Archives For John Howard Yoder

John Nugent convicted me I was wrong about the Executive Order.

How?

How about choice quotes like these:

“Christians have NO biblical mandate to tell the Powers how to protect their borders”

“America does need a Confessing Church because America doesn’t have one State Church but two State Churches, the State Church of the Left and the State Church of the Right.”

Boom.

With every Christian in American debating the fidelity of the Donald’s (so-called) Muslim Ban, I thought it a perfect time to chat with John Nugent about his new book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church. The premise of John’s argument is that the Church is NOT called to make the world a better place; the Church is called to be the better place God has already made in the world.

We’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with J. Daniel Kirk,  Mandy Smith, and Alice Connor. In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of  Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Rohr, and Scot McKnight.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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Untitled101111For the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

17. What is the Significance of the Sermon on the Mount? 

If Jesus, as Matthews sees him, is the Second Moses, then the Sermon on the Mount is the charter of the New Israel, the Church, whom God elects to be an alternative community in the world witnessing to God’s creative intent for the world.

As Moses received God’s covenant commands upon Mt. Sinai, Jesus stands upon the Mount of Beatitudes and issues new commands. Thus the Sermon on the Mount is the constitution of God’s Kingdom People in both senses of the word:

It is the covenant by which Jesus’ People are obligated

And it is the way in which Jesus’ called are formed as a People.

The significance of the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ own significance, for the Sermon is firstly a description of Christ’s own character. In this Sermon, the Word who is the preacher and the word preached are one and the same because the proclaimer of the Kingdom’s nature sits at the right hand of this Kingdom’s throne. Indeed he has established this Kingdom through cross and resurrection.

As such:

The Sermon on the Mount does not describe an impossible ideal achievable only one day in the future.

It describes the way Christ’s People live the future now.

It characterizes the habits born out of the community’s conviction that the future arrived, once for all, on Easter: the Old Age has passed, Death and Sin have been defeated, the Powers and Principalities toppled, Christ’s Lordship has been established, and all those in Christ are and embody a New Creation now. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount does not provide general principles for a generic life. It does not prescribe ethical principles practicable by all. It narrates the practices that constitute the community of Jesus.

Therefore-

It commends a way of life that is unintelligible to those who do not confess that Jesus is Lord and that makes absolutely no sense if that confession is not true.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies.” – Matthew 5.43-44

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Near the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, the narrator envisions a bombing mission in reverse. Fires go out. Homes are repaired. Bombs that were dropped over towns and cities are raised back up through the sky into the bodies of the American planes. The bombers fly home backwards where they are taken apart rivet by rivet and, eventually, even the soldiers become babies.

Vonnegutt’s vision is one where the violence and death of war is undone. Original beauty is restored.

While Vonnegutt was himself one of the 20th century’s most articulate atheists, he might be chagrined to discover how thoroughly biblical was his version of hope. Slaughterhouse Five reads like it was ripped off of the prophet Isaiah (65) or St John (Revelation 21-22).

Of course, if God did not actually, literally, physically raise Jesus’ cold, dead body from the tomb, then it’s just what Vonnegutt took it to be: fiction.

Somewhere along the way I discovered that the most contentious, disputed doctrine among the every Sunday pew people isn’t homosexuality, abortion, or biblical authority.

It’s belief in the resurrection of the body.

The literal, physical, historic and material resurrection of Jesus from the tomb as the first fruits of our eventual literal, physical, historic and material resurrection from our tombs, caskets and urns.

I know many more Christians who cross their fingers during that part of the creed (‘…and the resurrection of the body…’) and who are willing to argue with me about it than I do Christians willing to debate the ‘social issues dividing the church.’

The (mainline at least) Christians get their panties in a bunch like no else when you suggest that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is the lynch pin of Christian orthodoxy.

Except…it is.

Don’t believe me read the Book of Acts. Every sermon of the first church revolves around the resurrection. Peel away your penal substitution prejudice and read Paul again- it’s resurrection through and through.

Times may change but you can be damn sure cowardly Peter didn’t let himself get crucified upside down because he held a ‘Search for Spock’ doctrine of the resurrection (when we remember him, it’s like he’s still here with us).

I’m not even arguing science or history right now. I’m arguing linguistics.

Christian speech falls apart without Easter.

Resurrection’s the verb that makes sense of all Christian language.

