Sacred Anarchy (part 2)

The logic of living lives empowered by God’s sacrificial love is nonsense and weakness to powerful elites. They know that real power comes from wealth, military might, and influence in the major national capitals in our world such as Washington DC. The Apostle Paul counters with the zinger, “But the weakness of God is more powerful than human strength (I Cor. 1:25).

Ah, I want to know, “What is such foolishness and weakness?” It looks like love, grace, mercy, truth, and peace with justice. It looks like serving others with joy. Paul adds that we don’t somehow enter this alternative world through our own effort—we receive it as a gift, and then God empowers us to live into it. John Caputo explains that the world of God’s grace is the very opposite of the logic of our world:

In the logic of the world, nothing is for free and nobody gets off scot-free. By the same token, in the logic of the world, everything is for sale, everything has a price, and nothing is sacred. The world will stop at nothing to get even, to settle or even a score; the world is pomp and power and ruthless reckoning.[1]

With reference to such a world, the realm of God’s weakness involves a logic of impossibility—but not as something that cannot be. No! We’re talking about amazing grace, not amazing magic. Instead, it’s a salvific event that flies in the face of the dominant logic of our world.[2] In this respect, according to John Caputo, it involves some degree of sacred anarchy and raising holy hell.[3]

When we think of raising holy hell, we may consider joining a public march or protest. A “March for Lives,” mourning the senseless loss of lives and advocating sensible gun laws, is planned here in DC on March 24. Some of us will certainly want to participate. That’s good! Still, we will not want to put too much focus on appealing to governments and powerful elites as though they are the main actors in our world. A holy anarchy gently challenges that assumption.

The Bible contrasts “this world” with “God’s new world coming.” This new, grace-filled world is integral to who we are as individuals and as a faith community. It creates alternative pathways for life and action. Paul speaks of it as “being made alive together with Christ.”  How do I pass through that eye of a needle and be made alive? Certainly, it means giving my life to Jesus and being “saved by grace.”

Yet, we should be warned, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us, such grace is not cheap—it involves costly discipleship—but we don’t go around forever counting the cost. Yes, we deeply feel the world’s pain and take action as we can. We also marvel in God’s good creation, we serve others with joy, we sometimes raise holy hell, and we continually recognize hopeful seeds of new life sprouting to life in our midst. Those signs of life often come unannounced in unexpected places.

During my recent sabbatical, I visited I visited a dear spiritual mentor who is nearing the end of his life. He was so glad to see me; wanting to know all about what I’m doing, about the church I’m serving, and about my family, He still has a sharp, inquisitive mind even though his body no longer fully cooperates.  Spending time with him was such a gift.

Life becomes more precious and friendships more alive as we near death. I first learned to know him when I was a young man serving in Asia. He wanted me to tell him all about my recent trip to India and asked about mutual friends. We talked about the special gift that small churches bring to our world. He had been a mentor to me during some difficult personal faith struggles and taught me how to look for and recognize signs of God’s reign in unexpected places.

Such spiritual friendship exemplifies living in God’s world of grace. God is not some hierarchical monarch seated on his heavenly throne, undergirding earthly rulers, and dictating everything that happens here on earth. No, No, No!  God is love. God is grace. God is weak by worldly standards. God does not coerce. God instead uses the weak powers of friendship, persuasion, and invitation. Despite so much evidence to the contrary, we have this audacious and, yes, subversive hope that love wins.

[1] John C. Caputo, The Weakness of God (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 107.

[2] Ibid., 104-105

[3] Ibid., 108

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God’s World of Grace: Sacred Anarchy

It’s too much! Our human capacity for violence and for causing unspeakable suffering is too much. An ancient chieftain once accused the Romans of creating a desert through their destructive violence and then calling it peace. I think of that when I see those horrific images of completely destroyed cities in Syria. Many outside countries (including ours) are embroiled in this devastating civil war.

It doesn’t end there. Many other places are experiencing their own horror. We have become numbed by incidents of mass shootings with assault weapons in our country, most recently in Florida. Yet our lawmakers are very reluctant to take on the gun lobby. This struggle indicates how fragile and tattered the social fabric of our country has become.

A despair for our world grows in me. As I get older, I don’t think so much about myself, but I fear for the lives on our children and our children’s children. What will become of them?  We feel overwhelmed by such needs and hardly know how to respond, let alone hold all this pain and suffering in our hearts.

The plight of millions of refugees especially tugs at our heart strings. I have a personal note on this. I was doing research on our family history during my sabbatical and discovered that my ancestor Hans Zimmerman and his brother, who migrated to America in 1732, were both less than 15 years old when they arrived. They came alone without their parents, along with a group of other refugees from their home area in the Canton of Berne in Switzerland.

