narrative whose major emphasis and care is on the poor and oppressed.  The book itself is a literary marvel, it stands alone in antiquity for one reason: it is a drama for and about common people. “His primary audience were those whose daily lives bore the exploitative weight of colonialism, whereas mine are those who are in the position to enjoy the privileges of the colonizer.”[2]  In the words of Ched Myer

“In all its heroic, comic and tragic elements, Mark’s drama of Jesus portrays the world of first-century Roman Palestine ‘from below’. It breaks the ‘culture of silence’ of the poor by making them—fishers and farmers, the lame and leprous—the central subjects and protagonists of the gospel of the kingdom.”[3]

Mark’s message could not be clearer, if modern wealthy Westerners are ever to embrace Christ’s call to radical discipleship, we must come to terms with the fact our story of wealth and superiority runs counter to Jesus’ theology of cultural resistance and privilege.  Mark reveals to the world God’s story of a dominion-free order of love and compassion through his extraordinary concern for the outcast and marginalized at the expense of the powerful.[4]  Take for instance Jesus’ uncompromising feminism through the status equalization of women.   He introduces a wholly unconventional treatment of women in the first century world (speaking to them in public, touching them, eating with them and above all teaching them and allowing them to follow him as equal disciples).[5]  Or look again at the seriousness with which Jesus engaged and honored children while rejecting the notion that high-ranking men were the favorites of God. Mark’s Jesus is a subversive radical who comes into the world proclaiming a new social order where dominion and power give way to compassion and communion.

If Christians are ever to re-socialize around this Jesus and that story, we must recognize that the business as usual model where the church exists merely as a self-help institution for the bourgeois living in the middle class bosom of America must come to an end.  Christianity at rock bottom radically conflicts with the American culture, it even subverts it. The Body of Christ must re-establish herself as an institution that stands with skeptical suspicion within the culture in which she participates in order to distinguish the story of God from the story of empire and domination.  The church exists in, but is not of the empire.  Her task is to live “inside the monster and know its entrails”,[6] to join in the ongoing struggle to promote and practice repentance, defiance and resistance. For we will never experience Jesus in the ‘abstract poor’. Genuine solidarity with the victims of empire leads us not to a place of national hubris, but to a painful encounter with our imperial selves.

Re-socializing around this Jesus and his subversive story asks us too brave persecution by taking seriously his call to love our enemies while standing against our nation when she seeks to destroy them; to live in intentional community with our brothers and sisters in Christ in a world that preaches autonomy and individualism; to critique the greed and excess of capitalism while finding new ways to elevate the poor among us; to stop giving to Caesar what is rightfully God’s; to realize once and for all that the politics of the cross require upon us no less than was required of our master, that in the end we may be forced to pay for this revolutionary praxis with our lives. If so, we echo the words of the Apostle Paul who reiterates Mark’s call to discipleship: “Always, wherever we may be, we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus, so that somehow the life of Jesus may be shown.”[7]

If I ever get the chance to have coffee again with Stanley Hauerwas, I think I’ll be bold enough to speak up next time. I might just offer an answer to his question, one that requires upon us the realization that the Jesus of history is far more revolutionary than most of us care to admit, and that the Gospel is the most counter-cultural story one could ever hope to join.  Because if we are to finally believe and live according to his story instead of our own, we might find that much of what we hold true as the world’s elite is in direct opposition to His upside down Kingdom initiative.

[1] Sobrino, John. Christology at the Crossroads. 1978.

[2] Myer, Ched. Binding the Strong Man.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marti, Jose. Inside the Monster: Writings on the United States and American Imperialism.

[7] II Corinthians 4: 9.

The Politics of Worship

mmw_faithpolitics_102910

God and Country

I walked out of church Sunday morning. It was a bit like walking out on a bad movie, but with greater conviction. I knew it was risky to visit an evangelical church in Colorado Springs during Republican primary season, but we thought it worth the risk.