Without it, Cross and Incarnation and Sermon on the Mount are all unintelligible, free-standing nouns.

Jesus might’ve thought all the law and the prophets hang on the greatest commandment, but- think about it- we’ve absolutely no reason to pay any attention whatsoever to anything Jesus said, thought, or did if God didn’t vindicate him by raising him from the dead.

Actually. Really. Truly.

If the resurrection is just a metaphor, then Jesus’ teaching and witness is just another way that leads to Death.

Even worse, if you still insist that Jesus is God Incarnate, the Image of the Invisible God but deny the resurrection you’re arguing that violence, suffering and tragedy is at the very heart and center of God’s own self-understanding- rendering a God not worthy of (mine, at least) worship.

In other words- in John Howard Yoder‘s words- without the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus we’ve no basis to assert that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the universe.

In other words- mine this time- if God did not vindicate Jesus’ words and way by raising him from the dead, we’re in absolutely NO position to say his teaching about the Kingdom (see: cheek, turning of) corresponds to any present or future reality. 

If there’s no high Christology, there’s no intelligible ‘way’ of Jesus, and if there’s no Easter, there’s no Eschaton.

hauerwasI’ve read nearly published word he’s written several times over. Indeed, as CS Lewis is for Tim Keller, Stanley Hauerwas’ work is so much a part of me that, in interviews, I often know how he’ll answer a question before he answers it.

I even know where the pregnant pun or the pretense-clearing curse word will go.

Last night, though, was the first time in 12 years I actually heard Stanley Hauerwas deliver a lecture in person, and what he said- preached is a better word for it- hit me in a way that was more personal than it may have been for others.

Hauerwas’ stated theme was ‘Why Peace Requires Conflict.’

He began, as he often does, by articulating what is the central Christian presumption for nonviolence; that is, in the cross, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the power of Sin and Death have been defeated once for all.

Christ unmasked the Principalities and Powers, as Colossians puts it.

Christ’s sacrifice is the sacrifice God uses to end all sacrifices, as Hebrews puts it.

The lamb that appears as if slaughtered now rules the nations, as Revelation puts it.

Christians are called then to live according to a reality that is more determinative- if still unseen- than what passes for reality in our world. Better yet, Christians are those people called to make visible the reality that is otherwise unseen by the world. Nonviolence, as Hauerwas likes to say, is not a strategy by which Christians attempt to rid the world of war but rather, in a world of war, as followers of Jesus Christ Christians cannot conceive of any other way to live.

Lest anyone think Hauerwas is an idealist: For Hauerwas, the Gospel contains a bitter, disarming truth:

God’s Peace took flesh among us and we killed him.

That God’s Peace lived among us only to die by us reveals both the depth and propensity to our self-deception; therefore, any commitment to Christian nonviolence requires a correlative commitment to truthfulness.

To truth-telling.

Because, according to Hauerwas, the violences in our relationships and in the world at large are aided and abetted by the half-truths we tell ourselves, by the illusions we prefer to keep and by the realities that are sometimes too painful to bear.

1779709_649372177667_2135790934_nNo where is this more clear, Hauerwas pointed out, than in the fury that erupts in a marriage when there’s no more floor space to avoid stepping on eggshells- when the truth about our spouse can no longer be ignored.

Christian nonviolence then is not merely a discrete decision followers of Jesus bring to bear at times of war.

Christian nonviolence is instead a lifelong commitment that requires the everyday habit of truth-telling.

And an everyday habit of truth-telling will inevitably no surely will provoke conflict.

Ask any married person, no spouse wants to hear the ugly truth about themselves. Often it’s simply easier to live with the illusion we hold about our spouse than to deal with the shit storm that comes with facing the truth about them. That same reluctance to hear the truth applies when extended to neighbors, communities, organizations and governments.

 

Christian pacifists aren’t people who avoid all conflicts; Christian pacifists are those people who are willing to provoke more conflicts than other people.

Accommodating lies and sleepy half-truths are just easier for us and, it seems, a better strategy for survival.

Okay, before the word count gets too high, I promised that this hit me personally and it did so in this way:

Growing up with an alcoholic father, I learned quickly how to step around eggshells with all the delicateness of a ronin. Living the lie and accepting the calm was preferable to the eruptions that any truth-telling would provoke.

Living with someone’s addiction results in everyone else being addicted to avoiding conflict. Which, as I’ve learned in my own marriage, creates habits of conflict avoidance that perpetuate themselves in the next generation.

