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Severing the Rhetorical Roots of the Empire

January 31, 2008

(This essay was originally prepared for presentation at the NW Inklings convening, November 2007, where participants answered the questions, “What is the prophetic ministry and how does it function? And in what way is the church prophetic?”. It has since been posted in a special collection at Andrew Perriman’s OpenSourceTheology.net)

The church’s prophetic function toward the world is usually characterized by its advocates as being counter-cultural. Indeed, being “counter-cultural” is core to the prophetic nature of the church. But being counter-cultural is not enough. Rob Bell describes the church as “God’s counter-cultural insurgency that actually things the world can be put back together.” And I think he nailed it with that last clause, that inclusion of hope in his definition. After all, the prophet’s function in the Old Testament is one who primarily announces judgment and hope. So also the church’s living out hope is prophetic, announcing God’s reign amid a broken and aching world.

Much has already been written on how to be that prophetic community, but I have encountered frustratingly little about how to give prophetic language to that prophetic life together. Just as faith without works is dead, so also prophetic works without prophetic words may lack the full potential of prophecy’s pierce to contemporary culture. Jeremiah’s prophetic actions would have made little sense to Israel if they were not somehow legible to his hearers. Likewise, what sense would the church make without investing its prophetic actions with legible language?

To be sure, prophetic language is more than bluntly explaining what is going on, thought that is a start. More: it does so by very consciously saddling its claims right alongside the claims of the world, making their differences plain. Two questions from here must be asked: what, theologically, is prophetic language explaining? And does the New Testament provide any examples of the kind of prophetic language we’re digging at?

Here is what prophetic language explains. The late Lesslie Newbigin says that in the Acts of the Apostles, time and again the question being asked of the church by onlookers is, “What is this new reality?” Their answers to that question was that the kingdom of God was breaking in. That is immensely telling: somehow, when the church was most being the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it revealed a new reality, the life of the Age to Come. Their life announced that not only was another world possible, but in fact that it was in some strange way being anticipated in their midst. The shalom, joy, reconciliation, worship, and healing that will so characterize the world to come is pouring through the seams of the present one, and, as Paul says, the world smells the aroma of the Messiah. The church is being salt and light of new creation amid the competing claims of the present age over how to be truly human. That, I suggest, is at the heart of the prophetic nature of the church.

Yet this fresh reality of new creation needs fresh language to describe it.

Paul created fresh, prophetic language to explain, implement, and steer the prophetic nature of the church and the kingdom of Jesus by taking from the language of the Roman Empire. N.T. Wright has written thoughtfully on this in his essay “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” and Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat have written an entire book on the topic in Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire.

The gist of Wright, Walsh, and Keesmaat’s ideas are that throughout his epistles, Paul takes the language normally ascribed to Caesar, and reworks it around Jesus. Language of man’s empire is challenged by similar language about Jesus’ kingdom. Where the gospel was that Caesar was the son of God, ascended and now sending his messengers to announce his worldwide reign of peace and justice, now Jesus’ gospel is that he is the true Son of God, ascended and sending messengers to announce his true worldwide reign of real peace and justice. Proper response to the former is to confess that “Caesar is Lord,” but Paul says the proper response to the true gospel is a confession that “Jesus is Lord”. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, concerning Paul’s dissident, prophetic language.

Paul answers the question of “what is this new reality?” with sly, subversive answers that aren’t just talismans of ethereal theology to sate so strange a question, but instead are stark challenges to the power-holders and rhetoric-dispensers of his culture. I believe that the church, if it is to let its prophetic nature flourish, must do the same.

So, what are today’s treasonous claims? What empire-language must be subverted for Christ’s sake? What does America and the global market claim for itself which rightly belong to God and the church? Hear the following with an ear not just to what may politically offend, but to what is treasonous to King Jesus. Hear also their aspirations, aspirations which are only a mockery next to God’s kingdom. Hear where these tomes can be reimagined in subversive poetry around Him. Now, let the facts be submitted to a candid world.

Can we echo the US Constitution in doxology-form, as Paul echoed Caesar-language? It begins with

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Now hear echoes of atonement language that most fully belong to Jesus; this from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Could we form atonement language which echoes Lincoln? I’ll come back to that later.

