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

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Christian Education in Smaller Churches

Memorial InstallationInstalling memorial remembering the 205 people killed by gun violence in Metro DC in 2016

How do we create the space and develop the resources for learning and growing together in a smaller church? The traditional Christian educational model has been Sunday school either before or after the worship service. In many ways, this model has served us well. Yet it has had its weaknesses and it’s especially hard to do well in smaller churches.

Sunday school programs were started in our country at the end of the 19th century. They were modeled after our public education system with graded materials for each age group. Christian publishing houses put lots of energy into the development and marketing of these materials. As our schedules get more demanding, many families find it difficult to regularly participate in Sunday school in addition to the worship service. It’s hard to keep Sunday School functioning with sporadic attendance.

Such Sunday School programs take more energy than many smaller churches have. This forces us to consider alternative Christian education models. We will especially want to provide ways for children to participate in our worship service by singing, playing percussion instruments, having a children’s story, reading scriptures, helping collect the offering, etc. Our church recently decided to put more resources into learning activities for younger children apart from the main worship service during the worship hour. Young parents should not need to carry the brunt of the responsibility for this. We, therefore, committed staff time to developing this ministry with age appropriate learning activities as well as a policy that assures child safety.

So much of our understanding of education is oriented to formal curriculum in classroom settings. There’s a place for that but it will be good to think more broadly. Karen Tye, who has devoted her life to Christian education in smaller churches, writes, “In the small membership church, one of the most vital approaches to Christian education is what I would call a community model. It draws on the reality that everything a church does is educating, and it seeks to integrate all aspects of the church’s life in ways that consistently move people deeper into their identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.”[1]

This greatly expands the scope of how we understand our educational ministry. For example, those of us who joined the interfaith friendship walk in our city this summer were being educated. Education in smaller churches needs to be experiential. That means getting our whole selves involved, seeing, speaking, listening, moving, smelling, touching, and tasting. It also means being rooted in the stuff of our lives and our community.

For youth, this may involve monthly gatherings that involve fun activities, some biblical content, and service projects such as assembling school kits for refugee children. Adults may want to do occasional evening book studies or lecture series on pertinent topics. It can even include eating out together or watching a movie and then discussing it. This past Sunday our church assembled a “Memorial to the Lost” on our church lawn, remembering those killed by gun violence in the Washington DC area in the last year. Those of us putting up the memorial spanned ages from 90 to 2 years old.

We will also want to be reflective. We can only take in so much before we need to reflect and integrate what we’re absorbing. Such learning is relational and inclusive. We don’t need classrooms with teachers but we do need to be committed to learning and growing together as followers of Jesus.

[1] Karen B. Tye, Christian Education in the Small Membership Church (Nashville: Abington Press, 2008), 56.

Celebrating the Life of Samuel Johnson

I recently attended the memorial service for my friend Samuel Johnson, a naturalist farmer who died young after suffering from chronic pain for many years. He was a rare soul with an earthy, contemplative spirituality. He had served in the military during the Vietnam War, became thoroughly disillusioned, and devoted the rest of his life to peacebuilding.

Samuel was drawn to Quaker spirituality, especially to the life and thought of John Woolman who labored to overcome slavery and our American consumer culture. He was one of the founding members of the Valley Friends Meeting and established a farm and orchard that specialized in peaches, grapes, and blueberries. He was also a founder of the Harrisonburg Farmers Market.

Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3: 1-6) makes me think of Samuel. He was so observant of the natural world and if anyone would have noticed a burning bush it was him. He was spiritually sensitive and, in his own way, would have been able to recognize it as a manifestation of the Divine, as holy ground. Yet he had an irreverent reverence that gently poked holes in shallow expressions of faith that didn’t leave room for questions and doubts.

Recognizing a burning bush as a manifestation of God is not possible if we think of God exclusively as a transcendent creator and authority who exists outside of our world and intervenes from there to accomplish his purposes. When people have a hard time believing in God, it’s generally this understanding that they can’t accept. Yet there’s another understanding of God as sacred presence that is just as biblical and is common to all faith traditions. Drawing on the thought of the Apostle Paul in the book of Acts, biblical scholar Marcus Borg writes:

God is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being” (17:28). Note how the language works. Where are we in relation to God? We are in God. We live within God. We move within God. We have our being within God. God is not a being far off, “out there,” somewhere beyond the universe, separate from us and the world. Rather, the word refers to “the one” in whom everything that is, is—a reality that encompasses us and all that is.[1]

