3 Openings at Radical Living in New York City

September 17, 2008

Radical Living–a new monastic community in New York City–has rooms for 1 female and 2 males. They are, from what I’ve heard, one of the more “solid” new communities out there, so this would be a great opportunity for those of you interested in living in intentional community.

Here’s some info about Radical Living:

Radical Living is an intentional community located in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. They are a multicultural, intergenerational and non-denominational community of artists, workers and students that includes single men and women, a married couple, three dogs and a cat.

There are three houses–Hart House, Marcy House and Pulaski House–connected to Radical Living. They are located within one block from each other and function as one community with 17 members (not counting the dogs and cat).

In essence they are dedicated to living a meditative, prophetic and prayerful life, centered in Christ, engaged in their neighborhood, concerned with social justice, and led by the Holy Spirit.

Please call either 917.459.3813 or 212.444.2701, or email to request an application.

Striving for a Just Peace without the Myth of Redemptive Violence

September 16, 2008

The gospel of Jesus Christ is so central to the Christian faith that no other alleged “gospel” can ever be acceptable. No other person, agenda, or story can compete with the gospel of Jesus for saving the world from our rebellion and just punishment. The good news that Jesus lives, reigns, and saves is a specifically religious proclamation, but the gospel permeates and affects Christian belief in all areas of life, public and private.

It is tempting to rest our Christian hopes for realizing God’s kingdom on a particular political ideology or strategy. In other words, while seeking to fulfill our responsibility to be engaged politically, Christians can unwittingly come to trust in a political, kingdom-promising “gospel” that proclaims how the world’s salvation from wrong, evil, and its cursed condition can be achieved. While being faithfully politically engaged, corporately and individually Christians can become co-opted into being politically confined within a particular party or agenda.

One way to correct that temptation is to stay ever mindful of the Christian Church’s fundamentally international identity. Central to the good news of Jesus is the truth that all kinds of people belong to his people: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). No aspect of Christians’ multifaceted identities is deeper than that of being “one in Christ Jesus” – whereby our Jewish-Greek national-ethnic loyalties are trumped by our transnational Christian unity. Christians of all nationalities should have their politics informed by the viewpoints of others around the world, thus checking the ever-present sinkhole into nationalistic provincialism that affects all people everywhere.

The same story that inspired Roman imperialism is the false gospel we are concerned about today; it is what theologian Walter Wink has called the “myth of redemptive violence.” Expressed in the ancient Babylonian creation story called the Enuma Elish, this myth says that the universe and human beings are the leftovers of a bloody war among the gods. Creation itself is a violent process, and history is naturally the violent struggle to bring order into the realm of chaos. Like the Babylonian Empire before it and many others since, the Roman Empire spread with this violent but glorious message of hope for humanity. The Roman Caesars claimed to be gods and saviors of the ancient world because their military conquests brought the good news of Roman order into the realm of barbarian chaos. Paradise lay within the boarders of the Pax Romana, or the Roman Peace, while the war between good and evil continued to rage along the frontiers.

Christian mission has to pursue contextualization while avoiding syncretism. On the one hand, contextualization is the retelling of the Christian story in the language of a particular culture’s false gospel; for example, saying that Jesus is Lord instead of Caesar or saying that God is defeating evil through the cross rather than through human war. Syncretism, on the other hand, holds on to the original false gospel while adding a gloss of Christian language and symbols on top.

Writing in the early 1800s during the development of German nationalism, G. F. Hegel used Christian language to express ideas that were patently un-Christian. He fashioned his philosophy of history after the Creation-Fall-Redemption structure of the Christian story while completely identifying God with the historical process itself. As a variation on the myth of redemptive violence, Hegel identified violent struggle between competing political ideologies as the driving force in human progress. When we hear academics today call liberal democracy the “end of history,” or when we hear politicians say that the United States has a “calling from history” or that “the war on terror is the defining ideological struggle of our generation,” Hegel is the quiet elephant sitting in the corner.

One major challenge for Christians in the United States today (especially theologically conservative evangelicals like the authors of this article) arises from the fact that two of many Americans’ most valued political ideologies also tell violent grand narratives, Social Progressivism and Neo-Conservatism. The older one, Social Progressivism, developed in competition with Communism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The newer one, Neo-Conservatism, grew out of Liberal Anti-Communism in the 1970s during a resurgence of interest in Hegel’s philosophy of history. Each of these political ideologies envisions a utopian future brought into the present by efficient violence and skillful use of less violent, but still coercive, soft power.

