This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Standing and Kneeling.

As a follower of Jesus, my main concern is discerning how he would respond to situations we face today, and acting accordingly.  Hence, in a controversy like this one over whether professional athletes should stand for the playing of the National Anthem, or “take a knee” in protest, considerations like “respecting the flag” or “free speech” don’t mean that much to me.  I have to consider what the Lord Jesus would have me do based on what he himself does and teaches.
  1. In the New Testament I find no record that the Lord Jesus ever participates in displays or rituals of patriotism.  Did he stand in respect every time a Roman army unit went by?  As a Jew he could not possibly have accepted or recognized the graven images of eagles that they carried.  What we do know is that he was criticized by establishment figures for his lack of patriotic fervor in adhering to the Law that constituted his own people’s national identity.         
  2. He was forced to stand when he was on trial before the Sanhedrin, Pilate, and Herod.  But his words to them, if he speaks at all, reflect and express humility, dignity, honesty, courage, and trust in God.  He pointedly denies their authority over him, even as they engineer his death.
  3. He says that if you want to participate in the emperor’s system you should expect to be made to pay what the emperor demands (Luke 20:25a).  But we should rather worship and serve God alone, not conceding the Emperor’s claims at all.  “Give to God what belongs to God” (Luke 20:25b) he says; and it all belongs to God (Psalm 24:1).
  4. The Lord says that his followers should, when someone in the gospel community offends them, bear witness to the offense privately.  If there is no restitution, the matter should come before witnesses, culminating with the entire group.  In other words, if someone in the church comes and tells me I am harming them, I am bound to repent of what I was doing and make amends (Matthew 18:15-17).  Extending this to society generally would mean that if my neighbor testifies to an injustice I am committing, I am bound to take their word for it and change my ways.  Arguing with them and/or changing the subject are excluded.
  5. We know that Jesus always sided with the violated, oppressed, excluded, sick, disenfranchised, and abused.  Always.  (Eg. Matthew 25:31-46)  
We’re talking about football and other sports.  These are spectacles of entertainment, competition, and sometimes violence.  (It reminds me that for early Christians attending gladiatorial events was forbidden.)  The practitioners are often well paid, at least at the highest level.  In some sports, especially football, they incur some physical risk.  Many came out of poor backgrounds, or are members of minority groups.

We’re also talking about the arbitrary addition of a patriotic ritual to these events, which has nothing to do with anything about the game itself.  It is a mystery to me why we do this, except that it became a tradition sometime in the early years of baseball, probably around the time of World War I, is my guess.  And once you start doing something like this it immediately becomes nearly impossible to stop doing it without offending someone.  (Churches know this all-too-well, as national flags started appearing in worship spaces around the same time.)  This worked, I suppose, when a majority and their leaders could impose a common story on everyone.  

The problem we have now is that this common story is unraveling.  It is unraveling because of the facts which are now allowed to come to light, which had been suppressed.  The main fact, according to the testimony of Mr. Kaepernick, who began this silent protest, is rampant bias and brutality against members of the African-American community on the part of the American criminal justice system.  This is undeniable.  It is also nothing new.  But technology has advanced to the point that we now witness it on a regular basis.  Obviously, the  communities victimized by it always knew about it.  But now everyone does.

In a choice between participating in an arbitrary display of patriotism, and identifying with oppressed people, there simply isn’t any question at all which side Jesus is on.  The New Testament offers zero instances of the former, while Jesus does the latter all the time.  Not only that, but he is himself a victim of the same kind of brutality on the part of law enforcement that is chronically inflicted on poor and minority communities (Mark 15:17-20).

At the same time, it is hard to imagine Jesus having any interest at all in professional sports (although he has deep compassion for the people involved).  But he could very well suggest that, like with Caesar’s money, if you’re going to participate in Caesar’s spectacle you should expect to pay Caesar’s admission fee.  Even so, he sides with the hated and reviled, rejecting the claims of power and pride.


Friday, August 25, 2017

Where Is the Urgency?

