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.

New Creation: Here, But Not Yet

New Year’s is such a paradox.  She bursts onto the scene with global celebration, promising fresh starts and a new beginning. With wide-eyed optimism we turn the page on the calendar and expect everything to be different.  But now, just a month into the year and 2014 looks eerily similar to 2013. Most of us returned to work and school this month to be met with the same deadlines and assignments, the same frustrating co-workers and classmates and the same existential crisis we faced last year.  We long to believe that something new is possible, that the hope of a new world is within grasp, but reality is convincing us otherwise. New Year’s serves as a microcosm for our Christian discipleship journey, reminding us of both the promise of God’s new creation as well as the uncertainty experienced while living between the ascension and appearing of Jesus.  Mark’s Gospel captures this tension between promise and reality as a new world is introduced, only to be eclipsed by fear and ambiguity. Look again at his opening:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Messiah”.[1]

Anyone with ears to hear should hear the reverberation of Genesis 1:1.  Mark’s bold proclamation insists on the fundamental regeneration of the world through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.  The promise is clear, despite the fatigue of world history, and with millennia in the rearview mirror, there is indeed another first time for creation.[2]  It seems that Isaiah’s ancient oracle “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind”[3] is finally coming true.  This apocalyptic declaration is the foundation for Christian ethics and Christ-like praxis within the current space, time universe.  And though the promise of new world is genuine, it sure seems like a distant reality.  Even now, some 2,000 years after resurrection, we join the souls under the alter asking, “How long oh Lord” must we wait for your Kingdom to completely come?  How long must we struggle to find meaning and purpose in life, how long until old habits and addictions cease gnawing at our flesh, and how long will the wounds of broken relationships bleed?  We’ve been told a new world is on the horizon, but this old one just keeps spinning round and round.  Jesus’ own followers were not immune from this apprehension.  Do you remember the ending to Mark’s story of new creation? On the first day of the week, the women come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him for burial and…

“Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were afraid. And he said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go; tell the disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you. And they went out and fled from the tomb, for they were trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”[4]

Here, among trembling, fear and an inkling of hope, Mark’s drama ends.  There is no sighting of the Risen Lord, no hands in his sides, no Road to Emmaus, and certainly no glory filled ascension.  It’s a strange way to end a story of good news. And while most of today’s Bibles tidy up the story by adding an alternate ending, of the nearly 6,000 ancient Greek manuscripts available, none of them have the remaining 11 verses we read today.  By leaving the story incomplete, Mark invites us to provide the ending. His discipleship drama will only continue if the apostles, and if we the reader, choose to accept the call to ‘Go and meet Jesus in Galilee’, to continue the pursuit of Him even in the midst of fear and uncertainty.[5]

New Testament scholar Richard B. Hays writes, “The abrupt ending without a resurrection appearance points emphatically to the still future character of the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ disciples at the end of the story find themselves suspended between the news of the resurrection and the experience of the risen Lord.”[6]  This is the exact same place we find ourselves.  The end of one age and the beginning of another have overlapped in this “time between times”; our future hope is near, and yet we are entreated to join in Christ’s work and suffering in the present.  It is precisely the conviction that the new world is ‘here but not yet’ that motivates each of us to join in the unfinished, genuine struggle for new creation.[7]   The Gospel is about accepting and serving in the midst of this mystery.

As we embrace the hope that another year brings, let us do so with the divine diligence of God, who is slowly restoring His good creation.  God is still patient, and as long as He is patient, we must be also. The good news is that Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the watershed event ushering in a new world.  Our call within this regeneration of creation is to function as a new version of the human race, living as His faithful presence, embodying the power of resurrection (new creation) to a world in the midst of renewal.  So let us go even unto Galilee to meet him.  And when we find Him toiling for peace, justice and reconciliation, we join Him.  And in unifying our lives with His, we help bring the present rushing forward into the ultimate consummation of His promised future, when God will be all in all as the waters cover the sea.

 

Originally published by Missio Alliance. www.missioalliance.org

 

[1] Mark 1: 1.

