Jesus and Empire: Proclaiming Good News

Jesus’ lifetime was one of the lowest points in Jewish history. Palestine had suffered centuries of foreign occupation and was now a colony of Imperial Rome. While the Roman Empire maintained garrisons of troops in resistive territories, their preferred system of rule was through local client rulers like King Herod or Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest.

Any resistance to Roman rule was met with terror and vengeance. They annihilated towns and villages that dared resist, believing that failure to do so would be a sign of weakness. Anyone who fought against them was labeled a common bandit or thief and their favorite form of execution was crucifixion, which combined cruel terror and humiliation.

Roman rule in Palestine was economically devastating for the common people. They had to pay taxes to the Romans (for example, Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem to pay their taxes). They also had to pay taxes to King Herod and to the Temple in Jerusalem.  As a result, many small landholders were pushed off their lands, which were taken over by absentee landlords. Consider all the stories in the gospels about paying taxes, absentee landlords, day laborers, poor widows, and beggars.

The politics of different Jewish groups during Jesus’ lifetime was centered on their response to the Roman occupation of their land. Jewish elites, especially the Sadducees and the High Priests who were in charge of the Temple in Jerusalem, preferred to collaborate with the Romans with the provision that they could continue their own religious practices.

The opposite political response was to actively resist Roman occupation. It could take more passive forms such as tax resistance but included open rebellion. There were active resistance groups during Jesus’ lifetime known as the Zealots (those zealous for God). Biblical scholars debate how close Jesus was to the Zealots. Several of his disciples were known to be Zealots (Luke 6:16). Furthermore, Jesus’ proclamation of the “kingdom of God” echoes Zealot claims that God (not Caesar) is their king.

Yet another response was more separatist. The Pharisees focused on following Jewish purity laws on eating, tithing, keeping the Sabbath, and not associating with known sinners or Gentiles. Jesus argued with them about such things. A group known as the Essenes withdrew into the desert and started separatist religious communes there.

The politics of Jesus thoroughly scrambled these political choices. He certainly didn’t collaborate with the Romans. While he may have been sympatric to some of the agenda of the Zealots, unlike them, he did not espouse violence and he even associated with people like tax-collectors who they considered to be their enemies.  He, instead, initiated a grassroots social revolution or upside-down-kingdom. According to biblical scholar N. T. Wright, this social revolution had wider political ramifications:

Anyone announcing the kingdom of [God] was engaging in serious political action. Anyone announcing the kingdom but explicitly opposing armed resistance was engaged in doubly serious political action: not only the occupying [Roman] forces, but all those who gave allegiance to the [Zealot] resistance movement, would be enraged.1

Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist in the desert preaching repentance. What drew him out there? Because, for a first century Jew, this is where you would expect a new start to take place. John was reenacting the story of how God rescued the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, led them through the Red Sea and formed them into a new people in the desert. John’s baptism was a sign was a sign of being part of the renewed people of God.

Jesus’ baptism by John was his initiation into this renewal movement. At his baptism, Jesus’ receives an epiphany of being God’s beloved Son and then is immediately after driven into the wilderness (Mark 1: 9-13).  What’s that all about? Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness symbolizes Israel’s forty years of being tested in the desert or wilderness. More than that, “the new creation begins with a renunciation of the old order.” Satan is identified as the ruler of our present world order and the wild beasts, in biblical language, symbolize the different empires in the ancient world (Daniel 7: 3,7).

The story line in Mark’s Gospel moves fast. After Jesus resisted Satan’s temptation to launch his ministry through the power of “empire,” John is arrested, foreshadowing the opposition that Jesus will also face from worldly powers. He then returns to Galilee proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.”

Fulfilled time is Kairos time—God’s time. Jesus announces that the reign of God, the beloved community, the new world coming, has come near and is already in our midst. The Roman Empire and her client rulers like King Herod are rightly alarmed. The message is that we can take the baptism plunge, be liberated, and become a renewed people.