The problem with many mainstream Protestants today is that we don’t take this Christianity thing seriously enough.  Having wisely dispensed with the fear of hell-fire as the major motivator for faith, we replaced it with… well, nothing.  We have no urgency to our proclamation of the good news.  We convey the view that it really doesn’t matter to you or anyone else whether you follow Jesus or not.  Church is our little private hobby, and you are welcome to join us.  But it’s unlikely to make much of a difference in your life beyond having some nice new friends.

We see this lack of seriousness all over.  Like when we dole out the Sacraments with scant preparation, understanding, attention to detail, or investment of time.  Or when we treat church like one of many options for spending our leisure time, or a matter of personal convenience.  Nurturing our faith is at the bottom of our to-do list… and deservedly so, because we don’t feel we are getting enough out of it to make it a priority.  When we assume sermons are for entertainment and comfort, or when we assume church is mainly for the upholding of the past and not for transformation, we are making it irrelevant, not to society but to Jesus himself.  

When church is at best something to “think about” all week, but not put into practice, then it is mostly a waste of time.   

Consequently, we have devolved into the assembly of the nice whose main goal is affirm you in doing your thing, whatever that is.  That seems to be the only urgency we can muster.  God forbid we should ever tell anyone, especially ourselves, “no.”  Which means we don’t open ourselves to any of the really important things to say “yes” to.     

I suggest there is a greater urgency that we are conveniently ignoring because it would cost us too much.  Following Jesus actually means something; it has definite consequences and effects on ourselves and others.  It changes your life, and because it changes lives it changes the world.  Following Jesus has specific behavioral content; it is to live rather differently from the mainstream.  Not just for the sake of being different.  But because people’s lives and the life of the whole planet are at stake.

So here’s the urgency: if we don’t follow Jesus and his Way, characterized by simplicity, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, non-violence, humility, justice, healing, love, and joy, then our planet, our world, our communities, our families, our relationships, and even our health will continue to degrade and disintegrate.

The alternative to Jesus’ Way is injustice, environmental degradation, an economy that worships and inspires greed, and a politics based on boasting, hubris, bluster, and ignorance.  It is extraction and acquisition.  It is waste and hoarding, while many go without.  It is terrible inequality.  
The alternative to Jesus’ Truth is lies.  It is spin, “fake news,” propaganda, and language totally conditioned by whomever paid for it.  It is fear mongering and hate-speech.  It is words detached from facts… but more importantly from compassion.     

The alternative to Jesus’ Life is death.  It is poverty, misery, disease, addiction, hunger, and powerlessness.  It is war, revolution, genocide, terrorism, and crime.  It is racism and white supremacy; it is mass incarceration, bigotry and oppression.

We don’t follow Jesus in order to “avoid hell and get to heaven.”  We follow Jesus to manifest heaven here and now and keep from turning the world into hell.

It is in truth the most important and urgent thing that people, no matter what their religion, culture, language, race, or status, follow Jesus.  The life of the world world depends on it.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Why the Church Must Address Privilege.


One of the ways colonialists control a conquered nation is by giving privileges to some groups but not to others.  This divide-and-conquer tactic generates resentment among those left out.  The genius of it is that people often don’t perceive the privileges they are getting.  So if anyone ever tries to establish equality, the privileged feel like they are losing and the others are gaining at their expense.  Colonialism thus depends on imposing a zero-sum mentality on people.  And, while groups of conquered people are distracted by maintaining, gaining, reducing the special privileges of some, the elite leaders and their cronies are quietly continuing to increase their own wealth and power.  Which is the whole point of colonialism.

This was the situation facing the early church.  The apostle Paul recognized it more clearly than most.  Some scholars, reading the New Testament in the context of the Roman Empire, suggest that this is the basis of his argument in Galatians.

Paul was inspired to write his letter to the Galatian congregation because they had been visited by a group telling them that in order to be complete as Christians they must formally convert to Judaism and keep the Jewish Law.  This was not merely a dispute about religious practices religious.  It had to do with privilege.

Jews in the Roman Empire had one important privilege: they were exempt from the requirement to worship the Emperor as a god.  It was mandatory for everyone else in the Empire to demonstrate loyalty to the State and express unity as subjects of the Emperor, by offering this regular worship.  Jews didn’t have to do this.  (Part of the deal was that the priests would pray for the Emperor in the Jerusalem Temple.)  