We know they were fleeing religious persecution and war, but the details of their story are lost. I try to put myself in their place, arriving here as young boys knowing that they would most likely never again see their homeland or their families. They needed to start a new life in a strange land. They were not unlike refugees today fleeing war and religious conflict in places like Syria and Somalia.

So much of the human suffering in our world is created by powerful elites, multinational corporations, and national governments vying with each other for power and financial gain. Common people get trampled when bombs start falling and armies sweep through towns and cities. The Apostle Paul characterizes it as the “course of this world,” which leads to death.

It’s a devilish domination system tied to what Paul calls “the ruler of the power of the air” or, as translated by the Common English Bible, “the rule of a destructive spiritual power.” This is strangely seen as normal by most people; so much so that we can’t even imagine a different kind of world. Those responsible always blame the mayhem and destruction on their adversaries (Ephesians 2:1-10).

Now we begin to better understand Jesus’ provocative claim that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It would be a different matter if it were only powerful elites who engaged in this kind of behavior—not giving a twit about that eye of a needle.

The sad truth, however, is that many common people, including those of us who claim to follow of Jesus, also think and act like this. We fail to see that such powers oppress us, and we forget that Jesus gave his life in opposition to them. We forget that our God is a God who loves unconditionally, readily forgives, and calls us to a new way of life. (In my next blog post on this topic, we will look and what this new life looks like and how it is related to what we might call “sacred anarchy.”)

A Creation Meditation on MLK Day

Picture1The song of creation in Genesis encompasses the sheer delight of God creating a world out of a primordial soup. In the language of the Bible, “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (1: 2). I find that immensely reassuring. Even when we do our worst in demeaning and destroying our world, it can be recreated and brought to life again.

This creation song can serve as a source of hope for our time. It’s so easy to become obsessed by our president’s latest outrageous tweet or vulgar, racist comment. Should we just ignore them like we ignore a child who seeks our attention through throwing a tantrum? We certainly should not allow such behavior to distract us from doing what we can to oppose the real harm of public policies that injure the most vulnerable among us. New life continually emerges even in situations of despair. Rather than getting too focused on the chaos and ugliness, we will want to recognize, welcome, and celebrate the new light that continually shines forth in creation.

We tend to read the Genesis creation story as an abstract statement about the creation of the world. Even worse, we read it literally and then insist that the earth was created in six days or, conversely, that it’s unscientific superstition. The fight between literalists and rationalists is most unfortunate because each side destroys the text in their effort to control it. Both misunderstand the meaning or purpose of the story.

When we immerse ourselves in the world of the text it, it gradually opens itself to us. I like to use the analogy of reading the Bible like a love letter. During the first year of our courtship, my wife Ruth and I lived in different states and wrote weekly letters to each other. I relished and read her letters several times over, carefully parsing each sentence as I got to know her better. It was the joy of discovery. When we read the Bible like that, pouring over the meaning of the text and delving into the historical background in which it was formed, a whole new world opens to us.

According to biblical scholars, the Genesis creation story was written to counter the oppressive creation stories of Israel’s neighbors. For example, the Babylonian story claimed that the powerful male warrior god Marduk slew Tiamat, the goddess of primordial chaos, and created the world out of her carcass. Babylonian kings claimed to be human embodiments of Marduk who likewise conquered, destroyed, and subjugated neighboring nations.

In contrast, in the Genesis creation story, God creates nonviolently by simple proclamation, “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” After every act of creation there’s the exclamation, “And God saw that it was good.” Notice the sheer delight in the created world. It’s a theological and pastoral response to real human problems. It undergirded the hope and confidence of the Jewish people during their harrowing experience of living as exiles in Babylon.

The forces of war, abuse, and oppression are not all-powerful and will not have the last word even in the darkest periods of our lives when everything appears to indicate otherwise. We instead trust in God as our loving and nonviolent creator.  Martin Luther King Jr. King had this uncanny faith that justice and self-giving nonviolence will ultimately triumph because they are woven into the fabric of creation. During the long and often discouraging Civil Rights struggle he made the bold claim, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Revolutionary Patience

I have a quote on the bulletin board in my church office that says, “Above all, trust is the slow work of God.” It’s a good reminder when I get anxious or impatient about events in our world. The same is true for my personal spiritual journey. I remind myself of that when I mess up, which can be depressingly consistent.

The Christian calendar is a tool that I use to help balance my spiritual life and my pastoral ministry. The weekly lectionary scripture passages related to it provide a rhythm and a challenge that keeps me grounded and on my toes.  Through this discipline, I learn to trust in the slow work of God within the turmoil of our world. These are troubled time because of the political dysfunction in our county and in our world.