It’s Hauerwas’ whole argument but in reverse, which surely points out that addiction is but one of the ways we’re still in possession to Sin.

So then, I’ve read and listened to Hauerwas enough to know he’d connect all these dots. He’d point out that thinking of Christian nonviolence exclusively in terms of war only reveals the extent to which we’ve ceded the breadth of the Christian faith to matters of personal piety.

He’d probably point out, as he did last night, that if you want to see Christian nonviolence in practice you should check out Jean Vanier’s L’Arche homes where those with profound disabilities are cared for with gentleness and patience.

And then, on this point at least, he’d finish by pointing out that the Church’s ministry to those in addiction is not an add-on to its Gospel mission but, when rightly done, is but a practice of our commitment to our nonviolent King. That helping people to speak the truth to their loved one and helping people hear the truth from their loved ones and accompanying them out of addiction is another way to glorify the Prince whose Peace requires truthfulness.

 

 

 

 

 

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“Look, I know that I’m a shitty wife and I’m not winning any Mother of the Year awards, but I you to know that not for one second do I think there is malice in your heart. You’re not a killer, and I know that. I know that, so – so do whatever you have to do to keep this group safe. And do it with a quick conscience.”

– Lori Grimes to Rick Grimes, Walking Dead: Season 3

“There is no way from us to God — not even via negativa not even a via dialectica nor paradoxa. The god who stood at the end of some human way — even of this way — would not be God.”

– Karl Barth

I’ve been on both a Karl Barth and a The Walking Dead binge the past couple of nights. One might imagine that the drudgery of the former would militate against the insomnia provoked by the latter but I’m here to report that this has not been the case.

No, the past few nights I’ve dipped back into §1.14 of Barth’s Church Dogmatics and then, very much awake, have turned to Netflix to watch the most recent season of The The Walking Dead.

Today, bleary-eyed with only a few hours of sleep, I’m nearly caught up in both my Barth and my Grimes.

Happy accidents happen when Barth’s ‘strange new world of the bible’ elides into the wasteland of the zombie apocalypse.

Just last night, I was underlining phrases and sentences concerning Barth’s understanding of revelation, in which Barth refuses to countenance any culturally palatable ‘low’ Christology; that is, for Barth Jesus is no mere human teacher of (humanly-deduced) divine wisdom.

No, Barth insists that, in Jesus Christ, God entered history.

The infinite entered the finite.

For Barth, ‘revelation’ names the once for all, decisive interruption of time by God. Better yet:

Revelation = Jesus Christ = The Eruption within Time of God. Barth Homeboy

The incarnation, Barth argues, is the first dawn of New Creation, the light, as John says, shining in the darkness.

The cross, meanwhile, is the perfect sacrifice for sin.

The world changed on Good Friday, 33 AD.

For all time.

Redemption, we profess, has been accomplished by God. In Christ. At Golgotha.

And we know that for certain, we confess.

Through the empty tomb.

And we are to live now as though that were true.

Or, as the Barthian Stanley Hauerwas writes, we are to live in such a way that makes no sense if Christ has not been raised from the dead.

Or, as Barth’s student and Hauerwas’ mentor writes, we are to live in the confidence that people who bear crosses for mercy’s sake work with the grain of the universe.

Now, I admit the above can sound like so much abstract theologizing- just one more example of an esoteric, impracticable intellectual.

Except when you follow your Barth with a zombie chaser.

Because when applied to the deracinated world of Rick Grimes, it suddenly becomes clear just how radically cruciform is Barth’s insistence on living as though the New Age has dawned.

In its macabre exaggeration, the world of The Walking Dead brings to the fore the paradox of faith that is only latent in our ‘civilized’ world:

“…the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man, who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished…”

Unlike our present world perhaps, a world crawling-swarming- with walkers/biters/zombies is pretty obviously an unredeemed one. And it’s “unredemption” both necessitates and justifies actions that are rarely redemptive.

The unredeemed world of The Walking Dead excuses any action necessary to insure the survival of its characters.

In Season 3 of the Walking Dead the primary cast seek refuge in a state prison where only a few convicts survive.

Lori, the unfaithful wife of the hero Rick, tells her husband:

“Look, I know that I’m a shitty wife and I’m not winning any Mother of the Year awards, but I you to know that not for one second do I think there is malice in your heart. You’re not a killer, and I know that. I know that, so – so do whatever you have to do to keep this group safe. And do it with a quick conscience.”