Thomas Paine, the great Revolution-era propagandist, said,

“We have it within our power to begin the world over again.”

Our power? The world was made anew on Easter, not in the Enlightenment!

George W Bush said,

“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America.”

I believe the cross is the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world, Mr. President. And what, the church should ask, does he mean by “the best of America”, and how might it compare with the “the best of Christ Jesus”?

Elsewhere President Bush said,

“This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

Is anyone else seeing, as Paul saw, that the empire’s mythic language must be confronted by the truth of Jesus?

Bush, again:

“In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America, because we are freedom’s home and defender. And the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.”

That is as much a theological claim as it is a political one, claiming for the American empire language which rightly belongs to Jesus and his church.

More Bush:

“Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Heresy! Treason! Jesus is ridding the world of evil! How dare any institution sap the cross and empty tomb of such power. That the church has so clangingly failed to hear these claims as power-plays against the real Commander-in-Chief, Jesus Christ, baffles me utterly.

One more from Bush:

“America is united. The freedom-loving nations of the world stand by our side. This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail.”

Again, didn’t Jesus already beat evil? Didn’t good prevail in the resurrection? We must not be led astray by this false gospel of anyone but the true King beating evil.

And let’s not forget that great myth that world history can be benevolently guided by the invisible hand of the market. One wonders, what ever happened to the invisible hand of Yahweh Almighty in ruling history? We have put ourselves, rhetorically, in the wrong hand.

Finally, here’s an easy one to subvert:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America,
and to the Republic for which it stands,
one nation, under God, indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all.

If Christian conversion is about allegiance, this pledge must be stood down. We must pledge allegiance to King Jesus.

Before giving an example of how we might use imperial language as prophetic language, we should pause to hear one important contour about how Paul reclaimed imperial claims from Caesar for Jesus: he often simultaneously drew from the imagery, language, rhetoric, and aspirations of Jewish memory, custom, and scripture at the same time! He didn’t just steal from Caesar’s pledge of allegiance or just quote Micah 6:8. No, he often did both. Paul drew from biblical language and from contemporary power-language, and let them dance worshipfully in the minds of his readers!

The evangelical movement has been great at only doing the latter, quoting scripture, proof-texting; but we have been lousy at synthesizing biblical language and allusions with the language of the contemporary culture and empire. So, it is important to me, if this experiment is to follow Paul’s lead, that we reach one hand into the language-banks of our religious traditions, stories, and memories, and the other hand into the mythic language of contemporary empires. Combined they sharpen one another, and our prophetic life together.

I’ll end my presentation today with these few remixes, only partially grasping, I admit, this final ingredient of biblical allusions:

Language of “the axis of evil” might read:

“The axis of evil — sin, rebellious powers, and the devil — was challenged, exhausted, and defeated decisively on the cross of Jesus Christ.”

President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which I quoted an excerpt from earlier, may be paraphrased in Jesus as

“Two millenia ago, our Father brought forth onto this world a new creation, conceived in suffering, and dedicated to the proposition that God’s kingdom has the last word. … But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this world. The humble servant, dead but now alive, who suffered on Golgotha, has consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. … From Jesus crucified we take increased devotion to that cause for which he gave the last full measure of devotion — that God’s world, under his reign, shall have a new birth of God’s freedom from sin and death — and that the kingdom of God and his Christ shall not perish from the earth.”

And perhaps God’s churches can have their own pledge of allegiance:

I pledge allegiance to the true Commander in Chief, and to the kingdom for which he died, one church under God, indivisible, with God’s freedom and justice for all.

There is much more to be done. I have begun a Google Document which catalogues the mythic language of America, from founding articles to famous speeches to patriotic parlance to national songs. At the bottom of the document is the beginning of a “Letter to the Church of America” which has inaugurated an effort to put this most fully into effect. Contact me if you’d like to see it, and participate in its creation.

Thank you, and may the Pax Christo, not the Pax Americana, be with us as we invest our churches with prophetic language that provocatively reveals God’s kingdom to contemporary culture.

Author Bio:: Brandon Rhodes lives in missional community in Portland, OR. Gardening, hammocks, pub theology, and Jesus all warm his heart.

Does Satire Have a Place?