The service started off benignly enough, but suddenly it went all FUBAR. Right away I noticed the Christian flag and the American flag standing side by side at center stage, signifying the almost universally accepted spiritual and patriotic loyalties of the congregation. And then, with America The Beautiful playing in the background, the Pastor summoned the little children to come up to the narthex. After a short homily where the pastor linked the sacrificial death of Jesus on behalf of his enemies with soldiers trained to kill their enemies, he read this prayer from the paratroopers prayer book:

“Almighty God, Our Heavenly Father…Drive from the minds of our paratroops any fear of the space in which Thou art ever present…Endure them with clear minds and pure hearts that they may participate worthily in the victory which this nation must achieve in Thy name through Thy will. Make them hardy soldiers of our country as well as of Thy Son, Our Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.”

Images of the Hitlerjugend danced in my head. The congregation was then asked to join the children in singing ‘My Country, tis of Thee’. So as everyone else stood with one mind and one voice to sing this patriotic melody, my family and I rose, grabbed one another’s hands and walked back out the center aisle in complete defiance.

We came to church to venerate the God made flesh, instead we were forced to pay homage at the alter of America’s civic religion; a twisted amalgamation of God and Country that links the coming of the Kingdom of God with the efforts of the American experiment. Exalting the one with the other in worship creates a scandalous federation of Gospel and government yoking our earthly nation with the cause of Christ. It’s an understandable position given our country’s history, but that doesn’t make it any less perverted.” If historically there has been little if any conflict in America between Christian devotion and allegiance to the United States it is not due to the ‘Christian Nation’ myth that so many still proclaim. Instead it is an indication of just how much the church has been conformed into the image, ideals and identity of American culture. When believers in any nation allow the worship and adoration of the state to become part of the creed, rituals and practices of Christianity it renders the church impotent to stand with skeptical criticism of the nation in which she is a part.

Think about it this way, historians often talk of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the 4th century, but in fact Christianity was and continues to be converted by the empire. For 1,600 years the Western church has been at the bidding of the state, especially in America where Christianity has functioned as a preserving agent of the state. As Craig Watts reminds us:

“No clear distinction between being American and being Christian is even a possibility because the two have become one in the hearts of many.  The God being worshiped is the American God and the nation they love is in some fashion God’s nation.  Consequently, many Christians find it incomprehensible that incorporating the rituals of America into the worship of the church could be anything other than a positive, edifying practice.”

A church that co-ops Christianity with nationalism not only worships a false god, but also practices a faulty ethic by instituting the social, economic and political platform that the state sanctions.  American Christians thus assume that capitalism, democracy, individualism, wealth, freedom, and consumerism are intrinsically Christian virtues. But the Gospel of Christ refuses this marriage of empire and Kingdom, realizing the Christian ‘we’ and the American ‘we’ are not synonymous. When acts celebrating The United States enter our worship space, our Christian identity and the nature of the church are compromised.  Do we worship God or Caesar?

The answer to this question is essential because what and who we worship shapes our soul.  The practices and rituals that become the liturgy of our lives direct our devotion in certain directions. Are we to be a people of peace and unity or war and division? American Christians cannot in good conscious worship the rightful king who reigns from a tree alongside the imperial, militaristic cult of nationalism. We cannot mourn with those who mourn while celebrating the nation responsible for their lament. We cannot serve the Prince of Peace while idolizing Mars.

However, contrary to Jeb Bush’s statement that Christianity shouldn’t interfere with one’s political views about  “economic policy or environmental policy”, politics and religion can never be separated since Jesus himself never separated them. As Ched Myers reminds us, “The wedge driven between theology and politics has only resulted in the domestication of the former and the sacralization of the latter.” The Gospel in short, is a political manifesto whose clarion call is to wake up the American church resting far to comfortably in the bosom of the empire. If the message of Jesus is to be implemented today as a political praxis, most American evangelicals would be appalled at Jesus’ platform that distributes wealth, opens boarders, loves enemies, cares for the climate, and elevates the poor. This is anything but conservative! And while theology and political action are conjoined in daily life, in worship, there must be an absolute separation since “the church that sees the cross of Jesus as the central event in history can never identify any political order with the reign of God.”