Pep talk finished, Rick goes into the bowels of the prison and offs not just zombies but the members of the ‘other’ group, the ‘unredeemed’ world driving him to do what he never would’ve done before.

There’s an unmistakable sense in which the title of the graphic novel and the show refer not to the zombies but to the survivors of the zombie apocalypse.

Rick, for one, is walking dead in the sense that with each action justified and taken by the world’s unredemption he becomes less and less human.

The impractical challenge of the Barthian insistence that we live as though the cross has initiated the New Creation in which Christ is King is further demonstrated in how the WD’s characters refuse to see the zombie ‘other’ as people. Or former people, which is to say victims.

The a-Barthian way Rich Grimes et al treat the ‘walkers’ is an unmistakable echo of the a-Christ-like way we treat those so neatly categorized as ‘collateral damage.’

How the danger posed to us determines and declares just what we do to others.

Indeed, for someone who enjoyed irony and paradox, I suspect Barth would revel in how the only character in The Walking Dead who persists in seeing zombies as people is “The Governor,” the villain of the storyline, who surreptitiously locks his ‘biter’ daughter in his apartment because he can’t bring himself to dispose of her.

No matter how ‘other’ she appears, he can’t treat her as though she were anything but human. Anything but redeemed.

Read in isolation, sometimes Barth can seem abstract. Irrelevant even.

Read in tandem with Rick Grimes, however, it becomes obvious how the world of The Walking Dead is but a raggedy approximation of our own- a world where abandoning the way of Jesus for necessity’s sake makes a hero like Rich less and less human and where clinging to the way of Jesus makes the Governor a barbarian.

 

 

matthias-grunewald-947266Mark Tooley, at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, had this post recently, in which he wildly caricatures Christian pacifists, like Stanley Hauerwas.

First, Tooley lobs the, predictable, Nieburian charge that Christian pacifism is ‘unrealistic.’ (It’s appropriately ironic that Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology is passe to every one but Mark Tooley and Barack Obama.

Secondly, Tooley goes a step further and discounts Christian pacifism as even a legitimate form of Christian witness, which will come as a surprise to Mennonites who for half a millenia have seen no other conclusion to draw from the story of the Cross.

And Mennonites are not liberal.

If you make your own clothes but DON’T sell them on Etsy or post them on Pintarest– you’re not a lefty.

To the second charge, that Christian nonviolence is not a legitimate form of witness to the faith.

Pacifism refers to the rejection of all war or participation in war- by Christians.

Radical? Leftist? Utopian? Unrealistic?

Who would, in good conscience with the injustices of the world all around, support such a way of life?

The first Christians, that’s who.

Like the first 3 centuries of them.

As in, the followers of Christ most proximate to Christ himself.

Like Jesus’ brother, who like his elder, went non-violently to his death having been condemned unjustly by the Sanhedrin.

While there is evidence to suggest the early Christians recognized the legitimacy of war as an instrument of the state, they assumed their primary citizenship (the Kingdom of God) barred their own participation.

There were a variety of reasons for this pacifism.

For some, they had the expectation that Jesus would soon return and history as we know it would quickly be at an end. There is no need even to participate in attempts to preserve order and justice if a new order is about to be inaugurated.

As well, participation in the Roman Army—the primary option for early Christians—involved pledging allegiance to Caesar (a god) which Christians refused to do.

Not to mention, of course, the Roman Army was often involved in violent persecution of Christianity. Obviously, there was little incentive for participation in the Roman Army, and Christians were hardly welcome in it.

Nonetheless, above all these factors, it was the abiding sense that it was impossible to obey and follow Jesus- who’d taught his followers to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, carry their own crosses and who’d died on a cross himself rather than kill- and participate in state-sanctioned killing.

While the commitment to pacifism did not last beyond the first three of centuries (once the Empire was ‘Christian’ it was easy to baptize any cause or action taken up by the Empire) there has always been a significant minority of Christians who have regard participation in war as inappropriate.

There have always been some Christians who refuse to go to war in obedience to Jesus’ teaching and example and as a witness to Christian convictions and hopes.

Other Christians have justified pacifism by also insisting that non-violent means are effective as instruments of justice and order, more effective, indeed, than violence and war, which sow seeds of hatred and disorder that only contribute to an ongoing cycle of discord.