Over the past few years and across the U. S. political spectrum, clever speech writers and political consultants have decided to use Christian language to communicate their secular ideologies. One political party has begun trying to use “the language of faith” to win back religious voters. The other major party, which has been contextualizing its political vision into Christian language for several decades now, has recently included in its rationale for two wars religious rhetoric claiming that “History” or “Providence” (depending on the audience) has called our nation to vanquish evil. Our president and his speechwriters have taken words from the Bible about Jesus and applied them to American idealism: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.” Neo-conservative intellectuals and policy makers are talking about a Pax Americana and arguing that the U.S. military is “the greatest force for freedom the world has ever known.” They believe that violent American power, wisely directed at establishing democratic governments sympathetic to the interests of a globalized free market, has the best chance of bringing order to a barbaric and chaotic world of terror.

Sincere, Bible-believing Christians often will disagree about particular political issues, including how most effectively the United States should fight hostile terrorism in a post-9/11 world. Even so, when narrowly focused narratives about the political process morph into all-encompassing stories about human development and restoration, they have gone too far. Grand political ideologies about the violent unfolding of human history are false gospels, plain and simple.

We see two ways that these false gospels have sometimes become synchronized with American Christianity. In some communities, political ideology is brought into the church and completely melted with Christian language and theology into a single thought system. But syncretism also happens when political ideology gets artificially sealed off from the rest of our theology and assigned to the task of political, social, and material salvation. We must beware our tendencies to keep Jesus as our spiritual savior while making the glorious violence of the U.S. military our hope for a better world. The only way to confront this compartmentalized form of syncretism is to do what Paul does in his letter to the Colossians: announce that Jesus is Lord Redeemer of all areas of life, including all powers and authorities, and that his victory over the forces of evil happened on the cross and in his resurrection.

In general, conservative evangelicals in the U. S. are behind when it comes to identifying and publicly denouncing the myth of redemptive violence in our culture’s political ideologies. Why have we been so slow? We have been slow because this terminology first developed among liberal theologians like Walter Wink in the early Nineties. We have been slow because much of the impetus for denouncing the myth of redemptive violence has come from the Sojourner’s movement and from others who identify themselves as theologically evangelical and conservative but politically progressive, a scary label for many of us. We have been slow because the helpful concepts criticizing the redemptive violence myth have been inappropriately used to criticize God’s violent judgment upon sin and the sacrificial atonement Jesus offered to his Father on the cross. Finally, our natural alliance with U. S. socio-economic-political power (domestically as well as internationally) might cause us to lose a great deal in terms of our socio-economic-political comforts if we criticize the ideology that helps to underpin that power.

Because we think in terms of redemptive history and believe that Jesus is Lord over all of life, we should be the first Christians to protest when violent political ideologies are expressed with the language and structure of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation. We should be the first to protest when politicians use biblical language about Jesus to describe American ideals spreading violently around the world. And we should be the first to distinguish carefully between the judgment of God, which is appropriately violent, and eschatological progress in this age between the two advents of Christ, which has nothing to do with the violent advance of benevolent empires or political ideologies. In the Bible, violence is punishment, not progress.

Embracing God’s mission around the world means opposing false gospels that compete against Jesus’ way of bringing God’s reign to earth. Like all human beings, Christians will always have hopes for the future, political and otherwise, and we might communicate those hopes in the form of stories. But we shouldn’t pair Jesus up with a political ideology and teach that each is sovereign over their respective realms. Some of us might continue to identifying ourselves as progressive or conservative on Election Day, but without a syncretistic gospel, we might not accuse Christians from another political persuasion of working for the Enemy.

A just peace is a goal toward which all Christians can gladly aspire. We will disagree on how to move toward that goal, especially regarding political-military issues. Surely, though, we can agree that espousing military violence as the primary means by which a just peace will be achieved is a false gospel. Jesus reigns, and he is returning. May that gospel shape the contours of our hopes and dreams for God’s redemption of his world.

Author Bio:: Bill McLellan is a senior at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.

Dr. J. Nelson Jennings is a professor of world mission at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.

My Political Memoir

September 16, 2008

(originally published on Steve Holt’s blog)

If you haven’t noticed, 2008 is an election year.

(Some of you just muttered to yourself, “So that’s why they keep showing that toothy guy and old man on the news!”)

