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

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Cross Is Inherently Anti-Rome.

There is a lot going on in the New Testament that is not directly expressed in the actual words of the text.  Recent studies reveal that we have largely ignored or been ignorant of a major aspect of the context of these writings: the Roman Empire.  The Empire casts such a pervasive shadow over the text that we rarely if ever noticed it.  But once we notice it, we realize it is everywhere.
For instance, Paul’s writings don’t seem on the surface to be particularly anti-Rome.  But once we understand that crucifixion was a method of execution mainly if not exclusively reserved for political crimes like treason, sedition, terrorism, and anti-Rome activities.  Everyone would have known this at the time.  The gospel writers may have considered it so obvious as to be not worth mentioning.  This means that people would have understood immediately that any claim that a man crucified by Rome was nevertheless now alive, undercuts Rome’s whole strategy to maintain power.  It meant that their application of ruthless terror had failed, and their will controverted. It meant that, according to the graffiti of the day, “Jesus is Lord!” and therefore Caesar isn’t
This is not something that is readily apparent from the text.  Christian interpretation therefore went in different directions over the centuries, bottoming out in the “penal substitution” interpretation in the 11th century.  
Maybe the message of the cross was “an offense to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23) for reasons different from what we normally assume.  I was always taught that this is because they thought the idea of a suffering and dying god was either abhorrent or crazy.  But it is now not at all clear that they did believe that.  Greek gods could and did die.  There is even evidence from Hebrew tradition surrounding the First Temple that the anointed king represented YHWH, yet could, in some sense, die.

  Maybe the offense and folly had more to do with how unwise it was politically to challenge Rome by saying that crucifixion didn’t work in deterring sedition.  Maybe the Jews of the time were offended because, along with being a minority/heretical view of what the Messiah is supposed to do, it also unnecessarily antagonized Rome, with whom the Jews had negotiated a deal for survival.              

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Uzzah Was a Fiduciary.

There’s an obscure story in the Hebrew Bible about a guy named Uzzah.  Uzzah was given the job of escorting the Ark of the Covenant, which was bring carried on an ox-cart into Jerusalem after David conquered the city and made it his capital.  On the uneven road surface the cart was getting jostled around, and, in an act of responsible stewardship to prevent the ark from falling off the cart and possibly smashing on the pavement, Uzzah reaches out his hand to steady it… and God immediately strikes him dead on the spot.
I remember hearing my dad read this story in church when I was a kid.  It flabbergasted and upset me.  Here was Uzzah doing the right thing for the right reason, and getting hammered.  Here was a person being given authority and carrying it out thoughtfully, attentively, carefully, soberly, and reverently, exactly the qualities that I assumed that church was about cultivating in people.  Here was a man protecting what is good an holy from the accidents and liabilities of the world.  And wham!
The story teaches us that we do not protect, manage, control, provide for, or otherwise support God or God’s mission.  It is not our job to shepherd a delicate and vulnerable God through the vicissitudes of a dangerous and unstable world.  God made the world!  We are not called to be responsible for God or God’s mission.  We are not called to build God’s kingdom.  We are called only to get our ego-centric selves out of the way and participate humbly in what God is already doing.  We do not need to worry that it might be God’s purpose to smash the Ark of the Covenant on the pavement in Jerusalem.  If it is, then that is what we need to participate in. 
Under the corrosive regime of Christendom, the church embraced the self-centered, control-freak vocation of Uzzah.  God was treated like our private and personal idol we carried around on our cart pulled by our oxen at our expense, which we had to protect and for which we would receive a great reward if we did.  Our success was when we delivered the cart and its precious contents intact to the next generation so they could do the same.  We called this “responsible stewardship.”  We even have a fancy name for the people charged with this sober task.  We sometime call them “fiduciaries.”
Too often people with this approach adopt an Uzzah-like approach to the church:  they’re trying to protect and support God.  They emote this condescending, patronizing, smug, self-righteous noise about how we need “business acumen” so the church will have a future, and they are just the ones to graciously provide it.  At the same time, the people who are concerned with the actual mission of the church, with discipleship, and with not supporting or profiting from mass, global, murderous evil, get labeled naive and pathetic dupes who just don’t know how the world works, who would not have the luxury of such immature and idealistic views did not their lives depend on the informed and courageous wisdom of the fiduciaries. 
Even worse, people seeking to follow Jesus are called “hypocrites.”  Because if you drive a car, or use plastic, or work on a computer, or drink wine, or “live in a free country,” you are a walking contradiction if you don’t want to invest in the industries that produce these things.  Indeed, you are apparently a misanthrope because you want to "take jobs away” from people who work for these corporations, even if they do damage the earth and its people.  
These days whenever I hear the words “responsible stewardship” I reach for my Bible.  Because I find therein no support for the idea that it is our job to invest the church’s money in whatever industry, no matter how evil its business plan, with only profit in mind.  As if Psalm 119 does not ask to turn our hearts away from gain.  As if Jesus does not repeatedly and consistently preach against wealth, markets, hoarding, and various forms of institutionalized theft.  As if the love of money were not “the root of all evil,” as 1 Timothy says, but the prudent and responsible way to support the church.
Hello!!!?  Does Jesus not say flat out that “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24)?  That seems pretty unambiguous to me.  
However, some appear to imagine that they are, by investing with the sole purpose of making a profit, not, technically “serving” wealth.  They’re not serving it, they’re using it responsibly, is the argument.  Which is semantic nonsense, but it is at least as sincere as Uzzah in their desire to be “helpful,” ie. controlling.  (Richard Rohr suggests that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but control.)  
Jesus’ attitude towards money and wealth is pretty clear: don’t hold on to it, use it for good, share it, give it away to someone who needs it more than you do.  I can maybe see the point to having enough savings for emergencies.  But the practice of investing church resources in the most profitable industries possible no matter how destructive, and then refusing to spend much of it on mission, is contrary to Jesus’ teachings.  