Let’s back up to the very first verse in Mark’s Gospel, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The words “in the beginning” echo the first words of Genesis where God creates the world—this is indeed a new beginning. The word euangelion (good news) is the announcement of the enthronement of a new emperor or of a victory by the emperor’s armies. Biblical scholar Ched Myers writes, “Mark is taking dead aim at Caesar and his legitimating myths . . . The “good news” of Mark does not herald yet another victory by Rome’s armies; it is a declaration of war upon the political culture of the empire.”2

What does this mean for us as followers of Jesus in America? How is Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God good news in our time? What does the liberating reign of God look like in our world? How is this resisted by the powers of our day and how do they tempt us cave in and do things their way. Finally, how do we proclaim this “euangelion,” “gospel,” good news” to our neighbors? We’ll explore these questions further in following blog posts.

1 N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 296.

2 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), 124

Being a Hospitable Tribe

No matter where we live, one of the challenges for us as followers of Jesus, is to liberate ourselves from the prejudice in our society and even in ourselves. It’s never easy. We often think of it as racism but according to theologian and activist Drew Hart:

The language of race obscures rather than clarifies human similarity and difference. It is smoke and mirrors. Instead of being a biological fact, race is a social construct. . . We should never separate race from its ideological and political work. The global practices of European domination, colonization, and conquest in the Americas and Africa in the sixteenth century required ideological justification.[1]

The social construct of race served as that justification. Deconstructing race is therefore hard, important work. Thinking we’re colorblind or pretending that racism doesn’t exist is actually harmful. Religion scholar and writer Diana Butler Bass has instructive insights on human difference that can help us. She writes:

Unless one is a hermit, most of us naturally sort into groups of likeness. We hang out with those we like around shared concerns and similar tastes. That is the basis of friendship, the secret ingredient of neighborliness and community. That’s the rub: human beings are tribal people. We always have been and always will be.[2]

And that’s a good thing. We all feel more comfortable around people who are like us. Still such tribes can become restrictive and we then begin to long for the freedom to live fuller, more meaningful lives. To be honest, the tight, restrictive community I grew up in sometimes made me feel like I was suffocating. It’s why I loved living in Asia for many years and it’s why I treasure the rich diversity of Northern Virginia.

Diana Butler Bass says that “a fine line is crossed . . . when tribes become clans and neighborhoods become enclaves. Clans almost always have the compulsion to fight other clans; enclaves typically feed on paranoia about the outside world.”[3] Her answer to this dilemma is the spiritual practice of hospitality and what she calls “hospitable tribes.” I like to think of our church as a hospitable tribe that welcomes and celebrates the rich diversity in our midst and is not afraid to grapple with prejudice in our midst, whatever form it may take.

[1] Drew Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016), 48-49.

[2] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 213.

[3] Ibid., 214.

Practice Reconciliation (part 2)

We all have a proclivity for breaking ourselves into teams of us against them. Part of the genius of faith in Jesus is that it breaks down such distinctions and walls of separation. It never comes easily but we know that this is what the kin-dom of God looks like. Christena Cleveland writes, “This is a tall order that requires a real and fierce conversation on the elephant in the church: privilege and power differentials. For some reason, high-status people (in my experience, particularly white men) have a hard time seeing and admitting that they are in fact high-status people who enjoy privileges that aren’t afforded to low-status people” (Disunity in Christ, 166).

This is the situation that Paul tackled head-on in the church in Corinth. People were dividing themselves into groups loyal to either Paul our Apollos. He had planted the church and then Apollos became a prominent leader after Paul left. We don’t know what the division was about but we can assume that both were high-status men. It’s easy to see how such a situation could develop. Many loved Paul and resisted any changes Apollos may have initiated. We can assume that Apollos was a little insecure and perhaps a bit sensitive about his status and role. He was naturally charismatic and others were drawn to him.

We don’t know if there was a concrete issue like same-sex marriage (which is tearing churches apart today) that church members in Corinth were fighting about but we always find such an issue to legitimize our prejudices and ambitions . Paul told them that such party loyalties indicate that we’re spiritual babies who cannot even eat solid food. Furthermore, both he and Apollos are mere workers in the church, which he likens to a field. One planted and another watered and each will receive his wages at the end of the day for the work he has done. Neither can take credit for the growth. That belongs to God.