January 31, 2008

twain.jpg“One can deliver a satire with telling force through the insidious medium of a travesty, if he is careful not to overwhelm the satire with the extraneous interest of the travesty.” - Mark Twain

I love this quote from Mark Twain. Twain is the father of American satire. His wit was as sharp as his creativity. Sadly, most people (even to this day) missed the point of his satire. Huck Finn, for example has been banned by school districts that felt it supported racism, even though the point of Huck Finn is to satirize racism, among other things.

Twain understood that, for satire to work, it needed to keep the “travesty” (exaggeration) at just the right level. It needed to almost believable. That is how satire ensnares.

A month or so ago, we began posting satire regularly. I enjoy satire. I have a dark sense of humor, like dry wit, and enjoy the use of sarcasm with my friends. But I have to say, satire and sarcasm are more likely to tear down than to build up.

If you write satire, and everyone knows it is blatantly satirical, it loses its teeth. But if you write satire that people think is true, it can cause confusion and pain to the person who is “duped.” But, as in the case with the writings of Mark Twain, the most provocative and influential satire has been confused with reality.

Satire is, by nature, subversive. It exposes hidden issues. It confronts societal assumptions. The Wikipedia article says it succinctly:

Satire is strictly a literary genre, although it is found in the graphic and performing arts as well as the printed word. In satire, human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, ideally with an intent to bring about improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, the purpose of satire is not primarily humour in itself so much as an often quite angry attack on something the author strongly disapproves, using the weapon of wit.

I’m not sure that it has to be a “quite angry attack,” but I think the description rings true. Satire gets people’s attention. It captivates and confronts. It is a great way to exercise the prophetic voice.

But does it have a place in the Kingdom of God?

Don’t get me wrong. I love it. I enjoy writing it. I enjoy reading it. My favorite movies tend towards the satirical. And, personally speaking, I have benefited from it. The satirical posts on this site have been the most successful posts we’ve ever had. In the last month, our readership has steadily risen to about 900 visits/day (on the weekdays).

But we should be careful not to cut needlessly. And I’m wondering where to draw the line between confronting issues and being divisive.  I’d seriously love to know your thoughts. Your thoughts could influence the future of this site.

  • Can one write satire…in love?
  • Have any of the satirical posts we’ve published edified?
  • Have any of the satirical posts we’ve published been divisive?
  • Where do we draw the line between beneficial satire and unhelpful satire?

Don’t feel hemmed in by my questions: feel free to address the issue as you see fit. Let’s get a good dialog going here; I’m anxious to get a sense of where everyone is at on this.

Caucus Voter’s Guide (2008)

January 30, 2008

Everywhere you look, people are issuing voters guides. James Dobson has one. So does the Christian Coalition. There are guides put by environmentalists. Almost every major lobby group has a guide. But I’m not complaining. I think these guides are great.

Some people get the false impression that I am against politics. By no means! I am passionate about politics. In fact, I’ve put together a 2008 Primaries Voter’s Guide to help you weight the options. It only includes the Democratic and Republican front runners. You can download a print-worthy copy of the guide (feel free to distribute it among your friends) here.

Btw, there is a good reason why this isn’t posted under “satire.” That is because I’m being (mostly) serious.

It’s cold as hell.

January 30, 2008

giottos_satan_in_the_last_judgment.jpgIt’s fifteen degrees below zero. -15. They say with wind chill it feels like -35. That’s cold. Even for a Minnesotan.

But I remember the winter of 1995.  That winter it got to -40 (without wind chill). I was 19 years old, working for $5.25/hour at the local grocery store. I was driving a red circa 1981 Dodge Diplomat. It got so cold that the plastic on the steering column constricted and set off the horn. Thankfully, one of my co-workers knew how to disconnect the horn. I’m not making this up.

Incidentally, many medieval artists painted Satan blue. Blue, not red. Why? Because they figured that the middle of hell was cold.  The absence of God equaled the absence of warmth. Many in Minnesota would resonate with that. They’d cuss against the cold and call Minnesota a “God forsaken” place.

But not me. I love the winter. Even still. It is my second favorite season (after autumn). I’d still rather have a day like today, -15 and all, then an 85 degree summer day.