A certain excitement surrounds presidential elections. Much of it is media-induced, as was evident by the earlier-than-ever start to the primary season (summer 2007). But a lot of it is, I think, a genuine yearning in the hearts of Americans to start fresh, wipe the slate clean, or move in a new direction. That’s why every candidate in the race is using buzz words like “hope” and “change” and “new direction.” I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t more than a little caught up in the political fever myself.

But I’ve come to a point where I can no longer attach any of those adjectives - hope, change, etc - in their deepest, truest meanings, to the political process. Though I am still a deeply political person, I refuse to be political in the way we are told to be political - by voting, by supporting one of two major parties, by pushing for legislation, by seeking to leverage my own power and strength.

It hasn’t always been this way, however.

My parents raised my brother and me to be good Democrats. We denigrated Reagan economic policy around the house and rooted for Dukakis to defeat George Bush and the Republican machine in 1988. The 1990s were political glory days around our house … Bubba could do no wrong. He was a guy to whom my dad, who has spent much of his life in Arkansas’ neighboring Memphis, could relate. In his smooth, Southern accent, he spoke of compassion and peace and health care for all Americans. Even Clinton’s legal woes with Watergate and Monica-gate didn’t diminish the big guy’s celebrity around the house. Heading off to college, I had received more than my fair share of political indoctrination - not in a heavy-handed way, but in the subtle way parents pass along their own ideologies to their kids. Needless to say, I went off to college in Texas with my mind made up about whom I was going to vote for in the 2000 election.

In fact, when I arrived on campus at my overwhelmingly Republican university, I immediately joined the tiny but faithful College Democrats club. At the first meeting, I was even selected to serve as the vice president during the 2000-2001 year. That election year, we would show up for debates against the College Republicans (a veritable machine on campus…), sign folks in town up to vote, attempt to broaden the debate on campus from just two issues dealing with sexuality to issues of justice, the environment, and the economy. Looking back, this snot-nosed freshman really didn’t know what the heck he thought about much of anything, certainly not enough to deserve the VP position in the college Dems. I think I was more concerned with being different from my “war-loving, vitriol-spewing, poor people-oppressing, trust fund baby” (my perhaps misguided thoughts at the time) Republican friends. (you should have seen my Al Gore Halloween costume, though…)

I think we all remember what happened in the 2000 election.

“Projected Winner: Al Gore” … oh, wait. Hanging chads. Gore wins the popular vote. Florida Supreme Court. Bush wins, weeks later, by a hair. Gore cries (has he stopped?).

We were all devastated.

Most of our friends were electrified. A Texas boy had made good and gotten to the White House. Bush’s supporters at the university that gave him an honorary degree (along with Charlton Heston) could finally say they knew him when…

I developed a much more robust personal political philosophy over the next few years, primarily because I had so much material to work with. Right out of the gate, George W. Bush’s cowboy attitude just rubbed me the wrong way. (and as a writer, the Bushisms annoyed the heck out of me!) Then came 9/11, which I helped cover for the school newspaper of which I was a member, and the political poo hit the fan. We were staging an all-out retaliation in a country that had little, if anything, to do with what happened to us on that Tuesday morning in New York. America’s leaders, led by Bush himself, took a page from the Toby Keith school of foreign policy and threatened to “put a boot in the ass” of anyone who crossed us.

Patriotism was also at an all-time high. One could see flags everywhere, and often they were accompanied by pithy statements like “These Colors Don’t Run” or “Freedom Isn’t Free.” Even many so-called progressives rallied behind the flag and our president and supported returning the slap that Islamic terrorists had given us. Through all this flag-waving, though, I kept thinking, “What about the Afghan children? Are they less precious than our own children? Is our own ‘homeland security’ more important than Afghanistan’s?”

Then we invaded Iraq. The rationale never quite squared with me. Tension had been building for months over supposed WMDs inside Iraq, but to date, none had been found. Then came Dubya on the TV set during primetime saying we had begun a “shock & awe” attack on Baghdad in an effort to free the Iraqi people from tyrannical Saddam Hussein. No mention of WMDs. There was, however, some connection made to what happened to us on 9/11, but I couldn’t (and still can’t) see how any of that rationale adds up. All I saw was an emboldened empire seeking to expand its reach using military might. It was way beyond retaliation at this point … this was pre-emptive war. I saw it then and I see it now.

