I'd like a helping of salvation, and some of that red stuff too, please...
There is an unsettling notion about recent American democracy that seems to have permeated the church. I believe the living embodiment of truth claims is necessary if those claims are to be credible. Yet, it is increasingly difficult to find credible lived examples that somehow verify any aspect of the claims that are
made by Americans about democracy, or, by Christians about Christ. What seems to be missing from any embodiment of American Christianity is the cross. What seems to be missing from an embodied democratic culture is any notion of sacrifice on behalf of justice. The ballot box may have reduced both the concept of taking up one's cross, and the notion of secular civil disobedience or self-sacrifice, to historical facts about the mythical martyrs of our past, whether they be citizen-soldiers or second-class citizen lunch-counter agitators.
The key ingredient, of course, the dash of Tabasco that is absent from the recipe, is the willingness to sacrifice on behalf of justice. Most often, in our contemporary culture, once we realize the hot-stuff is missing, we simply go to the market-place and purchase spice, stirring it into the recipe for consumptions sake. We all love spice in our gospel, and in our politics. It adds flavor to the truth – a more palatable understanding, and more flavorful than mere reasoning. What occurs in our churches and our democracies is that we let media hype, corporate interests, and political and religious Machiavellians meet our obligations for us, and they are compensated well above the union pay-scale.
Such store-bought spice is not limited to folks on the right, with their talk-radio hosts and Jerry Falwell type preachers. Folks on the left have their media darlings as well, and have the same tendency to attend “the right church” and purchase their spice from “the right kind of store.” In fact, perhaps more than the conservative cog of American religio-political machine, leftist religionists tend to seek out more just ways to consume, not merely as a means of sending their dollars to the right places, but as a means of publicly witnessing to their truth. A Prius is the Cadillac of the left, a monument to the market place as redeemer of middle-class corporate sin. Quite often, liberal Christians will silently know that American flag lapel pins are a mark of idolatry, yet never consider that clothing, cars, computers, and colleges that they consume are one in the same. We are a nation of privilege, and our sense of justice is privileged.
The first few chapters of Philippians are often read in limited scope. The early hymn that Paul cites, about Jesus emptying himself of privilege, or equality with God, so as to accomplish the divine will. Yet, Paul includes the hymn of 2:6-12 to buoy his larger point. Just as Paul is writing from prison, an imprisonment he accepts as a joyous sacrifice to undertake as a witness to the gospel, he is writing to the church in Philippi, calling on the congregation to sacrifice their own privilege, and to serve one another – to prioritize care for one another. In fact, Paul suggests that the very fact that God has chosen you as a means of sharing the gospel with the world means you have received privilege, the privilege of salvation. Of course, the gospel turns the world upside down, and as the Philippian hymn indicates, and Paul himself re-states later when he speaks of his former privileged status as a Jew, such status can be kept only upon emptying the privilege that only comes with such status. Salvation is the true liberation of bondage to the need to maintain status.
As for democracy, this most recent stretch of war shows that the hypocrisy of the church is matched only by the hypocrisy of the nation-state. Veterans are well-loved, called heroes for their sacrifice. Politicians and commentators woe the neglect of our wounded warriors, and tell us to hire veterans, to have our parades, and, the sacrifice of all sacrifices, to refrain from shooting fireworks if a combat vet lives in our neighborhood. Yet, many of those combat vets served three, four, even more tours of combat duty to earn their status, while less than one percent of Americans served in the military during war time. It seems that a lot of Americans want as many guns and as much ammo as they can get, they just don't want to use them when it interferes with making a living. One percent of a population fighting constant war so that the rest have the freedom to consume and prosper is not democracy, it is an unjust oligarchical means of adding spice to our national experience – a murderous one at that. The biggest tragedy is, is that many of these 99 percenters call themselves Christians, sending others off to do battle so that we can continue our lives benefiting from money-changers.
Yet there is another chunk of the 99 percenters who refuse to fight, and refuse to support the war effort, and call themselves Christians as well. They go to the right congregations, the ones that wage peace. They purchase the right kind of coffee, made by fair trade producers in poor foreign lands. They vote democratic, and would vote socialist if the ballot produced one. Hell, they even vote Green Party. They fly rainbow flags instead of American flags. None of this, none of these actions, are negative or wrong-headed. None of them are “un-Christian” so to speak. Yet, none of these actions or symbolic behaviors are indicative of what is necessary to witness to the gospel, and more importantly, to turn the world upside down. It is Tabasco purchased from a market place that is, if not designed to distract you from justice, designed to bring about justice on its own terms. Democracy, and the church, have become market-oriented in a world that is destined to serve this same god.
The witness of Jesus and the early church is one of anti-economy, if not a return to the root of the word “economy,” that being “household.” To round this out, I would like to discuss Jesus' concern with tribute to Caesar in Acts 2 and 4, and the feeding of the 5000 in John. All these passages are indicative of early Christian politics, a radical democratic ideal that challenged unjust authority at its core, that is, it ability to coerce communities and whole populations through economic models, with political religious leadership bound to that economic model for survival.