The huge issue that divided people and created huge fights in the early church was the inclusion of Gentiles. Nobody wanted to exclude Gentiles but some wanted to impose conditions that marked them as second-class. This reflected a deep-seated cultural and religious divide or what sociologists call identity politics. The identity politics in our country today includes struggles surrounding racial, cultural, gender, sexual, and religious differences. This drives the fight over immigration.

It was a long struggle in the early church but Gentiles were eventually fully included as equals. Coming to that place included studying Scripture together, discerning how the Spirit was leading in real-life situations, and being committed to staying in communion with each other even when we see things differently.

We dare not forget that we’re Gentiles. Paul reminds us that we have been grafted in. A way was found to include us as equals. This is not our church; it’s Christ’s church! That should make us especially eager to bend over backward to include others, to always make sure we do not relate to others out of a sense of entitlement or privilege, and to drop everything else in order to seek reconciliation.

Practice Reconciliation

As a young man, I participated in a Paul–Timothy Program designed to develop future church leaders. As part of our training, we read about a racially diverse, fast-growing new church in Chicago called Circle Church. Formed the in the late 60s, the church met in a union hall located between black and white neighborhoods in this racially divided city. At the time, Circle Church was a model for racial diversity, but later ran into difficulties and split along racial lines. Long-standing racial segregation and prejudice in Chicago still shaped the way blacks and whites in their church related to each other. Whites were used to taking charge and were largely unaware of what we today call white privilege. Others felt left out and deeply buried racial frustrations became insurmountable.

Such discrimination goes beyond race. Women friends have told me about participating in meetings where their suggestion was ignored but then taken seriously when a male colleague said the same thing.  It can feel like you’re invisible. Women need to be better and brighter to get the same respect. But it’s tricky because a determined woman is labeled “pushy” when a male counterpart with the same characteristics is assumed to be a natural leader.

Social class and economic status easily lead to yet another kind of discrimination. Some of us are born on third base and go through life thinking we hit a triple. This has been a longstanding problem. The writer of the book of James in the New Testament scolds his congregation for giving undue honor to a rich visitor while ignoring and demeaning a poor person. He pointedly asks them, “Isn’t it the rich people who oppress you?” (2:6).

Lynn Hur, an Asian-American high school student gives us yet another twist on discrimination in America. The school she attends is predominantly Asian-American and she says it’s a privilege to grow up in an environment where she isn’t teased because of her small eyes or praised for her good English. But it can easily blind students to the racism they will face in the real world. She wants people to know three things: “Number one: Racism is not just a black-and-white situation. [It] encompasses the entirety of our colorful and complicated world. Number two: No one is completely innocent. Asians have their own assumptions and stereotypes of others, despite our experiences. Number three: I want us to look racism in the eye, name it and undo it” (The Mennonite, Feb. 2017:29).

Ben Goossen talks about white Mennonite privilege. He’s referring to those of us from European stock who can trace our genealogy back to our Anabaptist ancestors. He calls it white privilege with a twist. We’re very aware of our ethnic family names, foods, and the history of our ancestors as a persecuted religious minority. It makes us feel special but it makes others feel like they can never quite fit into our churches or ever measure up. They will always be outsiders. Such blinders keep us from seeing our white privilege. Ben Goossen says that learning about white privilege taught him to see us and our churches in a different light. He writes, “I see that even when we talk about peace and justice and righteousness, we can still be implicated in systems of oppression” (The Mennonite, Feb. 2017: 23).

Yet another divisive and often incredibly painful matter is how we relate to and include people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. A lesbian friend recently told me that some of her family will not even talk with her (a kind of verbal abuse) or allow her to come to their homes.  Jesus warns us that verbally abusing and demeaning another person is equivalent to murder. Such anger, like murder, opens the cauldron of hell. He tells us that if we are about to offer a sacrifice or gift to God and remember that our brother or sister has something against us, we should immediately drop what we’re doing, first go to be reconciled, and then return and offer our gift (Matthew 5: 21-24).

For Jesus, compassion and relationships always trump ritual and religious purity. He was fond of repeating Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” It’s instructive to consider the many times he went out of his way to build relationships with despised others such as the Samaritan woman. Churches continually face challenges related to the different forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world. We will want prioritize going out of our way to build relationships with despised others and to practice reconciliation.