If that sounds unrealistic, consider how the Christian pacifist Martin Luther King, Jr. is now the only non-President on the National Mall.

That is-

Not too far from where the IRD issues its a-theological screeds against Christian non-violence is a hulking huge monument to the transformative power of exactly what the IRD asserts lacks both persuasive power and biblical warrant.

And, to make the point, MLK’s monument will presumably endure much longer than the IRD.

As will the theological legacy of Stanley Hauerwas.

As King himself taught, what Jesus taught was not passivity or acquiescence to injustice, evil, or abuse, but creative non-violent resistance that affirms and expresses the dignity of those who are oppressed.

Jesus’ third way, between violence and inaction or passivity.

Early Christian commitment to pacifism was related to the Roman imperial context in which the early church existed.

A significant body of contemporary scholarship has lifted up the way in which Christian faith and life was understood as a conscious and explicit resistance to Roman imperialism and the theological claims which were used to justify Roman authority.

For example, the earliest Christian affirmation of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” was intended as a repudiation of the claim that “Caesar is Lord.”

Now, to the first charge.

To call Hauerwas’ pacifism unrealistic is to miss (willfully I can only guess, for no one can be that philosophically dense) the radically Christocentric, and thus deeply realistic, character of Hauerwas’ vision.

As JR Daniel Kirk puts it:

The earliest Christians were not naïve about how power worked. They were not blind to the brutal realities of tyranny and the need to stand against it.

That’s precisely why the earliest followers of Jesus lived in eager anticipation of the time when Jesus would overthrow their Roman overlords. That’s precisely why they literally could not hear Jesus’ promise that he was going to die as messiah. That’s precisely why they wanted to call down fire from heaven on those who rejected them. That’s precisely why they thought Jesus a failure after he was crucified.

“But we had thought he was the one who was going to redeem Israel?”

The temptation didn’t go away. The temptation to imagine that true peace, true freedom, could only be had if someone came who acted like Rome but out Romed Rome–better deployment of troops, better handling of swords.

The next generation of Jesus followers faced it to.

That’s what Mark 13 is about: false Christs will arise saying, “I’m the guy!” What’s the context? The time when Jerusalem’s stones will be thrown down. The time when Rome executes its next devastating act of military victory over Judea in AD 70.

The time when Christians are not to get carried away, thinking that the way to the reign of God, of peace, of justice upon the earth is to be had by way of the sword.

The temptation didn’t go away.

The idea that the transformation of the economy of power in the world might happen by something other than the sword has never caught on. Rome’s been gone for over a thousand years, Jesus is still proclaimed as Lord long after such an acclamation has ever been given to a Caesar, but still we do not believe it.

The innocence of the dove alludes us, even as we call ourselves Christians.

The subversive alternative of the Dove to the Eagle alludes us, despite its descent upon Jesus at his anointing to his messianic office

While I don’t insist the witness of Mennonites is the necessary form of faith for all Christians, I do not think it legitimate.

You would be outraged, wouldn’t you, if I said you must concur with the Mennonite vision to be a true Christian, serious about both the Gospel and the world?

You should be so outraged when someone like Tooley insists on the very same thing but in the opposite direction.

Brian_-_September_30__2008Pope Francis has called for today to be a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria. Catholic or not, at a time when Christians are diffused over so many different communions and traditions, Pope Francis offers a helpful singular voice of faith, a Christ-like perspective that transcends national and cultural distinctions.

There’s absolutely no defensible Christian reason not to do exactly what Francis calls Christians to do. I’ve now been at my present congregation long enough that youth I once saw dressed awkwardly for their confirmation are now wearing uniforms. I don’t want to see them wearing flags, as palls. As for their parents, this is more than an academic, theological question for me.

Francis’ is the loudest Christian voice reflecting on the Church’s vocation in times of war.

Popular author, Rachel Held Evans, has this piece in which she also counsels prayer and fasting.

Mark Tooley, at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, has this one, in which he concedes more than counsels that Christians can pray for peace.

Meanwhile, Brian Zahnd, a pastor and author in Missouri, has this post, essentially urging Christians to be a prayer for the world.

The distinction is important.