In that sense, we recognize God in the flame of the burning bush, and the promise to deliver the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  Deliverance is not an end in itself—it’s rather the establishment of a covenant people as a blessing to all people. Moses equivocates and wants to know God’s name, but the Divine cannot be named. The answer given to him is “I am who I am.” The sixth-century BCE Chinese scholar Lao Tzu wrote, “The Tao [the sacred] that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” When we name the sacred we are no longer talking about it because it can’t be expressed in words.[2]

Samuel shared this reluctance to name the Divine because so much abuse and violence has been committed in the name of God. In this respect, people who are atheists can be more spiritual than those who easily name the name of God.  We cannot name our hidden God, but we can say that God is love. Our spiritual journey is to be drawn ever nearer to this divine flame of love. Samuel Johnson had personally planned his memorial service and all the scriptures, poems and songs he chose where related to this mystical flame of love. Irish poet and writer John O’Donohue talks about this as a loving eye:

To the loving eye, everything is real . . .  Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see it at all. Love is the light in which we see light. Love is the light in which we see each thing in its true origin, nature, and destiny. If we could look at the world in a loving way, then the world would rise up before us full of invitation, possibility, and depth.[3

For Samuel Johnson, the naturalist farmer, peacebuilder, friend, and counselor to many, such love was always practical and hands on.

[1] Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian (New York, HarperOne, 2011), 69.

[2] Ibid., 74.

[3] Ibid., 65.

Love Your Enemies (part 4)

Plowshares

The Apostle Paul pushes out Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies when he tells us to not be conformed to the patterns of this world (think of the myth of redemptive violence and the ideology of empire). Instead, we’re to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12: 2). Part of what happens when we become conformed to the patterns of our world is that we make God’s saving grace in Jesus completely spiritual and otherworldly.

Accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior becomes a matter of going to heaven when we die. It’s “pie in the sky bye and bye.” Our ethics are privatized and related to things like sex, drinking, and smoking. That’s a very truncated gospel or understanding of the politics of Jesus, so much so that it practically becomes a caricature. God’s purpose is much more than getting us to heaven when we die. It’s about saving (we might say repairing) our whole world.

Brian Zahnd borrows the Jewish theological concept of tikkun olam— “repairing the world.” We recognized that, although our world’s broken, it’s not beyond repair and that it’s God’s intention to work through humanity to repair it. Brian says that although tikkun olam is properly a Jewish concept, we can borrow it. He writes:

Far too many American Christians embrace a faulty, half-baked, doom-oriented, hyperviolent eschatology, popularized in Christian fiction (of all things!), that envisions God as saving [some] people for. . . existence in a Platonic “heaven” while kicking his own good creation into the garbage can! Framed by this kind of world-despairing eschatology, evangelism comes to resemble something like trying to push people onto the last chopper out of Saigon.[1]

We then wonder why the word “evangelism” has become so toxic as we struggle to find other words such as “outreach” or being “missional.” We dare not forget that John 3:16 (the very familiar evangelistic verse) begins with “for God so loved the world.” And as I used to remind my students when I taught in the Philippines, “eternal life” begins right here and right now—not in some far-off heaven.

So, how does out outreach (dare we say evangelism) look when it’s rooted in God’s purpose of tikkun olam—repairing the world? It looks a lot like our church dedication service did as we joined with friends, other churches, community leaders, and even our local imam, in celebrating the things God is doing in our midst and dreaming about all the things yet to come. Sure, it’s only a beginning. We will want to continue and expand this adventure.

In the Apostle Paul’s words, it’s about “letting our love be genuine.” We genuinely care about the quality of our relationships with other people, our community, and all of creation and, in this way, enter into the life of God. It’s a good spiritual exercise to meditate on Paul’s examples of love in action in this scripture passage.

We cannot overcome violence with more violence—only love can do that. We do not fight evil with evil, instead, we overcome evil with good. The goal is not to defeat our enemy but to win our enemy and, by God’s grace, to have him or her be transformed by the gospel of peace just as we have been transformed.

[1] Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2014), 58.

Love Your Enemies

Plowshares

When I was nineteen years old, I received a notice from our local draft board informing me that I was being drafted for military service. As a member of an historical peace church, I had the option of choosing alternative service as a religious conscientious objector. I did, and served for two years as an orderly in psychiatric ward. This raised hard questions that I have wrestled with ever since.

Like many of my generation, I detested the War in Vietnam and had absolutely no inclination to participate in it. As a farm boy, it felt strange that Vietnamese farmers and villagers, who lived on the other side of the world, were my enemies even if my government told me they were. Nations always create some external enemy. But then, didn’t Jesus teach us to love our enemies?