Being Poor in Spirit

Han Christian Anderson’s familiar old children’s story about “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is remarkably contemporary. Two swindlers hoodwinked the vain emperor into buying clothes that were purportedly invisible to people who were unfit for their office or stupid. His trusted old minister and then the emperor himself fell for the ruse for fear of being exposed as unfit for their office.

The emperor then paraded through his capital city stark naked in what he thought were his fine new clothes. None of the people lining the streets dared believe their eyes for fear of being exposed to their neighbors as being stupid. They foolishly praised the invisible fabric with its magnificent design and brilliant colors. Then a child whispered to its mother, “The emperor is naked.” Soon everyone began to murmur the same thing and the buzz grew louder and louder. The emperor at last realized the truth but still preferred to believe that his people were stupid.

All the political turmoil during the past two weeks—including the petty argument about how many people attended the presidential inauguration and the banning of refugees and people from various Muslim countries—reveals an emperor overly concerned about being properly admired and given to fear mongering and conspiracy theories. Heaven help us all!

Yet, focusing exclusively on this national drama is too easy. It diverts our attention from this same predilection in ourselves and in our churches. We’re part of the problem. We’ve all seen the hubris and thin egos of pastors, Christian public speakers, and leaders of faith-based organizations. We tell ourselves that our group is “the greatest” and all “others” are somehow deficient. Such religious divisions infect and reinforce the political divides in our world.

We have Mainline churches, Evangelical churches, black churches, hipster churches, Korean churches, Pentecostal churches, and Anabaptist churches—but we rarely engage in meaningful conversations outside of our church groups. Christena Cleveland writes, “if we interact with other groups at all, we usually do so at a distance and with at least a hint of suspicion” (Disunity in Christ, 26).

Jesus’ proclamation that the “poor in spirit” are blessed (Matthew 5: 3) is an antidote.  In Luke’s Gospel Jesus more unequivocally pronounces “blessed are you who are poor” and then contrasts it with “but woe to you who are rich” (6: 20-24).  Why does Matthew instead say “poor in spirit?” Perhaps his life experience has convinced him that a stark contrast between the pious poor and the arrogant rich is an oversimplification.

Still, biblical scholar Douglas Hare writes, “At the heart of the poverty-piety equation lies a profound insight. The proud self-reliance that is fed by prosperity all too easily prompts forgetfulness of our dependence upon God. The poor, to whom less is given, are more likely to remain aware of the givenness of life than are the well-to-do who so naturally come to regard their blessings as deserved” (Matthew, Interpretation, 36).

Wealth and power feed our sense of self-importance, which in turn keeps us from valuing the experience and insight of others. Thinking that we are important and wise, we instead become arrogant and incompetent. We become naked little emperors parading down the street in our birthday suits.

 

 

 

Our Response to a Political Earthquake

We lived through a political earthquake this week. Few expected Donald Trump to win and become our president elect. Most of us are still in shock. I found myself talking pastorally with several women who are so angry and depressed that a man who bragged about groping women and treating them as sex objects is now our next president. This is especially painful for those who were themselves sexually harassed and abused.

One person came to our house because she was so discouraged and needed to talk. Other pastors report the same thing. Some are telling their congregations that they are available to talk to with those who are struggling with severe feelings of anger and depression. Likewise, school teachers report that many children are afraid about what will happen to them or their friends.

I had a conversation with the pastor of a minority church who is deeply concerned about the underlying racism in the Trump campaign and what this might mean for people of color, ethnic minorities, and recent immigrants. This spiritually perceptive pastor told me that perhaps it will be good for churches to recognize that we don’t completely fit in our dominant American culture. It will push us to be more creative in finding models for living and witnessing from the margins.

And I need to acknowledge that I’m struggling to find the inner spiritual and emotional strength to overcome my own despair. I found the way our president-elect mocked and demeaned others, beginning in the Republican primaries, very offensive. I was so much looking forward to the end of the election when he would no longer dominate the news. Now that’s not going to happen. I fear that he’s temperamentally unfit to be president.

This week I attended our Fairfax County Faith Communities in Action meeting. Rabbi David Kalender, who chaired the meeting, opened it by acknowledging the political earthquake we have been through. He gave us some helpful spiritual advice. During an earthquake, things that we thought were stable begin to shake and move and we need to find and grab onto those anchors of stability in our lives. Such anchors may include our family, our friends, meaningful work, gardening, art, exercise, our community of faith, and our God. Then we reach out and hold each other’s hands.