As long as the newly founded communities of Jesus-followers were considered Jews, they came under this legal exemption.  But with Paul converting increasing numbers of Gentiles to the faith, and not requiring them to be circumcised or to keep kosher, a rift developed.  The Jewish establishment was less and less inclined to accept as Jews these Gentile believers in Jesus.  If the Christians were not considered Jews, then they will lose the exemption, and face the requirement to worship the Emperor like everyone else, which of course would be a violation of their faith.

So the people who came to Galatia, whom we traditionally refer to as “Judaizers,” would have made the argument that the new Christians had a choice.  Either they could accept circumcision and the Law, remaining under the exemption from Emperor-worship, or they could be dismissed from Judaism.  In which case they would have to worship the Emperor or suffer the consequences, which could be severe.  The argument was very tempting: “Suffer a little pain now, and undertake the discipline and morality of Jewish Law, and you too can separate yourself from Rome.  Jesus himself was a Jew who kept the Law.  You can be one too.  We’re forming a new, liberated society according to God’s Law, as fulfilled in Jesus Christ.”  In other words, they probably sold Judaism as a way of resisting Rome, but within the system.

Paul’s whole mission to the Gentiles is anti-Roman to the core.  He is preaching about a man whom Rome executed on a cross, which was the penalty for sedition, but who did not stay dead, but is now risen and alive, and working spiritually in the lives and congregations of his followers.  They are worshiping a traitor to the Roman order.

Paul’s missional strategy included identification with the ethne, the term used for the many nations and peoples conquered and subjugated by Rome.  But he realized that the followers of Jesus could not identify fully with the people of the Empire if they grasped the privilege that came with being Jews… precisely because of who was deigning to grant them that privilege: Rome.

Jews were, Paul realized, just as conquered and subjugated as everyone else.  This is obvious in the Romans’ willingness to execute on a cross one whom they identified as “King of the Jews.”  The Jews were not God’s special people as far as Rome was concerned.  Rome’s treatment of Jesus — not to mention thousands of others — revealed that the Jews were just another victimized nation.  The State’s granting of an exemption from Emperor worship made them seem different and blessed.  But in reality this exemption was nothing less than proof that they were bought and paid for by Rome.

Participation in such a deal with Rome and acceptance of Rome’s exemption wedded the Jewish establishment to Rome.  It was to sell-out to the Empire, accepting the Empire’s gracious exemption, in return for loyalty.

If Gentiles started becoming officially Jewish, they would not be witnessing to a new world or the Kingdom of God; they would just be accepting privileges from Rome, separating them from everyone else.  It would be toxic to Paul’s mission.

Paul insisted that the way to follow the King of the Jews, Jesus Christ, was by rejecting all privilege, wealth, and power from the manipulative hands of the Roman conquerors.

Fast-forward to today.

Many white Christians are waking up to the privilege we have always enjoyed under Western Civilization and Christendom.  We white people didn’t even know we had these privileges.  We accepted the Modernist, liberal ideology that everyone is equal and everyone has the same opportunities, and if you’re not a success in this society it’s your own damn fault.  We have assumed the privileged status of Christianity, especially Protestantism, in our country.  We simply accepted it when we got off with warnings, light sentences, or low fines when we broke the law.  We believed that everyone can live where they want, shop where they want, buy what they want, drive where they want, and go to school where they want.

And so on.

For many reasons, this set of convenient and self-serving lies is beginning to crumble.  We are realizing that we have been and continue to be beneficiaries of a system steeply stacked in our favor.  And we also realize that this system has been routinely and reflexively manipulating privilege to pit different kinds of poor and working people against each other, to preserve and increase the wealth of the elite. 

Now what?

I think the missional example of the apostle Paul is that, first, followers of Jesus have to live like and with the oppressed, marginalized, exploited, rejected, incarcerated, conquered people Jesus comes into the world to save.  We have to reject our exemptions and privileges, and stand as accomplices with those who never had them.  Second, we have to build solidarity among oppressed groups in the spirit of Galatians 3:28, recognizing none of the divisions and pecking orders imposed by the elite.