This was in the midst of the Cold War and that helps explain why we were fighting in Vietnam. Cold War strategists believed that Communist countries like the Soviet Union and China were determined to forcibly spread communism throughout the world. This had to be stopped at all costs. This may be hard for younger generations to believe but that fear and anxiety was considerably greater than the fear of radical Islamic extremism today.

A vivid memory is that Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union, provocatively said that he wasn’t Jesus Christ and didn’t need to love his enemies. As a teenager, that caught my attention. He was certainly right. As an acclaimed atheist, Khrushchev certainly didn’t have to love his enemies. But what about those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus? What makes us assume that it’s okay for us to kill our enemies?

We assume that because nation-states are addicted to violence and we have become intoxicated along with them. We swallowed the myth of “American exceptionalism” hook, line, and sinker, along with the claims that we need to fight our enemies to protect our freedom, democracy, and capitalism.

My next post will examine the history of how followers of Jesus’ gradually abandoned Jesus teaching about loving our enemies.

My Personal Journey to Peace Action (part 3)

PlowsharesGlen Stassen and John Howard Yoder taught me that peacemaking is both a faith commitment and a social science. Near the end of his life, Yoder wrote:

If children grow to fruitful adulthood, if fields are cultivated in such a way as not to lose fertility, if carefully coordinated labor achieves large goals, it will be because ways have been found to hold violence to a minimum. . . There are better and worse ways to handle conflict. The differences can be studied. We can generalize from them and extrapolate from them. This is a descriptive science, challenging the best intelligences to observe and analyze.

This is the task that Glen Stassen and his colleagues took on as they applied Jesus’ transforming initiatives to various contemporary peacemaking efforts. It includes things such as supporting nonviolent action, advancing democracy and human rights, sustainable economic development, climate change solutions, women’s education, and reducing the proliferation of weapons of war. This partial list of transformative initiatives can inspire us to take it in still other directions.

The challenge for all of us is to put such faith into action. It begins with making peace with God, myself, and my neighbor. As Mother Theresa has said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” For me, this is a call to love all people, including my enemies, and to join hands with others in collaborative peacebuilding initiatives.

God’s Peace Stands Guard

A group of us recently went to hear a Celtic Christmas concert at George Mason University. I love the rhythm and sound of Celtic music. It has its own kind of spirituality rooted in the soil and history of Ireland. Later that evening we listened to President Obama’s address to our nation about the threat of violent acts of terrorism from Islamic jihadists. It was like being transported from one world into another.

What Obama had to say was sobering. I recognize his responsibility as president to keep American citizens safe. Yet I’m concerned that actions such as aerial bombings and drone strikes in foreign countries further escalate the cycle of violence, kill innocent civilians, and increase the flow of refugees. Equally concerning were the critical responses of CNN commentators following the president’s address. One was especially alarmist and clearly desired stronger rhetoric.

Such rhetoric arrived the next day when a major presidential candidate advocated barring all Muslims from entering our country. Then the president of an evangelical Christian university told the university community that he was carrying a concealed weapon and urged them to do the same in order to stop any potential Muslim threat. Whatever else we might say about that, it’s certainly not the gospel.

In a time like this I’m drawn to our Advent scripture passages from Isaiah and Philippians. The prophet Isaiah is responding to a situation of war and conflict in the Middle East that mirrors what’s happening in our day. The small nations in the region were picking sides and aligning themselves with the bigger powers of Egypt and Assyria, primarily based to which side they thought would win. The prophet talks of the boots of tramping warriors and of garments rolled in blood (9: 5). Armies were sweeping through the region and destroying towns and cities.

Isaiah’s council to people of faith is to not place their hopes for security in such national alliances and to instead trust in God. “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (12: 2). We will want to consider what such trust looks like in our world that’s awash in high-powered guns and weapons of war.

The words of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians are equally instructive (4: 4-7). He counsels Christians to not become consumed by our anxieties or to become victimized by our problems. We are instead to be known for our deep sense of joy and gentleness or forbearance. Two things make this possible. The first is our experience of Christ present in our midst. The other is the assurance that “the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds.”

Paul uses a military metaphor of God’s peace standing guard. Because we have that assurance we don’t need to scan the horizon for new threats. Alert, yes, anxious, no. There is an appropriate level of concern but the kind of anxiety swirling around right now is not fitting for followers of Jesus who have placed their trust in God.