The night of the shock & awe campaign, I wrote an editorial for the school newspaper applauding the US for attempting to root out Saddam quickly and without much collateral damage. A quick in and out procedure. Five years and 60,000 deaths later…

These events, as well as the ongoing war, kick-started my disillusionment with the tactics of the U.S. Government in foreign policy. I began to see that the American project doesn’t exactly square with my primary identity as a citizen in God’s kingdom, and that both political parties (not just one, as I’d previously thought) were guilty. Sure, the parties talk a good game with regard to justice and values, but in the end, the status quo must be maintained. (which means people around the world and right under our noses are squeezed to the margins or destroyed) These realizations were further underscored when I began investigating the un-reported intimidation, extortion, dishonesty, and even murder US officials were committing around the world to bolster the wealth and power of the nation. (John Perkins’ memoir, “Confessions of an Economic Hitman,” was especially eye-opening) This is about when I began referring to America as an Empire. That’s right, empire - like Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Great Britain. (watch this video if you’re not convinced)

Indeed, the lily-white history of the United States I received in elementary school was, for the first time, in question in my mind. As my eyes were opened to the reality that my fellow countrymen and women were killing my brothers and sisters in Iraq and Afghanistan while the American church stands behind such action - even cheering it on - a new light was shed on how the last 200 years or so have proven to be a slow march toward empire-building for America. In light of these realities, how could I comply with the political system, as is? How could I put any hope in a system that, at its very essence, places nation over the Cross? Furthermore, how could I continue to support candidates and parties that support economic systems that run counter to God’s economics policy of Jubilee?

In the 2004 election, my wife and I placed opposing votes in Texas in order to cancel the other’s out. This was our first act of political subversion, albeit largely insignificant. It was, however, significant for us personally, setting us on a pathway of deepening our identities as citizens first and foremost in God’s kingdom, not man’s.

For the last four years, my political theory - in light of my theological convictions as a follower of Jesus - has been shaped and formed, and the writings of Yoder, Hauerwas, Wright, Claiborne, and others have impacted me greatly.

Many have traded the political ideologies of the Religious Right (a failed experiment) for more progressive political views, still informed by faith. Leaders in this movement, which include Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, among others, have correctly called Christians to broaden their view of justice and righteousness from a couple sexual issues to include the environment, poverty, economic disparity, consumerism, and peace. In many ways, I have these thinkers to thank for sparking the conversation about the problems in the current political system and foci among Christians. I have come to see, however, that these leaders are still calling for participation in the politics of Empire in order to attain societal justice. And while the movement claims to be “non-partisan,” anyone with their eyes open can see that it has become the Christian Left. And because the Left is just as hell-bent as the Right about maintaining and expanding empire, maintaining a consumerist economy, and waging war, I cannot with a clean conscience adhere to this movement. (though I consider many who do my friends)

I recently read Shane Claiborne & Chris Haw’s new book, Jesus For President, which to a great degree spells out where I’ve come politically. It’s the book I would have liked to have written.

JFP maintains that Jesus was in fact political (it is a common misconception that he wasn’t), but not in the conventional way of the time. He subverted the Roman Empire with his words and deeds and even the names people ascribed to him, which were all dripping with political irony and meaning. He continually established and underscored his own kingship (not Caesar’s), and promised that true, sustainable change would occur when people fix their eyes on Jesus and join Jesus in the work of reconciling all things. A thorough and open-minded reading of the Gospels sheds light on this convincingly, I think. So it’s not a question of whether Jesus-followers are to be political, but how this is done. (more on this in the days to come)

Furthermore, God knew that too much power in the hands of sin-proned humans was a dangerous thing. (see the Old Testament for example after example) Yet the cries of the people - “We want a king!” - prevailed, and God gave them over to their wishes. (with a not-so-subtle warning, of course) Today, millions of Christians are yelling, “We want a king!” Their ideal king may have an (R) or a (D) after his name, may make promises that fit their values to a T, and may in their minds hold the last hopes for a just and righteous society, but in the end, the candidate is an imperfect, frail human. And I’ve said it before, but I’m convinced that the office of President - or state rep, senator, congressman, mayor, or any political office - shapes the person much more than the person shapes the office. In the end, Barack Obama and John McCain will be just as interested in Empire-building and war-mongering as any other president who has come along. The machine simply cannot be stopped.

So this is where I’m at politically. I want to stand with the poor and marginalized now more than ever, but I don’t believe the voting booth is where I should stand. I want to see God’s “kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven” now more than ever, but the Empire - with its penchant for war, expansion, wealth-creation, and being first (Jesus told us to be last) - is diametrically opposed to this dream. God’s peculiar people must continue the work set forth by our brothers and sisters throughout history to affirm that only God can create a new reality, establish justice, and sit on the throne - as King.