While I can’t say I’m a fan of Rachel Held Evans, I do admire the openness with which she wrestles the Christianity of her upbringing. My lack of fandom probably owes only to the fact that, unlike her, I grew up neither Southern nor Evangelical. I’m also aware that minus Fleming Rutledge there’s a paucity of female theologians referenced on this blog so I feel badly that I’m being critical now.

Nonetheless…in her post, ‘When It’s Too Big,’ RHE commends prayer because the Syrian issue is too complex and the right ‘solution’ too elusive. Because it’s ambiguous what Christians should do, the least they can do is pray.

I’m likewise reticent to critique Tooley’s post because I don’t want to be excoriated on the IRD blog the same way Rachel herself was a time ago. Still, reading ‘Syrian War and Churches’ you’d conclude Tooley thought Christians were just foolish people except that he’s one himself.

‘Syrian War and Churches’ lauds the Archbishop of Cantebury’s support of Syrian intervention because it meets Just War criteria, which, in its lack of any defined, measurable goal, it most definitely does not.

Let’s never mind the inconvenient truth that Just War Theory has NEVER prevented Christians from engaging in war. That it hasn’t suggests Just War Theory is less about discerning how Christians should navigate their dual commitments to State and Church and is more about providing a logical pretense for doing what you were going to do anyway- whatever the State wants you.

The sweeping way Tooley dismisses non-violence as a legitimate form of Christian witness is a post for another day, as is the way in which his defense of Just War Theory is replete with the fingerprints of Consequentialism.

Like in RHE’s post, Tooley allows for the role of prayer but scolds that Christians should not keep their faith from being serious about the solutions that may or may not be necessary when it comes to war.

Though they’d never want to share the company, Tooley and RHE both share the assumption that its the calling of Christians to find the right solution and contribute towards it.

Clearer put, they assume its the job of Christians to make the world come out right.

Brian Zahnd, on the other hand, gets right what I think both Tooley and RHE get wrong.

To the charge, which echoes Tooley’s post, ‘We have to be realistic’ Zahnd writes:

Being “realistic” does not exempt us from faithfulness to Christ. If we tell ourselves that Jesus has called us to “change the world” then we quickly find ways to justify our violent means. But Jesus doesn’t call us to change the world — he calls us to be faithful to his ways of peace. If in our faithfulness to Jesus we happen to change the world, fine, but our first call is to remain faithful. Jesus calls us to love our enemies, not because this is an “effective tactic,” but because this is what God is like.

To the counter that sometimes violence is necessary, Zahnd replies:

If we think violence is a viable option you can be sure we will resort to it. If violence is on the table, imagination is out the window. First century Jerusalem could not imagine any other way than violent revolution against the Romans. Jesus could. Jesus not only imagined the alternative, he embodied it. On the cross. And he calls us to follow him. If we don’t know (or refuse to know) the things that make for peace, we march blindly toward another fiery Gehenna.

Zahnd’s internal monologue goes on:

“You’re not being practical.”

No, I am not.

“You’re being foolish.”

It depends on whose lens you’re looking through. I grant that there are ways of looking at what I’m saying as foolishness. But I also insist that to live Christlike in a Caesar-like world is to risk being called a fool or worse.

What Zahnd gets right that others miss is that Christians are not called to solve the world’s problems, to offer solutions as though with our worldly wisdom and worldly ways we can bring the Kingdom of God ourselves.

Rather, as Jesus said right before he ascended to the Father, we’re called to witness to the Kingdom.

That’s a very different proposition.

When Jesus leads his disciples up to the Mt of Olives in Matthew 25, they ask Jesus: When will temple be destroyed and what will be the sign of the coming age?

Rather then answer them directly, Jesus responds with a series of parables about what kind of people his People should be in order to anticipate the coming age.

And the setting for all of this is the Mt of Olives, the place where Jews believed God would begin to usher in the new age (Zechariah 14.1-5).

Jesus predicts destruction, he takes them up to this mountain that’s loaded with symbolism- so why wouldn’t the disciples ask: ‘What will be the sign?’

Because the setting is the place where Jews believed God would end this age, to read the parable that follows rightly you have to go all the way back to the very beginning of scripture, to God’s original design, and God’s promise for a New Creation.

The Hebrew word for that harmony is ‘shalom,’ a word the New Testament translates as ‘peace.’ But it’s not just a sentiment or a feeling of tranquility. It’s restoration. Throughout scripture God’s judgment is against those who work against shalom.