Why? Because worship is overtly political. It may well be the most public, civic statement you make each week, declaring that Jesus Christ is Lord and Caesar is not. Worship, when seen from this perspective, is incredibly subversive to the powers that be. The adoration of the crucified King is a revolutionary stance against governments that ask humanity to draw boundary lines around race, creed, language, and nationality. Gathering each week to remember that in Christ God reconciled all humanity back to Himself leaves no room for nationalism. His sovereignty nullifies such differences, since “Now you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens.” In Christ, there is no ‘other’, there is only brother. We now stand side by side with the aggregate of believers world-wide who have been called out of every nation as a chosen people and a holy nation. And in so doing we persevere against the cultural temptation to venerate our nation alongside our God.

The church functions in the midst of the nations as an alternative community whose social, economic, political and ethical allegiance is to Christ alone.  She is “a new people who have been gathered from the nations to remind the world that we are in fact one people.”  Coming together each week is an eschatological act; it is a foretaste of what the world will be like when the Kingdom of God is finally fulfilled. May the American church, in our public acts of worship, reject the false doctrine that the church exists as a subordinate of the state, “as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.”

 

Learning To Tell Time

Pentecost-Mosaic

Tongues of Fire

On Sunday, churches celebrated Pentecost, commemorating the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church universal. At our small parish gathering, Father McMullen wore a red cope over his traditional white robe to memorialize the coming of the Holy Spirit through tongues of fire. In America, the Monday after Pentecost is Memorial Day, a holiday where patriots wear red, white, and blue to memorialize men and women killed in military service. This holiday weekend places in juxtaposition “American Time” and “Church Time”, two competing ways of offering rhythm, order, and meaning to life. My fear is that most evangelical churches spent for more time this Sunday talking about Memorial Day than Pentecost.

As followers of Christ, who also happen to be Americans, it is requisite of us to distinguish between the American ‘we’ and the Christian ‘we’, realizing that calibrating our lives around the biblical narrative and her way of telling time, instead of the empire, centers our life in Christ.

For instance, Pentecost celebrates unity in the midst of diversity. The Holy Spirit weds believers worldwide to share in the one, living Body of Christ. Memorial Day on the other hand is a holy day within America’s civic religion consecrating men and women sacrificed on the alter of empire. It is fitting that we, Christian Americans, choose which holiday to observe. The first emphasizes our communal humanity as God “poured out His spirit on all people”, the second indoctrinates us to live in a story where war and violence are venerated, dividing the world into ‘us vs. them.’ Pentecost brings together a world replete with diversity, Memorial Day reminds us of the importance of defending our racial, linguistic, religious, and national distinctions.

The way we tell time, the rituals we keep, and the holidays we commemorate reinforce reality. The American calendar tells Caesar’s story, and is filled with holy days remembering presidents, wars, military conquest, and nationalism. They act as sign posts, guiding us to what the empire believes really matters. The Christian calendar tells time radically different, and points to an alternative reality. First, the new year begins with Advent, not January 1. It then moves into the twelve days of Christmas, followed by Lent, Easter and ultimately culminates at Pentecost. These high holy days form the Christian community living in the midst of empire around a different set of values: community, dependence, sacrifice, repentance, and enemy love.

The marriage of church and state that discharged Christendom made this way of telling time difficult, especially in America where the Gospel has gotten all tangled up in the story of Western, white entitlement. Reorienting ourselves around God’s story, and His way of telling time frees us from the temptation to lump America’s story into God’s larger kingdom story.

As Christians, we are subjects in a Kingdom often at odds with the kingdoms of this world. By shaping life, and the way we tell time, around a different narrative, we experience a new world. A world not ruled by our manifest destiny, but by the patient hand of God that continues to slowly bring His kingdom to bear on earth as it now is in heaven. And as He quietly brings his reign to bear on the streets, in the courthouses, in the slums and nations of this world, we remember that we are citizens in a pluralistic, yet united kingdom transcending time, race, color, creed, and language.