During Advent we lament with the prophet Isaiah, “The earth staggers like a drunkard, it sways like a hut; its transgression lies heavy upon it” (24:20). Things are not well and we long for God to come and shake us up for the better. We long for a political savior and are tempted to take matters into our own hands. Mark’s Gospel tells us to, instead, school ourselves in the revolutionary patience of God (13: 1-37).

To better understand, we need to know the historical background of Mark’s Gospel. The long-suffering Jews had finally revolted in 66 C.E. and drove the Roman armies out of Palestine but the different Jewish rebel forces were not able to consolidate power. The Roman army then regrouped and began to reconquer Palestine, eventually conquering and destroying the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in 70 C.E.

Biblical scholar Ched Myers says that Mark’s Gospel provides a radical criticism of all parties in the conflict because an ideology of domination infects all of them. He’s therefore committed to nothing less than a complete unraveling the present order based on domination, resisting it with the practice of revolutionary patience rooted in God’s coming new order.[1]

We practice revolutionary patience because God’s reign (the new world coming) that Jesus announced and inaugurated is both “here” and “not yet.” We see signs of this new world in various places, but the tired old world of dominion and violence is still very much in place in our present world order of nation states, each fighting for territorial, military, and economic dominance.

As followers of Jesus, we stay alert, looking for incidents of God’s new world breaking in. During the season of Advent, we ritualize this by singing songs, lighting candles, and waiting in expectation. Mature faith accepts the enduring struggle of our historical existence. We cannot be presumptuous because faith and spiritual growth is a continuous journey. We never arrive—at least not on this side of the eschaton. We’re prone to making lots of mistakes and even falling into egregious sin.

Chet Myers writes, [Mark’s Gospel] advocates neither fatalism nor escapism, but a revolutionary commitment to the transformation of history, which always demands political vigilance and discernment.”[2] It involves experimenting with a political practice that will break, not perpetuate the reign of domination in our world.

[1] Chet Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Orbis Press, Maryknoll, NY: 1988), 339.

[2] Ibid., 341.

Jesus and Empire: Victory Over the Powers

Following World War II, European church leaders struggled with how their churches had been swept along in the war fever that engulfed the world. German Christians were especially mortified by the way their churches had enthusiastically supported the Nazis. A few German church leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer had resisted but most had bought into Nazi propaganda. This was shaped by a long history of combining church and state. Furthermore, their fierce opposition to communism had blinded them to the evils of Nazism.

Now they were being asked to take sides in the emerging Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers that had emerged from the devastation of World War II. Both adversaries quickly developed nuclear weapons with the potential of destroying the whole world. At a church gathering in divided Germany, Dutch theologian Hendrik Berkhof, gave a talk where he related the New Testament language of “principalities and powers” to the ideologies and power structures in our world. He made the claim that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, had broken the stranglehold that these powers have on our lives.

The common way of understanding these Powers had been as ethereal, other-worldly entities such as demons. What this fails to recognize is the relationship between the Powers and this-worldly tangible manifestations of them. The Powers become visible as the Roman Empire and people like Caiaphas and Pilate who had Jesus executed for blasphemy and treason.

As followers of Jesus, we need to connect the dots between these Powers and how they impact our lives. Biblical scholar Walter Wink has done extensive work on this. Drawing on the Apostle Paul’s claim that our struggle “is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12), Wink translates it into our time and situation,

as contending against the spirituality of institutions, against the ideologies and metaphors and legitimations that prop them up, against the greed and covetousness that give them life, against the individual egocentricities that the Powers so easily hook, against the ideology that pits short-term gain against the long-term good of the whole.1

It’s not that the Powers are intrinsically evil. Rather, they are at once both good and evil, though to varying degrees. They’re part of God’s good creation with a mandate to serve humanity and all creation. A Power becomes a force for evil when it usurps that God-given role and instead becomes a self-serving system of Domination. People crave the certainty and security that such Powers promise. Berkhof describes what happened in Germany:

When Hitler took the helm of Germany in 1933, the Powers of Volk, race, and state took a new grip on [people]. Thousands were grateful, after the confusion of the preceding years, to find their lives again protected from chaos, order and security restored. No one could withhold himself [or herself] without utmost effort, from the grasp these Powers had on [their] inner and outer lives.2

We now see a resurgence of these same Powers of Domination through various forms of nationalism and xenophobia. The Christian message is that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, exposed the Powers as imposters and thereby triumphed over them. The good news is that through the cross we are reconciled to God. This is more than redemption from our personal sin and guilt; it includes our liberation from slavery to the Powers.