Shalom is not just an abstract theme of scripture; it takes tangible form in the Torah where God lays out Israel’s special charge to care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the sick, the poor- whether they’re on the inside of community or the outside of the community because, as Leviticus says, ‘they’re just like you’ (19).

Implied in the Jewish Law is the reality that the stranger and the widow and the orphan and the poor lack an advocate in this world. They are a sign of what’s broken in creation; therefore, God intervenes for them by calling Israel to labor with him in establishing God’s shalom.

This partnership between God and God’s People- this is how God puts creation back together again. This is what the Old Testament is about.

Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to model shalom for us. Until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the shalom that is made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The works of mercy listed in Jesus’ parable- they’re not just a simple list of good deeds.

It’s a summary of what God’s shalom looks like.

This parable isn’t a superficial reminder to do good to others. It’s a description of Israel’s vocation, a vocation taken on by and made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This parable is Jesus’ final teaching moment before his passion begins. It’s the equivalent of the end of John’s Gospel where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says: ‘My shalom I give you.’

The point is not that we will be judged according to our good deeds per se.

The point is that we will be judged by the extent to which we embody Christ’s life.

The point is not that our faith or beliefs in Jesus have nothing to do with how we will be judged.

The point is we will be judged by the extent to which our faith in Christ has allowed us to conform our lives to witness to his way of life- which is the life God desired for all of us before Sin entered the world.

Ask yourself: who is it that welcomes the stranger, loves their enemy, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, brings good news to the prisoner?

This is a description of Jesus’ life.

The sheep in Matthew 25 are saved not because of their good deeds.

The sheep are saved because they’ve dared to witness to the life that redeems the world.

The sign of the new age that the disciples were asking about?

The sign of that new age are a people bold enough to embody the life of Christ. That’s why Jesus tells this story.

When we say that Jesus is the only way to the Father, we don’t just mean our belief in Jesus is the only way to the Father.

We also mean Jesus’ way of life is the only way we get to the Father’s love.

Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime.

Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us.

The Christian life isn’t being ‘realistic’ as the world defines it, and it’s not about solutions to creation’s problems.

It’s about witness to a different reality; it’s about a witness that anticipates and ever so slightly contributes towards the New Creation.

In a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and refuse the sword and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor and care for those who have no one.

An alternative.

Not a solution.

And so Zahnd and Francis are absolutely, urgently right. Prayer isn’t what you do when the realistic solutions are elusive and its not what you do after you’ve gone about realistically solving the world’s problems.

If God raised Jesus from the dead, the prayer of an alternative community is the most realistic thing there can be.

 

Jubilee. 10109_10200197878452575_1696261927_n

I’m here in Guatemala working on the first phase of building a sanitation system in the community of Chuicutama in the Highlands of Guatemala. If you’d like to learn more and/or support our work, as it’s a multiyear project, you can do so by clicking here:

Guatemala Toilet Project.

As part of our week, we’re reflecting on the bible’s commandments about Jubilee. You can think of Jubilee as scripture’s   economic policy. Jesus unveiled his own Gospel in terms of Jubilee in Luke 4, his first sermon.

Last Christmas I met a little girl named Anna in Cantal, Guatemala. At the time she was five years old. She lives in the Highlands in Guatemala. I built a wood-stove in her family’s house so that her mother would have something to cook over instead of an open fire.

Anna’s house is about half the size of my office  at church. It’s made of mud. The floor is dirt and sand in a village routinely devastated by mudslides. We built the stove inside Anna’s house where the only other possessions were a dirty mattress on a make-shift box spring, a torn and faded soccer poster, a beat-up pine cabinet and a tiny little Christmas tree with jagged, broken colored lights.

At that mountain altitude it frosts every night, but there’s no heat. Not even a door just bright pink tapestry hanging from the ceiling- and you could hear that cold in Anna’s breathing. It sounded like she had pneumonia.

Anna’s eyes are red and bloodshot. That’s from the fire her mother has to cook over. So too is the black snot running from her nose. Anna’s mother is named Maria and she’s only a teenager though she looks three times her age.

Her father works a tiny field outside their house.

Last year, Anna’s parents borrowed money to send a family member to the States to find work. So now they’re poor and they’re in debt.

Perhaps you’d have to be there, to meet them and get a sense of all the forces working against them and all the obstacles weighing down on them, to understand but that kind of systemic poverty…it’s a kind of bondage.

