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.

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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.

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

A Spirit Endowed Fellowship

Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, is a classic reminder that we’re a Spirit-endowed fellowship. We long to live into the creative power of this reality yet it raises some uncomfortable questions. Do we participate in the life of our church with the expectation that our sureties and lifestyles would be seamlessly confirmed? Or do we participate with the expectation that the Spirit’s wind and fire will release us from the tyranny of our settled certainties and comfort zones?

God’s Spirit is never predictable. We may want to install seat belts on the chairs in our church sanctuary as we negotiate this rush of creative wind. But it’s not always dramatic. Sometimes the Spirit comes as a beckoning ray of light inviting us to explore places we’ve never before ventured into. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr explains: “

When the Spirit is alive in people, they wake up from their mechanical thinking and enter the realm of co-creative power. . . Like Pinocchio, we move from wooden to real. We transform from hurt people hurting other people to wounded healers healing others. Not just individually, but history itself keeps moving forward in this mighty move of Spirit unleashed. The indwelling Spirit is this constant ability of humanity to keep going, to keep recovering from its wounds, to keep hoping and trying again.[i]

This may be hard to recognize in our present political climate where religious equality, justice for the poor, and caring for the earth are continually under assault. Living love, growing justice, and welcoming everyone can feel like a huge stretch. Where is the mighty movement of God’s unleashed Spirit in the midst of all this?

We’ll most likely miss it if we become too fixated on the controversies swirling around the White House. Sure, such things are important and we should be engaged and concerned. Still, politics is about so much more. Some of us here at Daniels Run Peace Church are working at affordable ways to put solar panels on our church roof and a plugin station for electric cars in our parking lot. Others of us are installing a rain garden on our church property. Such things are also politics in the best sense of caring for the wellbeing of our community. The coming of the Spirit is about empowering God’s people for the task of creating and living into God’s purposes for us and our world.

[i] Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance (London: SPCK, 2016), 146-147

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.

 

 

Faith Values that Guide Our Politics (part 2)

engaging-politics

 

Many of our faith values are in serious tension with or even antithetical to every political system our world has ever known. Even so, we can use them to help us discern which candidate and which political platform is more in line with God’s purposes:

  • We will want to discern which has the most respect for all people, including recent immigrants and racial minorities.
  • All politicians spin the truth but some are more honest than others and more able to admit when they made a mistake. Being able to admit mistakes is an important indication of one’s character.
  • Wealth and power are ingrained in all political systems. Even so we can discern who flaunts it as a way to impress people, who takes advantage of our legal system for unjust personal gain, who is more generous, and who seeks to live a simpler life.
  • Religious freedom and freedom of conscience go together. Does the candidate respect the rights and consciences of all people on deeply dividing issues such as abortion and sexuality? Does the candidate respect or demean people from other faith traditions?
  • All politicians claim to support common people and all are beholden to the rich and powerful people who help put them into office. Even so we can discern which will do more for common people, poor communities, and small businesses, and which has policies that benefit the rich and powerful.
  • Caring for the earth and all creation has become one of the most important social problems of our generation because of rapidly decreasing natural resources and the problem of climate change. We will want to discern which candidate and political party takes these matters seriously.
  • We will want to discern which candidate and political party is more apt to rely on military solutions to international conflicts and which will be more ready to use diplomacy and other means.

Let’s vote our values as best we can in the upcoming election but let’s also resist getting sucked into the agenda of either political party. Political parties recruit churches and religious leaders as errand boys and girls to help deliver the vote but give little in return. Let’s be wise!

Evangelical writer David Swartz encourages Evangelicals to learn from the Anabaptists who found themselves the target of every civic authority in the sixteenth century. Furthermore, our Anabaptist peace position has always kept us from completely fitting into our American political system. We’ve learned how to live with that tension.

David Swartz says that “the vocabulary of nationalism we hear in the Republican and Democratic parties—and then echoed in Christian groups—typically shades toward idolatry. . . Both sides practice realpolitik to accomplish their goals. Anything goes in the attempt to win. Parties enforce platforms, leaving little room for dissent, and they coerce adherents into following culture war scripts. They encourage the demonization of the enemy.”[1]

This political system is at the root of the partisan gridlock in our country. The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to find ways to rise above, go around, resist, and engage this system. We don’t expect it to bring in the reign of God and we will not become its errand boys and girls.

Even with this critique, I’m grateful for many aspects of our political system and our American culture and seek to work within it to, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of our city.” Our democratic system of government is a huge improvement over the domination and violence in in past centuries and in other parts of the world today. There’s much to be thankful for.

We respect and pray for our political leaders but we will not give them our religious blessing. Our loyalty belongs to God and to God’s reign. We bless and seek to be a blessing to all people. We trust that our church is a sign of that new world bubbling up in our midst. This is where we place our hope.

Jesus repudiated the very premises of systems of domination and called disciples to come follow him. He rejected the right of some to dominate others by means of power, wealth, or titles of prestige. Through his beatitudes, his healings, and by eating with outcasts and sinners, he declared God’s special concern for the oppressed.

As his disciples, Jesus calls us to create a community of equals that includes women. He asks us to do away with the hierarchical relationship of master and slave, teacher and student. So welcome to this new world coming! It’s a good time to be Anabaptist. Vote your faith values and encourage others to do the same, then place your trust in God and the power of God’s Spirit creating a new world in our midst.

[1] David Swartz, “Hey White Evangelicals, Welcome to Anabaptism (September 28, 2016)