Most of my fellow Minnesotans don’t share my enthusiasm. But some do. Minnesotans are a hardy lot. They have to endure extremes in weather. They are influenced by the Scandinavian (the descendants of vikings) culture of the dominant European settlers in this state.  The people can sometimes be as frigid as the cold. Minnesotan men in particular have often embraced a sort of stoicism, a tendency towards introversion, a hard-working, non-complaining ethic towards life. But Minnesotans also embrace the social progressivism and compassion of modern Scandinavians.

Weather can shape a culture. When it is cold for much of the year, you tend to stay indoors a lot. That causes you to, I think, value interior design and technology. Perhaps that is why Popular Science named Minneapolis the #1 tech city in America a year or two ago. The extremes in weather have also made Minnesotans resourceful. We can’t plan on good weather for our day to day activities. So we have to improvise. And the often drab-yet-harsh weather causes us to embrace aesthetics so that we can bring color and flavor to our lives.

Minnesotans, generally, are hardy people, resourceful people, sometimes emotionally distant, hard-working, creative, a bit introverted, and technologically savvy.  That is how we can still thrive when it is -15 below zero outside, without missing a beat.

And these cultural values shape our church life.  It is no accident that the Twin Cities is a sort of capital (at least one of the capitals) for all-things-Emergent.  Sure, the undercurrent of Lutheranism helped pave the way for a progressive strain of evangelicalism, but Minnesota tends to embrace the sorts of things Emergent is about: creativity, resourcefulness, technological savviness, introversion (yes, I’d wager that Emergent is primarily introverted…for all the talk, the movement tends towards intellectual pursuits rather than activism).

So, I’m glad that it is as cold as hell here. The cold air forces us to pursue other things. We’re not distracted with nice weather for half the year. And that helps get the creativity flowing.

New Monasticism is Really Really Bad

January 30, 2008

It is imperative that we Bible believing Christians remain ever vigilant to protect ourselves from the noxious whiff of sulfur arising from the cauldron of impure doctrine, seductive teachings and Romish error. The latest billowing smoke to come up from the furnace is called “New Monasticism” and originates from the so-called “Emergent Church” and its basement-dwelling cousin, the “Submergent Church.” Its adherents may call it “New Monasticism,” but whatever the name, it is nothing more than a pig in a silk dress. It’s the Dark Ages dressed in a hoodie, an attempt to modernize the brutish, ancient, works-based “Christianity” of our European, Middle Eastern and North African ancestors. Yes, the “New Monasticism” uses words like “discipleship,” “community,” “simplicity” and “hospitality,” but in reality these words are Trojan Horses, deceptions used to entice itching ears away from sound doctrine.

“Discipleship”

We know that when the New Monastics use the term “discipleship” they don’t mean it the way we do. When they talk about discipleship they will use phrases like “following in the way of Jesus” and “living out the Sermon on the Mount.” Don’t be fooled by their tricky terminology! While advocating that we try to live out the impossible teachings of Jesus, they ignore the true fundamentals of discipleship, like the altar call, memorizing the sinner’s prayer and abstinence from all alcohol. True discipleship incorporates these essential elements and many, many more requirements, written and unwritten.

“Community”

The New Monastics’ emphasis on community is also misleading. Sure the Church in the book of Acts lived in proximity and shared resources, but that lifestyle was for the early Church only. No realistic Christian could advocate such a lifestyle today. Once the Bible came together as a complete book, community living and the exercise of Spiritual gifts ceased to be necessary. Today’s Christians are called to be independent, self-sustaining, and focused on improving themselves. This emphasis on communal living and sharing could easily lead to social gospelism, New Ageism and other disorders. Moreover, people living together, or in close proximity, pose clear health risks to each other and the general population.

“Hospitality”

Nothing could be more dangerous than inviting the unsaved and unclean into your home or church. “Touch not the unclean thing.” To protect ourselves and our children from the taint of sin we recommend complete separation from those who have not been purged of their unrighteous nature.

“Simplicity”

Clearly God wants us to have the best stuff and lots of it, as a witness to the unsaved. God always rewards his favorites with wealth and material possessions. That’s how we know who is in right standing with God. To advocate a simple lifestyle is a rejection of God’s way of showing who His favorites are. Besides, our American way of life depends on consumption. If simplicity of lifestyle were practiced by all Christians our standard of living would decline to the levels of France and other failed states. In addition, tax revenues used to support the government’s various activities around the world would dry up.