Author Bio:: Steve Holt is a disciple, writer, husband, and proud father to an apricot mini poodle, and he lives and conspires in East Boston, MA. You can find his musings about faith, culture, and mission at

Downshifting: Out From Under the Shadow of Death

September 12, 2008

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Why I am not a primitivist

September 11, 2008

I’m very sympathetic to the house church or “simple church” model.  As far as structures and models go, it is a great ecclesial starting point. I think every would-be church planter should start with simple and move towards complexity after honest and thoughtful logistical and theological reflection.

Conventional wisdom used to be that house churches and simple churches were the domain for pissed off anti-intellectuals who don’t know how to play well with others. But with the success of folks like Neil Cole, Frank Viola, Alan Hirsch, Robert Banks, etc., simple churches have gained respectability.

From time to time I get emails from people or run into people who assume that I am something of a primitivist. A primitivist is someone who believes that we ought to get back to doing church the way it was done in Acts. They read Acts 2 and 4 and see a decentralized house church movement and think that we ought to do house churches because it was what they did.  I disagree.

The early church “did” church a certain way for a number of reasons.  I think a lot of it was driven by cultural assumptions and logistical necessity.  The truth is, there weren’t lots of buildings that one could rent for large gatherings.  It makes complete sense to meet in homes during their day.

However, I believe that they did church a certain way out of theological reasons as well.  They believed that “church” = “family.” Kinship language is used frequently when expressing the reality of the Church.  Church is commonly refered to as the oikos (household), we are brothers and sisters in Christ.  Christ is the firstborn.  God is our abba, etc.

They also did church a certain way because they seemed to be of the impression that there was only one high priest (Jesus) and the rest of us are all priests.  There is no strict hierarchy of any sort in the New Testament.  Every form of leadership was decentralized.  There were plural elders, plural deacons, plural apostles, and none of these embodied a “lordly” sort of authority.  Instead, the authority was that of charism (Spirit-gifting for ministry).  The Holy Spirit directed and led through the people, who were to consider themselves a temple of flesh and blood.  And in such a scenario, some may be called to lead, and some may have a stronger hand in decision making, but we never see any one person vested with the authority to make determinative decisions on behalf of an entire congregation.

Our church forms communicate theological assumptions. It is a beautiful thing when a community shares decision making and acts like a family of priests who are willing to adopt others into the family. It is a beautiful thing when they practice hospitality and share good things with those in need.

Unfortunately, the temptation with church forms–including house churches–is that folks sometimes get so focused on the form of church that they forget the important things like being Spirit-led, loving, hospitable, and gracious. Rather, they become focused on propagating an agenda.

When we started Missio Dei, we had a house church agenda…the form mattered more than the quality of our relationships.  Because of that, Missio Dei had to die twice in order to be reborn into a group of people who don’t sweat the structure so much as long as what we do is determined thoughfully, lovingly, and prayerfully. As Missio Dei comes up on its 5th Anniversary, my thoughts reach back. I’m reminded of how naive I was, how insistent I was that things had to be a certain way, and how much pressure I felt to perform.

If I had it to do all over again, I would simply to gather friends together in our house to pray and dream–to not have expectations or agendas except only to listen to the Spirit about what he wanted to do among us. The hard part of that, of course, is that when the Spirit speaks into our listening ears, we have to decide whether or not we will obey. When we come into things with a rigid agenda–even one as basic as primitivism–it can stiffle the move of the Spirit.

When is it ok to be a jerk?

September 10, 2008

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The Value of Money

September 9, 2008

£5 billion (about $US 10 billion) sounds like a lot of money. So what is worth $10 billion?

Half a London Olympics.

The annual profit of Google.

10 Space Shuttle launches.

And one physics experiment in Switzerland.

The CERN experiment officially begins with what is heavily promoted as ‘Big Bang Day’. Stephen Hawking, the remarkable scientist has said that the experiment is:

vital if the human race is not to stultify and eventually die out Together they cost less than one tenth of a per cent of world GDP. If the human race can not afford this, then it doesn’t deserve the epithet ‘human’

I am not a nuclear physicist, so the explanation does not make a lot of sense to me - it is something about recreating conditions found after the Big Bang to better understand the nature of the universe. Some maintain that there is a small chance the experiment will produce a Black Hole which will destroy the planet. In which case I will have wasted precious moments writing this.

Anyway. If there are any nuclear physicists out there, it would be nice to know why this is experiment is ‘vital for the human race’. Maybe they are expecting to find a new energy source, I don’t know.