This blog post is part of the sermon I gave at our church this Sunday. This was followed by a communion service and then a sharing time where people freely talked about their personal struggles related to the election earthquake we all went through. There were lots of tears. I also encouraged our congregation to consider our response to Donald Trump as our next president.

I don’t assume that all of us experienced his election the same way. Many Evangelical Christians voted for him, even though they saw him as a flawed candidate, because his political platform supported their positions on various social issues. We will want to have honest conversations with each other about this, practice agreeing and disagreeing in love, and recognize that we’re part of a worldwide communion that brings us together beyond such differences.

Our daughter, who is a school teacher in Oakland, California told me that school students walked out of their classes in protest. Young people marched in the streets holding signs “Love Trumps Hate” and “He’s not my President.” Many more such actions quickly sprung up across our country. That frustration is real but we will also want to give president-elect Trump the chance to prove our worst fears wrong. We hold him up in our prayers.

I believe in grace and that people can change. He might surprise us. Let’s give him that opportunity. Let’s strive to get beyond our distaste and consider the things we may have in common and how we can support those things. He must overcome lots of division and needs lots of support to be a successful president. I’m not sure he completely understands how much anxiety and distrust he has generated.

We will, however, not give him a free pass on things he said and did or his agenda moving forward. He ran a very destructive and mean-spirited campaign. Other candidates then felt that they had no choice but to respond in kind. Such things have consequences. As a result, our American public square is a more vulgar and ugly place than it was before he began running for president. Part of our task will be to hold him accountable and to help repair that torn social fabric.

We should also be prepared to resist were necessary for the sake of the gospel and all vulnerable people. There will be lots of chaos if Trump follows through on some of the things he said he will do during his campaign. We shouldn’t wait to see if that actually happens. Let’s take this as a call to greater social engagement. We will want to pray, talk with each other, strategize, and organize to take action.

Many Christians in the past have suffered for the sake of the gospel. The same is true for some Christians in other parts of the world today. We should not assume that we are somehow exempt from that cost. This is a good time to again read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. Let’s take this opportunity to let our lights shine as God’s people. It’s about living God’s love and growing God’s justice.

 

 

A Post-Election Reflection

cross-and-tee-shirts

The shadow of the cross on top of our church is in the foreground of the Memorial to the Lost on our church lawn remembering the 202 lives lost to gun violence in the greater Washington DC region in 2015.

This is an anxious time in our country following the ugliest presidential election in memory. I worry about how our nation will come together and begin the healing process now that it’s over. This election has exposed significant tears in our social fabric. The hateful and demeaning rhetoric and behavior we have seen is especially frightening.

These things matter deeply and our anxiety is understandable. That’s why we need something beyond our present American politics to help ground us. Steps toward such groundedness include focusing on the many other aspects of my life including my family, my friends, my work, my local community, and my church.

This involves a God oriented perspective. The word “God” denotes the ultimate which relativizes all other powers in our world. For example, the Apostle Paul prays for the people in the church of Ephesus who he describes as a community of saints. He prays that they will have a broader vision and hope—the evocative phrase used is that “the eyes of your heart might be enlightened.”

This involves three things expressed by suggestive Greek words. The first is the word gnosis (knowledge); the second is Sophia (wisdom), and the third is apocalypses (revelation). He takes it even further by claiming that Jesus, the Christ has been raised and is seated at the right-hand of God. Jesus is therefore far above all other authority, power, and dominion (Ephesians 1: 15:23).

African American religious scholar Cornel West speaks so powerfully to times like these, “I speak as a Christian—one whose commitment to democracy is very deep but whose Christian convictions are even deeper. Democracy is not my faith. And American democracy is not my idol . . . To be a Christian—a follower of Jesus Christ—is to love wisdom, love justice, and love freedom” (Democracy Matters, 171-72).

When I get especially anxious, I remember that our American political system is a power that is brought down to size by God’s purposes and what God is doing in and through Jesus in our midst. Furthermore, the church is Jesus’ arms and feet in our world. Paul calls us the body of Christ.