[2] Via, Dan. The Ethics of Mark’s Gospel—In the Middle of Time.  pg. 45.

[3] Isaiah 65: 17.

[4] Mark 16: 5-8.

[5] Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man. pg 401.

[6] Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament. pg 198.

[7] Ibid., pg 21.

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

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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.”

 

The Fully Human Woman

Growing up the son of a preacher man in the rural south, I remember constant conversations about the women in the church, especially when Jan or Roberta asked tough questions about why they were never allowed to give the communion meditation. And while no-one had ever heard of “complimentarian” or “egalitarian” notions, it didn’t keep the men from gathering outside on those hot summer nights to squabble, stew and smoke as they asked questions only patriarchs dare to ask. “Should we allow women to pray in the service?” “Can they serve communion?” “Do we allow them to teach anyone other than the children?” 

Looking back it strikes me that, for the most part, the church has been asking the wrong questions all along.  There really is just one question that begs an answer, and it’s time the church gives an unequivocal response to “Are women fully human or not?”

The answer seems obvious, but the historical record proves otherwise.  Aristotle argued, “We should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness”. Saint Augustine proclaimed, “I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” Confucius said, “One hundred women are not worth a single testicle.” And though modern conservative evangelicals champion traditional, biblical family values as the foundation of western culture, Christians must admit that for the most part, even the biblical narrative marginalizes women. A woman’s place was in the home or in the outer court of the Temple. Her body was both property and a plaything.  She was consistently given in marriage without her consent. Exodus 20:17 warns ”You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor”. Listing wives alongside slaves and work animals communicates one truth, woman is the property of her husband. Worse, polygamy was an accepted practice in the Old Testament for men, but not for women. In Deuteronomy, unmarried virgins are compelled to marry their rapist just as long as the male perpetrator can pay the standard bride price. 

The New Testament extends this narrative. The writer of Timothy declares, Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” And what saves this fallacious woman? “She will be saved through child bearing”.  Augustine would be so proud. Even Mark’s Gospel ostensibly continues the age-old marginalization of women, this time with Jesus as the primal perpetrator:

But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syro-Phoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ And he said to her, ‘For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.’ And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

This text is as baffling as it is bizarre. A diligent reading discloses an initial affront by the woman herself, one that Mark’s male readers would have detected.  Women were not to speak to men in public—not to their husbands, not to their fathers and certainly not to a stranger. Her public solicitation is an insult to Jesus’ honor status: no woman would ever dare invade a man’s privacy at home to seek a favor. And so Jesus does what culture and tradition demand of him. He upbraids her by refusing her petition. Why shouldn’t he? The religious code required such a response to this public display of female indecency. Making matters more uncomfortable for the modern reader, Jesus continues his apparent castigation of the woman with what appears to be a racially motivated, misogynistic epitaph, referring to the woman and her daughter as ‘dogs’. Virtually every New Testament scholar admits Christ’s response is an extreme insult.  Various references to dogs appear in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, none of which are flattering.  Dogs in the first century were considered scavengers and Jesus’ reference to food being “thrown” to them is further indication he is denoting wild, lawless animals.  In today’s language, it is hard to hear anything except that Jesus called her a bitch.  

And, just when we think the story can’t get any more abhorrent, Jesus abruptly changes his mind and heals the woman’s daughter.  He grants her plea, not by virtue of her faith, but on the grounds of her argument.  Her wit and wisdom best him, causing Christ to acquiesce to her request.  “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.”  And herein lies the clue to the entire exchange. In just a few seconds of bantering, this nameless woman achieved what the Pharisees and Scribes never accomplished in all their years of verbal entrapment. She won an argument with Jesus! A woman outwitted the Son of God.  She rejects his rejection and masters the master. The unbreakable spirit of a life lived on the margins causes Jesus to pause in admiration of her dogged dignity. And, suddenly, this outsider stands firmly within the newly forming community of God.  For it was Jesus’ initial rebuff and callous sparring that validated her place in his kingdom. She earns inclusion, not from pity, but through merit. She attains full humanity, not through her husband, not through her father, but on her own worth as a woman.  It’s as if Jesus created this entire melodrama to provide yet another example of his subversive theology of status-equalization and gender equality. What looks like a disgraceful story with Jesus’ humanness on display is actually one of the most beautiful and humble conversations in all of Scripture. The God made flesh permits himself to be foiled by a woman and in so doing grants her the status of full humanity.