New Monasticism is bad, really bad. It is a danger to the American way of life and to the established Church. Don’t be taken in by these young, radical emergent types (and their sub-mergent cousins) advocating simplicity, community, discipleship and hospitality. These elements form a heady brew of doctrinal error and Utopian fantasy. They are dangerous ideas, ideas that could bring us into a new Dark Age or worse.

Author Bio:: Casey Ochs is a husband and father. He is a member of Missio Dei (which is, incidentally, part of the new monasticism).

Article Suggestions

January 29, 2008

At least several times a week I get an email that says something like this:

I’ve been wanting to write something for Jesus Manifesto, but I’m not sure what to write. What are you looking for? Do you have any suggestions?

I have difficulty asking that question. I want people to surprise me with their writing. I want this site to be a place where kindred spirits with a similar perspective can explore all manner of topics and issues. My hope is that JesusManifesto.com will be increasingly driven by a perspective or a lens, rather than about particular topics. In other words, I’m more interested in reading radically Christ-centered peace-filled take on film and music and news and big ideas than I am interested in reading about pacifism. Not that I’m uninterested in reading about pacifism. I just think it is trickier to explore all areas of life as followers of Jesus Christ than it is to speculate on what it means, abstractly, to be a follower of Jesus.

I want people to explore their life and write as they grapple with Jesus about the different areas of that life. I don’t want to limit people’s imaginations; that is why I am reluctant to give suggestions. Nevertheless, I’m going to cave in a bit and share a list of things that I would be particularly interested in seeing here:

  • How we should approach illegal immigration?
  • The role of children in practicing hospitality
  • Reviews of films/music/novels that bridge towards the Kingdom of God
  • Reviews of films/music/novels that embody the American Dream
  • Practical suggestions for Kingdom living
  • Satirical cartoons (I’m saving up for a Wacom tablet so I can start drawing them)
  • Engagement with Global Christian ideas (especially from non-Anglos)
  • For that matter, I’d love to see stuff that isn’t written by Anglo men. I know I’m an Anglo man, but I get sick of myself too. :)
  • Explorations in pneumatology
  • Church multiplication/planting stuff
  • Interviews (I have an interview with Greg Boyd coming up)

What would YOU like to see more of on JesusManifesto.com?

When Church and State Play Footsie Under the Table

January 29, 2008

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports on an upcoming gathering of progressive Baptists:

Weary of Southern Baptists’ dominance in American Protestantism, a new push is starting by other Baptist groups aimed at working on social justice issues, and showing their religious tradition is broader than the conservative SBC. Former President Jimmy Carter is leading the effort.

…The meeting is taking place just days before Feb. 5, when 24 states hold delegate-rich presidential primaries and caucuses. Baptists organizers say the timing is coincidental; they began planning the Atlanta event about two years ago before the primary schedule was set.

“This has not anything to do with Super Tuesday,” Carter said.

Yet the biggest Baptist names at the event are prominent Democrats. Along with Carter, major speakers include former Vice President Al Gore and former President Bill Clinton, who has played a leading and provocative role in the presidential race of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Charles Grassley of Iowa will also address the meeting. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister and GOP candidate for president, had agreed last year to participate, then canceled.

The large gathering of some 10,000 progressive Baptists isn’t an attempt, they say, to start a new denomination but to help “develop common ministries that would have a big impact.” Hmm. Right.

This “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant” seems like a page out of the Religious Right play book. I’m never a fan of a group of high-profile politicians meeting with high-profile pastors. This looks like a pep rally for the Religious Left. And I do not believe for one moment that Carter’s assertion that “this has not anything to do with Super Tuesday.”

the Jesus Campaign

January 29, 2008

campaign.jpgJohn 1:34 informs us that Jesus is God’s elect. Election. It is a word that means different things among different people. Calvinists love the word (if you’ve experienced “election” it means that you’re in; it is the un-elect that go to hell). But these days, the word “election” makes Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney or John McCain flash into our minds.