Bono, the lead singer of U2, was a part of a Jubilee campaign designed to benefit the developing world as the millennium neared. The Roman Catholic Church too, under Pope John Paul, saw in the Jubilee tradition a Gospel for the world’s poor today.

Bono writes in the NY Times:

“…redemption is not just a spiritual term, it’s an economic concept. At the turn of the millennium, the debt cancellation campaign, inspired by the Jewish concept of Jubilee, aimed to give the poorest countries a fresh start. Thirty-four million more children in Africa are now in school in large part because their governments used money freed up by debt relief.

This redemption was not an end to economic slavery, but it was a more hopeful beginning for many. And to the many, not the lucky few, is surely where any soul-searching must lead us.”

According to the Gospels, the twelve disciples only ever asked Jesus to teach them one thing.

     ‘Lord, teach us how to pray.’

And Jesus responds: ‘When you pray, do it like this.’

The Lord’s Prayer, as we pray it in church every Sunday goes like this:

Our Father, which art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name;

thy kingdom come;

thy will be done,

in earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive them that trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation;

but deliver us from evil.

[For thine is the kingdom,

the power, and the glory,

for ever and ever.]

Amen.

I learned to pray this prayer as a teenager when I first started attending church. I was surprised when I went to a Calvinist seminary and learned in chapel that everyone else prayed a different version of Jesus’ prayer. Their version was about debts not trespasses:

‘And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…’

At the time I thought ‘debts’ sounded oddly pedestrian and strangely economic.

What I have since come to appreciate is how ‘trespasses’ doesn’t exactly resonate with what Jesus teaches his followers to pray in Matthew’s Gospel.

A third component to the Jubilee command was the requirement for the wealthy of Israel to forgive the debts of Israel’s poor. The prayer Jesus teaches them is a Jubilee prayer; Jesus’ prayer stubbornly avoids our attempts to spiritualize prayer. The word ‘debt’ used in Matthew is ‘opheilema’ in Greek, a precise term for an economic debt. Even the word most translate as ‘forgive’ is actually ‘aphiemi’ in Greek, which means ‘remit.’ Interestingly, it’s the most common verb used by Jesus.

So when Jesus teaches us to pray, he tells us to pray for the help to forgive our debtors. And Jesus won’t abide us manipulating ‘debt’ into a spiritual category, forgiving those who owe us in vague, relational terms. He’s talking concretely of economics. Forgiveness, for Jesus, isn’t simply a psychological term; it’s an economic one. Remittance.

The Lord’s Prayer, as John Howard Yoder translates it, means: ‘the time has come for the faithful people of Israel to abolish all debts which bind the poor ones of Israel, for your debts to God are also wiped away.’

By having us pray for our debts to be remitted, as we remit others’ debts, Jesus establishes a correlation between our practice of Jubilee and the grace of God.

It’s not surprising to think that forgiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ Gospel.

It is surprising to discover that, for Jesus, forgiveness is more than a relational term. Forgiveness is about more than Christ reconciling us of Sin. It’s about more than our reconciling personal relationships with others.

Forgiveness, for Jesus, is a material term too.

It’s about loosing those who are bound to systems of impoverishment.

It’s about recognizing (and thus being loosed ourselves) that many of us benefit from those very systems that impoverish others.

Consider how those indigenous Maya in Guatemala suffer economically in no small part because the global marketplace that guarantees advantage to American businesses makes it impossible for them to compete on an equitable basis.

Consider how the poverty which afflicts Native American societies is the result of generations of injustice perpetrated by the American government, a legacy that has harmed one society and benefited another.

Consider how the Banana Republic pants I’m wearing as I type this were made in a factory in Cambodia (not far from a garbage dump school our church supports)because that country’s only option is to provide the company with the absolute cheapest labor they can find anywhere in the world.

I don’t have easy answers for any of these issues. I’m not an economist nor am I convinced Christians should opt for easy answers. I think maybe we’re supposed to live amidst the uneasiness and wrestle with the conflicting values. We’re supposed face over and again the fact that our salvation is tied to the grace we show those who suffer at the expense of our comfort and lifestyle.

     Harsh thoughts, maybe.

     Words we’d rather shove aside so we can instead be ‘spiritual.’

     Maybe.

     Maybe that’s why Jesus tells us to pray this way whenever we pray:

    ‘And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…’