I know this sounds rather predictable to some, but I would really like to know how we (the tax-payers of Europe who are paying for this thing) can justify the cost in a world of hunger.

According to the World Bank, the cost of meeting all of the millennium development goals would be $40-60 billion per year. It is said that the cost of educating every child to at least a primary school level would be about $10 billion.

In the face of world hunger, disease and poverty, can the world afford these vanity projects?

By the way, US consumers spent $15.4 billion on petfood in 2006 and about $9 billion on breakfast cereal.

Author Bio:: Joe is not sure he can justify his own existence.

Praying for/to change

September 9, 2008

One of my online friends, responding to the sickening contrast between the “country first” patriotic spectacle that went on at the Republican National Convention and the brutal reality of repression and violence in which the very same “greatest nation in the world” is embedded, made a stirring statement today, concluding that “If we are the best country in the world, it is only because all the other countries are so much worse.”

My friend wants to change the world. He wants to change the church. He wants “the true God, the true Christ of compassion and love and justice and goodness to have a true place here, instead of the lip service He is paid in order to receive votes.” At the end of his outpouring of passion, he says he is desperate to change the church - but admits he doesn’t know how.

I will be the first to admit that I do not have a comprehensive solution to the question. I don’t think any one person does or can, and God doesn’t seem to be in any big hurry to lay out a step-by-step process.

Then again, why should we expect that of God - of the God whose way of fixing the immense problems of sin, death, and injustice in the world did not begin with annihilation of enemies or the laying down of a 12-step plan, but with instructing a faithful man to leave his home, his country, to sojourn in a land where he would be a stranger, with commissioning a people to live justly and practice mercy, and finally with sending the Son who did not work according to the ways of the world but rather instructed us to love our enemies, pray for those who hurt us, and embodied his instruction by going to the cross, instructing his disciples to do likewise? Why should we expect this God, who has never been especially constrained by human understanding and expectations to lay us down a point-by-point explanation of how to fix things? The God whose mode of operation has always been relational, has always been dynamic, has always had to do not as much with “getting things done” as being faithful to who God is and who we have been created to be?

I could have replied in any number of ways trying to relate his right desire to see the church be faithful to the way of Jesus. I’ve written elsewhere about worship as formative of an alternative imagination leading to new ways of living. One of my own favorite things is to start a Bible study and look at the Sermon on the Mount, or a passage from the Prophets, or the economic instructions to Israel (such as the Jubilee), or Colossians in its context as a subversion of Roman political propaganda. But in reply to my friend, I sensed that none of these would-be solutions would really touch his heart to see meaningful change within the church

My suggestion?

How to change the church? Pray. Pray with people, and pray for people. But especially pray with them, and pray for the victims of violence. Pray for them by name, pray for specific situations, and especially pray for people in whose deaths and injuries and injustices we are complicit. By name. In the presence of flesh-and-blood people.

Not only that, but pray for those who are enemies. Pray for Osama bin Ladin, not just to have “salvation” but to truly find peace and joy in life, to experience the fullness of the life God created him to experience. Pray for the leaders of Iran, Hamas, China, and other places that are perceived as America’s enemies.

Pray for our leaders, not just that they would be wise or strong or good, but that they would see the world through Jesus’ eyes, that they would heed Jesus’ instruction to love neighbor, love enemy, feed the hungry, care for the poor, sick, and needy - that they would use their power and authority not to stockpile more power, or money, or whatever, but that they would use it to ensure that God’s will is done, that justice is a reality, that no one goes hungry in a world where we produce enough food for everyone to have enough to eat more than twice over.

These are eye-opening prayers, both for the one speaking and the one listening (in human terms).

Some friends and I once operated a 24-7 prayer room here in Evansville, and one of our stated goals was to challenge people to pray for missions, not just in the usual sense, but in an “expanded sense” including God’s heart for justice as a part of missions. We prayed prayers very much like this, and did in fact see several people have changes of heart - not just because we prayed FOR them, but also WITH them, so they could hear the words coming out of our mouths that we believed reflected God’s heart. There is power in that kind of prayer.

What kind of prayers do you pray for people, with people? Is there an opportunity for you to pray this kind of prayer where you are? If not, how can you create spaces where this kind of prayer can take place? I don’t ask simply because I want to hear about where you are, but also because I long to create this kind of space again and need a booster shot in my own imagination. How are you doing it? How could you do it? What might this look like? Let’s imagine together.

Give what to Caesar?