Underneath it all, “election” is about choice. We think of it as the people of a nation deciding together who will lead them. In the days before the so-called Enlightenment, the word “election”also referrd to the choosing of leaders. Leaders in those days were chosen by God, not by people. In those days, election was almost always about God’s choice: choice of kings and the choice of who was “in.”

John tells us that God chose Jesus to lead his people. He is our elected leader.  He is the elected King of God’s Kingdom.  And like all God’s chosen kings, he was anointed (by John’s Baptism), but unlike previous Kings, he was anointed by the Holy Spirit.

Unlike modern-day elections, Jesus went campaigning after he was elected.  He went out among the people calling for change. For repentence.  The question wasn’t whether or not he would be the King. The question was: “who was going to be in the Kingdom?”

Jesus’ call to repentance has more in common with Barack Obama’s call for change than it does with evangelical altar calls.  Jesus’ message is political: I’m bringing in a new regime. If you want to be a part of my administration, then you have to leave the old one. And so when Jesus went around calling people to repentance, it was like he was campaigning for change.  For a new administration—the administration of God.

Jesus begins his campaign in the margins, on the fringes of political and religious power:

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali—to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—

the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Repentance requires a training in a new way of life. This new way of life is called “discipleship.” It isn’t a simple choice, but a life one embraces. It is a complete shift to a new way of life. What we read in the gospels is Jesus’ training of his disciples into a new way: the Kingdom of God.  These 12 helped with the campaign.  They passed it on to others, who passed it onto others and now we are responsible for campaigning.

Jesus has been elected. And when we live in his new administration, we embrace a new way of life that comes into conflict with the old. As we embrace this new way, and experience the life-giving presence of the Spirit, we can go demonstrate and proclaim this new life. That is how we campaign for Jesus.

Btw: I haven’t read it yet, but the new Shane Claiborne book looks like it will be heading into this territory. Check it out here.

What is Truth?

January 28, 2008

jesusandpilate.jpgHere is something for you to ponder (I’m already pondering it…).

What is truth? It is a question that has spanned the centuries and circumnavigated the globe. It is a question everyone has asked and many have tried to answer. It has spurred countless expositions and propositions from religious behemoths, philosophers, and psychologists.

A recent Barna Research Group survey on what Americans believe asked the question, “Is there absolute Truth?” Sixty-six percent of adults responded that they believe that “there is no such thing as absolute truth; different people can define truth in conflicting ways and still be correct.” Seventy-two percent of those aged 18 to 25 expressed this belief.

One side argues that there is no such thing as truth and the other side screams, “This is Truth!” This dissonance spurs me to look at Jesus’ words and his reaction to the question, “What is Truth?”

Looking at the Gospels I want focus on Jesus’ interaction with Pilate before the crucifixion (Matthew 27:11-26; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-40; John 18:28-40).

Rewind 2000 years. Jesus has come to the end of his 3-year ministry, He stands before Pilate (a governor, three levels below Caesar of Rome, ruler of the most expansive and powerful empire in the world). We will look at John’s account of the dialogue below, with my paraphrase in italics:

Pilate: Are you the King of the Jews?

Are you asserting yourself as King, in effect challenging the Empire above you?

Jesus: Are you asking of your own accord or did others say it to you about me?

Do you really want to know?

Pilate: Am I a Jew? Your own nation and chief priests has delivered you over to me… What have you done?

You’ve really ticked people off… What exactly have you done?

Jesus: My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.

Pilate: So you are a King?

Jesus: You say that I am a King. For this purpose I have come into this world - to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.

Pilate: What is truth?

Jesus: [nothing... silence]

The story does not report any further dialogue between Pilate and Jesus, just that Pilate announced that he found no guilt in Jesus, at which point the Jews ask for Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be crucified. This silence made me curious, so I looked at the other Gospels account of this event… and they were silent as well. In fact the other accounts just recorded a small portion of this discussion… mostly that Pilate asked if Jesus was King, and Jesus either responding, “You have said so” or being silent.

So what does Jesus define as Truth? While he did not answer Pilate’s question directly, we can see in his previous comment a reflection of Truth. Though Jesus’ definition is not what Pilate or most of us Westernized Christians want to hear.