Thursday, July 26, 2018

National Missions.

The church remains subject on many levels to confusion about what it’s mission is.  In the past few decades in the Presbyterian Church, we have seen a division between two understandings.  
One is based on Matthew 28:18-20: “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”  Some took this to mean “Go out and win souls for Jesus.”

The other focuses on Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ long parable of the Last Judgment when nations are assessed according to their service to the needy.  Here’s how it ends:  “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”  Some took this to mean “Go out and serve the needy.”

In spite of the obvious fact that the same man says both of these things within a few days, the church has managed to completely miss the point and choose up sides over which one to follow to the exclusion of the other.

But maybe, just maybe, Jesus intends for his church to do both.  Maybe we are to make disciples and serve the needy.  Maybe they are not mutually exclusive, but two sides of the same coin.  Maybe we get people to follow Jesus by serving the needy; maybe we serve the needy by getting people to follow Jesus.  

One of the things both passages have in common is that they concern “the nations.”  In Matthew 28 the nations are the target of Jesus’ mission; in Matthew 25 it is the nations that are judged by their ministry to the needy.  “Nations” (in Greek, ethne) is a term used in the New Testament to refer to the various peoples who had been conquered, subjugated, and colonized by Rome: regional ethnic groups which were repressed by the reigning superpower of the time.   

This undercuts the view that Jesus is not about “politics,” that he was only talking to individuals, which means we have no business extending his teachings into national policy.  Jesus, of course, did not live in a context in which the people had a formal say in government.  Nobody got to vote for the Emperor; Rome was not a democracy.  And certainly he did not start by addressing imperial policy, which would have been pointless and ridiculous.  Yet he is always talking about politics in the sense of how we live and make decisions together.  Jesus gathers communities with specific characteristics like equality, sharing, compassion, welcoming, forgiveness, and healing.  In other words, Jesus advocates the opposite of Roman policy, which was inequality, division, exploitation, and repression. 

So, in Matthew 28 Jesus is saying, in effect, “Go to all these oppressed and exploited peoples and teach them to gather together in alternative communities, to follow my way of service, sharing, and equality.”  And in Matthew 25 he is saying, “In the end, nations will be judged according to how well they implemented my way of service, sharing, and equality towards the needy.”  

In other words, oppressed nations had first to accept their humiliated, conquered, defeated status, and minister then to the victimized and destitute in their own midst.  They had to identify, not with Rome in envy and denial, but they had to see themselves in the needy losers among them.  In this Jesus is just extrapolating on the basic fact of the Hebrew Scriptures, that they were written by and for escaped slaves.  The Bible gives a voice to the lynched, defeated, bereft, and diseased.  If the nations received and adopted Jesus’ teachings and practices, they would thrive and endure.  If they reversed course and sought not to be as strong and violent as Rome, but ministered instead to their own broken siblings, they would have God’s life.  If not, they would burn, as is the sad fate of all societies that do not live by God’s justice.

In light of all this, the mission of the church is focused on discipleship that welcomes and serves, heals and forgives, gathers and sends.  I do not believe we have to choose between conversion to Christianity and merely doing social welfare work.  We have to do both simultaneously.  “Making disciples” does not mean merely getting people to join the church or become Christians; it is to bring people to participate in our work of serving others.  Neither is attending to the needy a spiritually neutral responsibility; it is an expression and reflection of faith in Jesus.  

Finally, it is important to note that the “others” with whom Jesus is most concerned are those who are not regularly served by social institutions.  The nations must have been ignoring “the least of these,” or Jesus would not have brought them up.  Some hurting folks are well-served by our civil institutions already.  We pray for and sympathize with them.  But Jesus calls us to give most of our attention to those others who are not getting help elsewhere.