1 Walter Wink, Naming the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 140.

2 Hendrick Berkhof, Christ and the Powers (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977), 32.

Jesus’ Third Way (continued)

We generally think Jesus is telling us to passively accept violence and insult when he tells us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5: 38-41). He’s instead giving us some imaginative examples of how to stand up for ourselves. The Greek word translated “resist” in Jesus’ teaching is antistenai, meaning literally to stand (stenai) against (anti). This is a technical term for warfare, describing two armies marching toward each other and, when they meet, standing against each other in hand-to-hand combat. According to New Testament scholar Walter Wink:

Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. We are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way. One that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent.1

A better translation is, “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil but, instead, turn the other cheek.” This requires explanation. We imagine someone making a fist and punching me in the face but that’s incorrect. In the ancient world, the left hand was used for unclean tasks. Therefore, the hitter would be striking with his or her right hand. Right hand, right cheek—the only possible way is with a backhand. By turning the other cheek, you make it impossible for that person to backhand you again. He could make a fist and punch you but that would make you his equal. Walter Wink explains:

The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.2

Jesus’ second example of assertive nonviolence takes place in a court setting where a creditor sues a poor man, demanding everything including his cloak or outer garment. This is sheer humiliation. Jesus is telling the poor debtor to show how unjust the system is by stripping of his undergarment as well and standing naked before his creditor. The shame of nakedness in Judaism fell less on the naked person than on the person seeing or causing nakedness.

The third example is of a Roman soldier compelling a Palestinian to carry his pack for one mile, a common, hated occurrence that created lots of resentment. Wouldn’t agreeing to go a second mile simply be aiding and abetting your oppressor? Not necessarily. A soldier who forced a civilian to carry his pack for more than one mile was breaking military code. We can imagine our civilian carrying the soldier’s pack, chatting with him, and then when they arrive at the mile marker, cheerfully keep on walking and say, “Hey, you look tired; let me carry it another mile.” What’s going on here? Is he insulting the soldier’s strength? Will he report the soldier to his commanding officer and get him in disciplined for violating the military code? From a situation of being forced into labor, he has now taken back the initiative.

In all three examples, Jesus is demonstrating how to stand up for ourselves without resorting to counter-violence, which would play into the hand of our oppressor. A third way between passively submitting or violently fighting back is taking a creative, nonviolent transforming initiative. Instead of responding on our oppressor’s terms, we’re making him or her respond to us on different terms.

[i] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (New York: Galilee, 1998), 100-101.

[ii] Ibid., 101.

Jesus and Empire: The Third Way

The United States is our world’s dominant political, military, and economic power. In many ways, America is the new Roman Empire, only bigger and more powerful. What would Jesus do? It’s complicated. America is both like and unlike the ancient Roman Empire. Still, the way we use our military and economic clout to put “America first” is similar enough to ancient Rome to give us pause.

We need to maintain a healthy tension between our Christian faith and our American citizenship. Drew Hart, the author of the book Trouble I’ve Seen, is blunt. He says that too many Christians don’t think it’s necessary to immerse ourselves in the gospel stories as long as we call on the name of Jesus. That’s why we’re not concerned that the Jesus we follow sometimes bears more similarity to Uncle Sam or ourselves than to our crucified Messiah.1

New testament scholars identify two broad aspects to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. One is God’s judgment on oppressive rulers who exploit vulnerable people. The other is announcing the beginning of a grassroots renewal movement in Palestine. This is what Jesus was doing when he called his disciples and traveled from town to town in his healing and teaching ministry. The gospel story is that God identifies with the dispossessed. Drew Hart writes:

This is the precise way God chose to reveal God’s self to the world, demonstrating a deep identification with the majority of the world who struggle with dehumanizing poverty and oppression under dominating forces. Jesus’ birth in the manger was a visible protest against the powers of this world that denigrate the dispossessed.2

This is hard stuff because, like Jesus’ first disciples, our penchant is to identify with the rich and powerful. When the disciples argued about who would be greatest, Jesus turned the tables on them. The kind of servant leadership he insists on is in juxtaposition to the top-down, authoritarian leadership of rulers in the pyramidical, patronage system of the Roman Empire:

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves (Luke 22:25-26).

Likewise, the community of disciples should not become caught up in the violence of the empire or the counter-violence of the Zealot resistance fighters. Jesus counsels a “third way” with his often-misunderstood teaching on turning the other cheek. We often take it to mean being passive or cowardly in response to violence. That’s wrong! It does not mean allowing powerful people, especially powerful men, to take advantage of us. Instead, Jesus is teaching us how to stand up for ourselves. It’s learning how to resist, but without violence. We can think of it as engaging in transforming initiatives. (I’ll explain that in my next blog post.)

1 Drew Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016), 59.

2 Ibid., 62.