September 3, 2008

Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s. — Jesus

If ever there was a part of the Bible that seems tailor-made to affirm our so-called “separation of Church and State”, the relegation of religion into a private sphere while civic life inhabits the public, this would be the one. Indeed, many people with whom I have discussed issues related to faith and radicalism, especially Christianity and anarchism, bring out this text as a “proof” that what we are doing is somehow Biblically inadequate. I would say this is the text most employed for that purpose after Romans 13:1-7. The general popular view seems to be that this text either advocates such a separation as mentioned above, counsels “making nice” with the authorities, or both. When the statement is read in its context, however, this view becomes untenable.

Since this is Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, which my church follows, I’ll stick to Matthew’s telling of the story.

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away (Matthew 22:15-22, TNIV).

A few things worth noting:

  1. This is a trap. It would have been well-known by this time that, at the very least, a large number of people considered Jesus to be the Messiah or a related figure (the Prophet, etc.), a role which would have carried very specific revolutionary and anti-imperial connotations. We know now that resistance movements against the Romans were, if not a dime a dozen, far from uncommon - and usually dealt with harshly. That is precisely the genius of the trap: If Jesus answers the question in the affirmative, that the tax should be paid, he gives legitimacy to Israel’s status as subject to Rome, and therefore undermines himself in the eyes of the people - in addition to committing an offense under the Mosaic Law (ironic, since the Pharisees were supposedly all about the law). If he answers in the negative, he is guilty of sedition and subject to punishment, likely crucifixion (which, as we all know, is exactly what eventually happened to Jesus).
  2. It was not just disciples of the Pharisees who went to Jesus, but also Herodians, that is to say members of the collaborative government. Far from being simply an internal matter of faith and civic life, this is a confrontation between Jesus and representatives both of his own people (and Pharisees generally had no love for the establishment) and of the imperial oppressors.
  3. The imperial tax in question was levied by Rome only on subject peoples, not on Roman citizens. It was a particularly hated tax, and could ONLY be paid with Roman coin. The temple coin and local currencies were considered worthless for the purpose of paying this tax. Thus the tax not only imposed a burden on subject peoples, but reinforced the image of Roman superiority and of Caesar’s status due to the inscriptions found on the coin.
  4. The question Jesus asks is “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” That is, whose image is on the coin, and to whom does the inscription refer? The question is of monumental importance.

The image and inscription on the coin, as Jesus’ questioner recognizes, are Caesar’s - Tiberius Caesar, the emperor at the time. This much is given in the text explicitly, but what modern readers fail to realize is that it was precisely the image and inscription that caused great offense to the Jews. The image of Caesar would widely have been seen by the Jews to be a violation of the command to “have no graven image”, the second commandment from the Decalogue. As if that was not offensive enough, the inscription to which Jesus refers would have translated as “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus”. Tiberius, son of the god, Augustus. And, of course, if his father was a god, what would that make Tiberius the son? Thus the coin breaches the first commandment as well.

In Jewish eyes this coin was a mockery of and an affront to their most cherished beliefs - that YHWH alone is God, and cannot be imaged by anything created by human hands. It is this very affront that was the reminder of the Jews’ subjugation to the pagan imperial powers - it was not just a “civic” matter, separate from “religious” concerns, but a fundamental challenge to their identity as God’s chosen people. This coin and the tax it was used to pay represented the whole oppressive system that entangled the Jews, and for Jesus to legitimate it would have done more than just undermine his status before the people - it may have set him up for a lynching, particularly since one of the expected tasks of the Messiah was to re-establish Torah as the primary guide for the life of the people and, as mentioned above, paying the tax was technically illegal under the Mosaic law.

This is a prophetic confrontation worthy of being noted with Elijah on Mount Carmel, an encounter with critical implications. Not only did the coin breach the first two commandments of the Decalogue, but on the reverse side it had an inscription referring to peace, the Pax Romana, which everyone knew was enforced by violence and threat, and lauding Tiberius as the Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest of the empire and its subject peoples. The Messiah was the one who was to usher in the reign of God’s peace, the true peace, and also to take on the role of the high priest of God’s people (a belief the author of Hebrews applies to Jesus quite creatively). That is, the Messiah was to be God’s priest-king, combining the roles of David, Melchizidek, and Judah Maccabbee from Jewish lore. The coin essentially claims that for Caesar which was only true of the Messiah - only true of Jesus.