If history and even the biblical narrative are conflicted with the question, “Are women fully human?”  Jesus is not.  Jesus provides the definitive answer since He is the purpose, center and interpretive lens to all of Scripture. A Christological view of the text compels us to interpret the entire Biblical narrative in light of who God is in Jesus Christ. We recognize God through Jesus. We know how God resolves this issue based on how Jesus answers the question. And what is His resolution?  Despite the law, tradition and the weight of human history, Jesus redefines the very nature of the feminine. He taught women, and spoke to them in public. Women were his friends and companions. He sent women to be apostles to the apostles. It is women to whom he first appeared after his resurrection, since women were the only ones brave enough to be present at his crucifixion. As Sister Joan Chittister reminds us, “It is women who anointed him, and women who proclaimed him, and women who prepared him for burial…It was women, in fact, whom Jesus put at the very center of the only two mysteries of the faith—the Incarnation and Resurrection.” It is a woman after all, who turned God into flesh.

What then are we as modern Christians to do with Jesus’ seditious elevation of women? Quite simply we are to go and do likewise. Gender equality within the life of the church isn’t a matter of legalism, but of discipleship. It’s, “As he is, so are we in this world.” In our churches, ministries and communities, women are in purpose, role and function equal but…well, equal.  For too long the church has been dominated by her masculine half, and she is desperate for her feminine side to make her whole. And what would women bring to the male dominated, franchise making, metrics-oriented, commodity-based, McDonalization of church life in America? Women would bring themselves. They would bring peace into disunity. They would bring flexibility instead of control. They would support instead of dominate. They would tell stories instead of forming systematic theologies. They would offer conversation instead of dogma. They would encourage interdependence instead of autonomy. They would be committed to people and place instead of growth. As one who has been marginalized, they would bring compassion to the outcast. Simply put, a church that embraces the fully human woman completes the image-bearing qualities of the church to the world. 

The fully human woman gives life to a fully human church. 

originally posted at Missio Alliance

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Social MADia: Why I Quit Facebook

Why I’m Quitting Facebook

The role of the church is to take up space in the world, to inhabit a physical place in our community offering an alternative version of reality to the world. But in a culture governed more by virtual reality than physical presence, it’s becoming harder for her to do so. With nearly everyone living a virtual reality on social media, is it even possible for the people of God to offer the world a version of reality rooted in the real? If the church cannot, Don Draper sure can…

The day he quit tobacco was quintessential Don Draper: impetuous, brash, and freakishly brilliant. His advertising agency on the hit show MadMen was teetering near bankruptcy after the loss of their largest client, Lucky Strike cigarettes. Hoping to change both the conversation and the trajectory of the company, Don’s ‘I broke up with her, she didn’t break up with me’ full-page New York Times editorial condemning the cigarette industry saved SCDP’s soul, and her bottom line.

Don’s agency was peddling a product that never improved, caused illness, and made people unhappy. Everyone knew it wasn’t good for them, but they couldn’t stop.  Don could have written the exact same thing about another addictive product: social media.

The average American spends over 11 hours a day online, three of those hours spent on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In fact, if Facebook was a country it would check in as the third largest nation in the world, with over 1.3 billion users. And contrary to what Mark Zuckerberg is selling, it rarely improves, makes people psychologically unhealthy, and is creating a culture of lonely narcissists. Just like tobacco, Facebook is killing us. But like Draper’s chain smoking consumers, we can’t stop because we are addicted. We are addicted to ourselves.

