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

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.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Why Neither Technical Nor Adaptive Change Is Enough for Today's Church.

Beyond Technical and Adaptive.

The PCUSA today needs more than a superficial, technical adjustment.  It also needs more than to adapt to a changing environment.  The denomination basically needs a complete overhaul from the ground up.
When we hear talk of a “new Reformation,” and if it is going to be more than merely commemorating the Reformation of 500 years ago, we need to do in our time what the Reformers did in theirs… only better.  For even though in effect the Reformation was a massive adaptation of Christianity to the new context of Modernity, what the Reformers thought they were doing, and intended to do, was to reground Christianity on its original foundation.  They wanted to recover in their own time the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith of the New Testament.
The results were spotty at best.  
    • First, they did not have the critical tools to discern when they were really following the gospel, and when they were just going along with the flow of history.  Thus what was presented as the real and original faith, ends up really being a decidedly middle-class, European, colonialist redaction of Christianity.  
    • Secondly, they tended to discount Jesus Christ because they maintained an inherent bias in favor of Christendom.  That is, they were committed to maintaining the Christian State.  This meant that Jesus’ most challenging and radical teachings and practices were marginalized, rationalized, or ignored.  
    • And thirdly, they had inherent bias against almost anything smacking of Roman Catholicism.  This meant that even something completely coherent with Jesus’ teachings and the practice of the early church could nevertheless be dismissed and banned for appearing too “Papist.”  Probably the most egregious example of this is the denigration of Mary, the Lord’s mother.  
Therefore, the Reformation didn’t go far enough.  It ended up being mainly a religious expression of, and justification for, Modernity and its rationalism, individualism, colonialism, racism, nationalism, classism, secularism, and reductionist objectification of everything.  By its nadir in the early 20th century, Protestantism was little more than a moralistic chaplaincy sucking up to the Modern State. 
The PCUSA has this Modernist bias embedded in its very DNA.  If we are going to be more than an anachronistic historical relic, we are going to have to excise it, and get back to the original intent of the Reformers, which was to recover the gospel of Jesus and the early church.
Briefly, it means that:
    • Seeing that all perspectives, including ours, are culturally conditioned, it is harder for us to universalize our own context and ideologies.  That being said, we are freed to release all such loyalties and rest in “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture” (Barmen).    
    • We have to get past any reflexive loyalty to Christendom.  We are gaining a better understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings as being inherently and essentially opposed to the accumulation of power and wealth.  The Way of Jesus Christ is anti-imperialistic, egalitarian, inclusive, mystical movement based on simplicity, forgiveness, justice, shalom, and love.
    • We are able now to draw from all of history and human culture elements that express the good news of Jesus Christ.  This intentionally includes whatever good things emerged from Modernity, as well as what we find in earlier and non-European contexts.  We may even locate and appreciate resonances with other world religions, recognizing the Cosmic Christ transcending culture and history.     
I don’t see this happening by means of minor adjustments in our polity or theology.  It will only happen by putting everything on the table in a courageous act of confession, penitence, and renewal.  We need to subject everything to a wall-to-wall reassessment, holding it to the standard of Jesus Christ.
In other words, what we need today is apocalyptic change, change that, after embracing disintegration, reconstructs the church from the original blueprint in the New Testament.  We have to let go of everything out of synch with Jesus Christ, and emerge into his Image which is already within us.