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.

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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

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.

Our Future Church Summit

Last week I served as a delegate from our congregation at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, Florida. A highlight was the Future Church Summit where we worked together in table groups crafting a vision for the future of our churches and our denominational body. We put in long hours for several days and were all exhausted by the time we were finished.  Still, I found it immensely satisfying. It was good, important work that can guide us in our uncertain world. What I especially appreciate is the list of themes that we identified that inform our radical Anabaptist version of Christian faith. (I made a few small editorial deletions and changes to make it read better).

  • Strong sense of community, caring and mutual connection
  • Centrality of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ
  • Being a peace church: living out faith through service and justice
  • We experience God’s Spirit in community
  • Sense of welcome and belonging, which comes from being received as family
  • Active participation in discernment and mutually sharing our gifts
  • Singing our theology by making music together [worship]
  • Interpreting Scripture through the lens of Jesus, together
  • Mutual aid economics – sharing our lives and resources with one another
  • Radical orientation to Christ and nonconformity to the world
  • Faith as a voluntary choice — Anabaptist values rather than “ethnic heritage”
  • Awareness of and connection to the broader world
  • God is in the margins

Each of these themes elicits a deep inner resonance within me. Yes, this is my church! I’m so glad I went to Orlando. Yet, I’m keenly aware of the tensions within our church body that are currently centered on the inclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. As a result, many of us (myself included) carry deep wounds from past painful encounters. Our tendency as wounded people is to allow our sharp edges to, in turn, wound others. My prayer is that I can instead become a wounded healer. That’s why I’m drawn to Joann Lee’s reflection on this week’s lectionary reading on Jesus’ parable of the sower and the good soil (Matthew 13: 18-23):

To be good soil, we must also have the imagination and creativity to dream, to be able to see beyond what is already happening toward what might be possible. This part is best done with other people. The best ideas and possibilities often come when a diversity of voices and perspectives are present—especially if they involve dreams of systemic, cultural change in the world. Even if the changes we seek to make are strictly personal, however, having others walk with us in our journey of faith can help us affirm and change course as necessary.[i]

[i] newsletter@christiancentury.org via mail139.atl221.rsgsv.net 

The Song of Creation

creationI was in my office answering correspondence, planning various things in the life of our church, and studying for my weekly sermon. Then the noon bell rang at nearby St. Leo’s Catholic Church reminding me that it was lunch time. I went to the kitchen, prepared my food, put it on a tray, and carried it to the picnic table in our woods.

It was a perfect day. The sky was bright and the trees formed a canopy overhead, shading me from the sun. I could hear the stream tumbling slowly across the rocks down below. Most enjoyable was the spirited and joyful song of a mockingbird perched up in the tree above me. As in Wendell Berry’s short poem:

Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.

Part of the quiet he’s talking about is quiet within. We need to stop our work and our plans to contemplate and listen. It’s hard to hear bird song when we’re busy, anxious, or distracted. I desire to bring this quiet attentiveness to our meditation on the biblical story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis.

The first chapter of Genesis is poetry, most likely created for liturgical purposes.  Its dramatic sweep begins with God confronting chaos and creating a cosmos. At the end of each day, this creation poem concludes with the statement, “and God saw that it was good.” The poem ends with God’s serene and joyous rule over the whole universe in peaceful sabbath rest.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that the relationship between creation and Creator is a relationship of free, gracious commitment and invitation. It involves full trust rather than requirement and obligation. Furthermore, we tend to confine God’s grace to individual, guilt-related issues of morality. But in this creation song, God’s grace is portrayed as the Creator’s transforming disposition toward the whole world. Creation faith is our confession that all of life is characterized by graciousness.[i]

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (John Knox Press, 1982), 27.