You have probably heard from the pulpit a definition of truth, some of these definitions may have sounded like this:

  • Truth has set you free! Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and if you believe in Him you will have everlasting life!
  • Truth is the word of God, the Gospels and the Epistles, and one must believe in them to have eternal life.
  • Jesus is the Son of God, and only through accepting Him as your personal Saviour and Lord can you be promised eternal life in Paradise. This is Truth!

While most of these statements are true (pun intended)… they lack integrity.

Pilate was looking for a definition to absolute truth, a truth he could understand and turn to for comfort and peace…. truth as he knew it to be is the unquenchable power of the Roman Empire. His definition of truth is elastic, the authority of truth was given to the man with the most power, the man who could elicit the most fear, and the man who could control his destiny, namely Caesar.

In these two definitions we have identified the inefficiency of the church and the fallacy of Caesar’s “Truth is Power.” mindset. The church and Caesar have used the banner of truth to wage wars, to force doctrines, beliefs and practices on the savages, the natives, the barbarians and the marginalized. This is a truth wrought with fear and delivered in condemnation and judgment.

This is not the Truth of Jesus. His is a more radical definition than the authoritative and power-filled propositions of yesterday and today. His Truth embodies another way that is not of this world. A definition that is much more subversive, counter cultural and permanent. A kingdom of servants who listen to and follow The Way of their King, not because they have to, but because they want to. His Truth is a God who was made man, who loved the marginalized and scattered the rich and the self-righteous. A Truth that made a way for the poor, the prostitute, the widow, the Gentile, the Jew, the marginalized and the rich.

Truth then died on a cross, Truth was raised from death, Truth bore witness for 40 days, and Truth then ascended into the heavens. Truth left behind a witness, a perpetrator of Truth that resides in the hearts of His followers. Truth lived, lives, and leads. Truth is Jesus. Absolutely.

Author Bio:: Sam is an entrepreneur, writer, blogger, speaker, and entirely overeducated and under qualified… He works in Oklahoma City, and believes that life is rather endless in its possibilities. He blogs at www.duregger.net.

Enemies of Empire?

January 28, 2008

Mark’s wonderful recent post “is America an Empire” has stirred the waters quite well. So I thought I would wade into the swirling poorl and talk a bit more about Empire and Enemies. For the idea that the Empire is our Enemy didn’t seem to sit well with some readers. “Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies?” “Should the Church really understand itself as having enemies, such as the State or Empire?” “Isn’t this dangerous exclusionary language?”

To such questions I would answer, the State/Empire is the enemy because it is an enemy of Repentance. It is impossible for the State to repent. And conversely, repentance is resistance to Empire.

It is all the rage among liberals to point out the pathological nature of President Bush, that he is incapable of admitting error in his decision to go to war with Iraq (among many other decisions). But I would say this is not some idiosyncratic pathology particular to Bush. Rather, the presidency as such and the entire State apparatus IS constituted pathologically, requiring a subjective commitment to its current form. As the French political philosophy Alain Badiou says, “It’s simply not true that you can participate in a system as powerful and as ramified as parliamentarism without a real subjective commitment to it…In order to participate in electoral or governmental representation, you have to conform to the subjectivity it demands.” And I would say part of this ‘subjective commitment’ to the State entails the inability to show the weakness of repentance.

The inability to practice repentance requires that the Enemy is always something else, somewhere else, and someone else. Perhaps the Enemy has crossed our borders (as illegal immigrants and terrorists), but conceptually/ideologically the Enemy is always outside the State. After 9/11, it was impossible for the USA to repent of the American Dream, to repent of it consumer habits, or repent of its tacit domination of the developing world (or should we say, kept from developing world). Indeed, President Bush only reasserted this commitment to consumerism when he told the nation to go out shopping to show our Enemies that we will not be defeated.

But for Church, the Enemy is always lurking within, clawing at the doors of our heart, and in fact, always already part of us. In the practice of repentance the Enemy is named, acknowledged, and turned from. Only in repentance is a gap and a division opened, into which God can act, between what we are and what we are becoming. Only in the weakness of repentance do we admit we are powerless to change anything. And it is for all these reasons that the Powerful do not (can not) repent. And for this, the State must be understood as an idolatrous Enemy.

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