A 2012 Harvard University research study revealed that sharing personal information about ourselves is an intrinsically rewarding activity targeting the ‘nucleas accumbens’ area of the brain. This is the very same region of the brain that lights up when cocaine or other illicit drugs are digested. In a separate report, The University of Chicago determined that social media cravings rank higher, and are harder to resist than nicotine cravings.  “If you look at people in a restaurant, nobody is having conversations anymore. They’re sitting at dinner looking at their phones because their brains are so addicted to it.”  And why? Because we are both bent toward narcissism and bored with reality. ‘Like’ me, notice me, help me escape the here and now. The constant contact from status updates, ‘favorites’, re-tweets, and ‘likes’ attempts to fill the vacuum in our soul. But in reality, we are more isolated, alone, and distracted than ever before. “This media we call social is anything but.”

Social media advertises real relationships and personal significance by making three bold promises: you will never be alone, you are not bound by place or time, and you are perfectible. Online, you are no longer tethered by human limitations. Yet our physical nature begs for concrete existence.  Being human necessitates we inhabit real, geographic place: this town, this neighborhood, this house with these people. Second, we are anchored in time. We have a fixed past, we inhabit the present, and we anticipate a real future. And finally, we are broken and incomplete, not ideal.

Yet social media sells a surrogate personal phenomenon, one that may not be very human after all. On Facebook, you can be anywhere and everywhere all at once, yet present nowhere. You can chat with Sam in Vancouver, while ‘liking’ Brandon’s pictures in New York, all the while neglecting your kids in the next room. Secondarily, you can manipulate your past, control your present and project your perfect self.  The virtual you isn’t fixed, it isn’t fallen, it is editable and perfectible. You can take the perfect picture, from the perfect angle, to pimp your perfect self. But, as Christians, how is this endless amount of time we are spending in the virtual world impacting our witness in the real world?

We’ve added Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to our lives but haven’t added any hours to our day. “The decision to be on online on Facebook is simultaneously a decision not to be doing something else.” We are trading connection for intimacy, self-promotion for presence, and the virtual for the real. Social media isn’t making us more human, in many ways it is creating ‘post-humans’, disembodied creatures disconnected and disengaged with the physical world. And while virtual existence is expanding our world, it is also shrinking reality down to the three inch screen in front of our face. Being informed is now more important than being present.

The totality of our technological enculturation is causing the church to lose her identity. We are abandoning both the tradition and praxis of living as the physical manifestation of Christ in the world. Christianity is more and more inward, private, individualistic, and neighborless. Instead of enduring as parish people rooted in a geographic community, we are tempted to exist primarily in pseudo-reality, tending to our own needs instead of the needs of the other. In fact, the virtual world has no use for the marginalized. The sick, the vulnerable, and the handicapped don’t even exist in cyberspace. But the Body of Christ abides in the present to call into question this new normal mode of existence.

“We need to learn to be where we are.”  The Gospel isn’t an abstract theory, it is a lived reality. Yet our addiction to the virtual is hindering the ability to be the fully enfleshed Body of Christ in and for the world. In a culture of social media addicts, the church functions to challenge the dominant ordering of relationships. The prophetic call of God is for his people to live as an alternative social reality, to nurture and nourish a subversive narrative. As the world runs headlong into the virtual abyss, we stand fixed in the physical, advertising the one corporeal thing we have to give, our full humanity. “It is hard for us to admit that our flawed humanity is the nearest thing to God on earth and that what gives humanity its special character is precisely its possibility and desire to become ever more like God.”

The Incarnation reminds us that God is very interested in the physical. “Matter matters to God.” Bread, wine, water, hands, and feet divulge the divine. The material is sacramental. It’s what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘the scandal of the particular.’ Simply, the physical world is a doorway to the universal. God has chosen to reveal eternity in the concrete, making our very humanity the sacramental expression of the living Christ. Maybe that is why we should be so cautious when abandoning the physical for the virtual.

Christianity will not survive without the body. An embodied, present God desires an embodied, present people as His witness in the world. Our existence with others is the physical mediation of spiritual reality. Being mindful of, and living in the daily may well be the path out of our virtual self addiction.

What could you do if you took back those three hours a day you spend on social media? Your full presence in the life of the world may not only change your community or neighborhood, it may well transform your own physical and psychological well being.

That’s why I’m breaking up with social media. It’s not you Facebook, it’s me. 


Originally published by Missio Alliance

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.