James Francis wrote Subversive Virtue, and I ran across his writing reading Dominic Crossan's Birth of Christianity. While Crossan is not my favorite academic, he nevertheless counts as valuable to well-rounded understanding of the church, and he and Francis identify an aspect of the early messianic movements in Palestine that is missing almost entirely among Christians who find themselves in the 99 percent of non-combatants. In order to maintain relevance, if not profitability, the church has, since Constantine or before, refused to accept the so-called “hard-teachings” of Jesus and the Greek Testament as legitimate teachings for the organization and maintenance of the church's gospel witness. We have, as Americans, taken this exclusion of “some” biblical ethics to extremes, so as to legitimize warfare by stating that two pen knifes carried by disciples are proof of Jesus' support for war, as have others among us refused to extend grace and forgiveness to our political enemies at home, all the while extending it rightfully to apparent enemies abroad. The height of liberal dismissal of Christian peculiarity is arguing that war is unbiblical and that we should love our enemies while at the same time fighting for the rights of our gay and lesbians neighbors to kill enemies while having their sexuality rightfully acknowledged.
Friends, the whole of human rights discussions in the biblical record is limited to loving God, loving your neighbor, loving your enemies, and emptying yourself of the privilege that such rights bestow upon you. The fact that you have the right to defend national or personal interests does not mean that such self-defense is representative of the gospel. Yet, the more we accept privileged status as Americans, and the more that privileged Americans insist upon taking advantage, of all rights accorded them by government, the less we embody the gospel. There is a need to consider the manner in which our right to earn, maintain, and defend wealth is an abomination to God on a level that surpasses even the most strident mosaic law fanatic's concern for purity.
To embody the gospel is to participate in anti-economy, or, it might be said we must learn to disregard the economy of the anti-Christ. We can look to Acts 2 and 4 for examples. I do not mean to suggest that a community of goods will solve the world's financial problems. Christian communities of goods will not bring about universal justice in the world. Yet, living without economic privilege brings about a witness that Francis identifies as being more threatening to the empire (which inherently challenge God's claim to the authorship of history) than sweeping fundamentalism. I like how Francis represents Christian economics as being deviant. He identifies early Palestinian radicals as ascetics who in turn were “deemed suspect by the political, social and cultural authorities” which “hinged on social and cultural issues... Popular reputation translates into personal power. In the same way, ascetics, on the basis of their austere and self-disciplined lives, could challenge the authority of political leaders, social norms, and cultural traditions...”
Not only are the communities of goods in Acts representative of this, but so are Jesus' comments on paying taxes to Caesar. If we take Jesus' comments within the context of anti-economics, we might realize that Jesus had no coin with Caesar's image upon it, and if his itinerancy is a further indicator of his economics, he did not have an inclination to participate in the economics of Caesar (remember, he was tempted with having authority of Caesar's economics after baptism). Jesus and his disciples operated on the fringes, making use of what the communities around them had to offer, thus reducing the control that Caesar could claim over their lives.
The final thread of this is the narrative in John, the feeding of the 5000 when Jesus must feed the crowd but of course, there is no food around. In this feeding narrative, the disciples suggest that they take 200 Denarii to purchase food for the crowd. Jesus has other ideas, but first, let's unpack this scene a little bit.
Give or take a few, 5000 is a round figure for a Roman Legion, a military force of 10 cohorts. One might ask why 5000 people would be wandering around the wilderness. Did they come to see Jesus speak or preach? Were they already there in that number? The text says that they followed Jesus east of the Sea of Galilee, and it was just prior to Passover. Jesus attended passover festivals, yet something else happened in Jerusalem during passover festivals. A lot of rabble-rousing. In fact, there were always thousands of extra Roman troops in the holy city during festival time, because radical Jews were always wanting to get out of hand. As John was written after the fall of the temple in 70 AD, we can imagine that the author had the uprising of the Zealots in mind when he wrote this passage. The crowd following Jesus was going to follow his lead, and as John says, make him king by force.
Yet Jesus rejected the path of militarism. Also, he rejected the path of Caesar's economics, for instead of feeding the crowd with Caesar's money, he used the resources the community had at hand. Refusing both reliance upon Caesar's resources and the militant option of taking by force, Jesus used the ascetic option, which in the end, just as Francis wrote, was more of a threat to the empire than the Zealot revolt. It was easy for Rome to crush Jerusalem militarily. It proved not so easy to crush religious spirit, as shown by the continuing existence of both Judaism and Christianity.
I believe that the above passages indicate the Christian response to injustice should be one of sacrificial, alternative or anti-economics. How will wars be fought, or how long will they last, if the 99 percent insist on sacrificing at the very same level expected of the combatants, both neighbors and enemies? What if we refuse to consume on behalf of those who are killers and being killed, so that the other, wealthier one percent may no longer prosper from the sacrifices of the one percent who fight, and the millions who are killed? When do we stop supporting monied politics because the store-bought Tabasco is so much easier to stir into our lives than the more faithful, and even spicier, home grown fire-starter known as the Holy Spirit? The church should be deviant, and our faithfulness calls for sacrifice of privilege that comes from directing public policy from the comfort of ballot boxes and the luxury suites of our living rooms, never once risking comfort or lacking in leisure so as justice may come sooner, and the rest of the world may see what that justice looks like.
Egalitarianism, especially biblical egalitarianism, has no economic wealth, and invites no one to take their piece of an economically exploitative pie. We simply bake the pie, with homegrown ingredients, and then feed the masses with it, having faith that there will be enough for everyone, produced from our own little weedy plots. In fact, we might produce enough to keep the soldiers home, eating from what in peace and stability we might produce without the benefit of Caesar’s protection or paycheck.
If the church is to be the church, we must be the faithful one percent, sharing our love and produce with the other 99 percent, both freely, and deviant, as the Spirit allows. If we take the gospel seriously, refusing to reject the hardest ethical teachings of Jesus, the so-called believers church may be reduced to a seemingly lonely 1 percent. But man a tasty feast has been improved by the addition of a little home-grown spice.