So how does Jesus reply? “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” In other words, “This coin represents Caesar’s reality, the one you accept by rejecting God’s truth as you have done and obstinately continue to do despite my repeated efforts to call you back to faithfulness (remember that in the next chapter Jesus delivers a scathing rebuke to the Pharisees and chief priests). Give it back to him and do not bother with it any more than you have to - it should be of no consequence to you, but because of your lust for power you entangle yourselves in Caesar’s world. Give it back to him, consider it of no importance. Forget it, and get on with the true reality, the reality God has created and has chosen you for as would-be leaders of his people. Remember God’s will, and do it!”

There is no room for separate spheres of “religious” and “political” in Jesus’ reply. As William Cavanaugh likes to say, scripture says “The earth is the LORD’s, and all that is in it.” If the whole earth belongs to God, then what does that leave for Caesar? The only thing Caesar gets is his own image thrown back in his face, the symbol of his non-reality that cannot stand up to the truth of God’s reign and the coming kingdom.

Jesus’ statement is far from an endorsement either of modern liberal views on religion and the state inhabiting different spheres or of any kind of allegiance given to the imperial powers (nor is it, I believe, primarily about tax resistance, though some forms of tax resistance may be possible applications of the text). Instead, it is fundamentally a challenge to the vision of reality the powers would push upon his people and a call, I believe, for his followers to seek to disentangle themselves from the web of power politics and economics. After all, if we do not have what belongs to Caesar, if our economy is (as much as possible) extracted from the imperial economy, what can we possibly be obligated to give? Jesus’ response to this trap question urges us to enter into the divine imagination to strive to re-conceive our economic and power relations to one another.

What might such an alternate imagination look like, and what sorts of ways of living might be engendered by it? How can such an imagination be birthed and nurtured?

Democracy Matters: Discourse, Practice, Reality

September 3, 2008

In Democracy Matters Cornel West, that prophet of American democracy and Christianity, makes an impassioned plea for all those concerned with true justice and freedom to stand up and take back democracy from those who would rather have an Empire than a Republic.

In a chapter on American Christianity West gives a compelling recital of prophetic Christians and their legacy in America, as well as an indicting rehearsal of the rise of the Christian Right, which he calls Constantinian Christians (rightly so).  Relying on the work of Jeffrey Stout (Democracy and Tradition) he also offers a critique of those who would resist the realms of public policy.

West suggests that those who make “impassioned arguments for the distancing of religion from American public discourse” (161) (he names Hauerwas and Milbank) are also suggesting a retreat from the public practices which seeks the public good in order to gather in some sectarian enclave.  West (and others following this critique [see whole post]) seem to assume that to distance oneself from a secular ‘public discourse’ means to abdicate all social practices.

But this is not the case.  We must make a distinction between democratic matters as they are talked about (discourse) and as they are acted out (practice).   Many, like Hauerwas and Milbank, are concerned that to participate in democracy is to be locked into State oriented practices (voting, lobbying) and secular discourses (humanism, secularism), vitiating the specifically Christian practices and discourses.   On this level, Christian thinker are concerned when ‘democracy matters’ are focused on State power, as ‘State matters’.

But it is deeper than this in regard to democracy.  For true democracy entails both the act of local nurturing and care (practice) and the act of prophetic voicing (discourse).  In this regard, Romand Coles faults Cornel West for being mostly a prophetic scholarly voice who does not attend to the prophetic struggler’s work (he has in mind the work of Ella Baker of the SNCC).  Coles contrast the need for receptive liturgical work (practices) to prophetic work (discourse).  In this regard, the local, liturgical work of neighborhoods and communities constitutes often a truer democracy that State oriented discourses between elites and specialist.  This, I believe, is what those who advocate a distance from “public discourse” are advocating.

Now, the question of voting has a special status here because it is both a concrete democratic practice which also has a highly symbolic (and therefore discursive) value.  Those who advocate not voting take aim at the discourse of democracy (and the story of ‘freedom’ and ‘salvation’ which democracy tells itself), while those who advocate voting look to the hard earned practice of true democracy.  Those who resist voting claim that what we have is not true democracy (but a violent regime) and those who advocate voting see it as an expression of democracy and freedom, even if it is not a perfect situation.

Now of course, I have yet to define “democracy” and to do so would be to fall into mere discourse.  For me, on the level of national discourse, to equate “democracy” with the “Kingdom of God” is idolatry and foolishness; but on the level of local practice, striving for democracy will often equal striving for the Kingdom of God.

Democracy and the Kingdom of God are not things we have, but something we are building, or being built into.

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