A Parable of Purpose and Privilege

There were some folks who were very proud of who they were—their family heritage, their place in society, their ability to influence things—and who looked down on people who weren’t as “good” as them. And Jesus told them a story: “Two people went into the church to pray. One was a leader in the church who held much sway in the community. The other was an addict who tricked people into giving him their money to buy drugs. The first one stood at the middle of the altar, lifted his hands to the sky, and said, ‘Thank you, God, that you have made me so prosperous and so powerful, and that I’m not like these other low-lifes. I attend all the church council meetings and I put a tenth of my salary into the offering plate.’ But the addict stood in the back, ashamed to approach the altar or even to lift his eyes. He buried his head in his hands and said, ‘God, have mercy on me for the wrong that I do to people.’ I tell you, this person went home justified in God’s eyes rather than the one of influence. Everyone who thinks they’re more important than others will be brought low, and everyone who humbles themselves will be lifted up.” –Luke 18:9-14 (my paraphrase)

A friend of mine posted something on social media this morning that went something like this:

“I woke up this morning in a dry bed, had hot water in my shower, food in my fridge, and working air conditioning. God is so good!”

Actually, I hear this kind of thing a lot from my Christian friends.

“I can’t believe how awesome God is to make my life so comfortable. Yay God!”

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I like to be comfortable. I like having a memory foam mattress and a full fridge and fresh fair-trade coffee. I like my iPhone and AirPods, my 60” TV, and my collection of expensive fly rods and backpacking gear. I like it when my car runs, and I like a good parking place close to the door as much as anyone.

And I think God is in that. God is in my comfort.

But my comfort is not God’s agenda.

If my comfort, or anyone’s comfort for that matter, is God’s agenda, then that means that God’s agenda is also someone else’s discomfort. Because I know that a lot of the things that make me comfortable come at someone else’s expense.

And I think that’s something God unambiguously stands against.

Privilege or purpose?

One of the theological premises I’ve been exploring in my current season of spiritual reconstruction is the theme of purpose vs. privilege. I’m going to unpack that a lot more in the days and weeks to come, but at its heart it’s a subtext I see running throughout the biblical narrative…God imbues God’s creation with purpose from the very beginning, but the tendency of humanity is to turn the gifts of purpose into a claim for privilege.

In fact, I think a pretty substantial theological stance can be taken that privilege is really the essence of what we might call “original sin.” Again, I’ll dive into that a little deeper in some future writings. For now I’ll let you sit with that concept and consider its implications.

The point, though, is that privilege always comes at the expense of the other. By its very nature, it creates ins and outs, haves and have-nots, worthies and unworthies.

Because I can’t have privilege without someone else losing it.

Did you hear the one about the golden calf?

And so when I experience comfort in my life, and credit that comfort as a gift from God, I have to be very, very careful. Again, it’s not that comfort is not from God, but that comfort is something that can very quickly become something we fight really hard to protect.

You might even call it an idol.

And this doesn’t just happen on an individual level, but also a cultural and societal one. One of the most glaring examples, but certainly not the only one, can be seen in systemic racism or classism.

It’s a symptom of people using their privilege—which they often believe to be God-given—to protect what they believe to be their God-given comfort.

When the Israelites in the Exodus story decided to build a golden calf to worship, the problem wasn’t that they were representing a god other than Yahweh. It was that they were misrepresenting Yahweh. They were making God into something God was not.

When we begin to worship our privilege over our purpose, we are replacing God as God is with who we want God to be…a God that exists for our benefit at the expense of others.

The Superiority Complex

Now, a legitimate question to ask at this point might be why we can’t just all have comfort. Why does my comfort necessitate someone else’s discomfort?

Think about it for a moment. Privilege, by definition, is exclusivist. It means having something that others don’t. It means being something others aren’t. It carries with it—either implicitly or explicitly—a sense of superiority.

And while that often gets played out in the realm of consumerism and materialism, it reveals itself more deeply in economics and politics.

But however it manifests, it is, at its root, a theological problem.

When we believe God gifts certain people with certain comforts/privileges that God does not gift to others, we have created a false God.

Worse, we create theologies and doctrines that defend the view of an exclusivist God that cares more about propositional acquiescence to a conception of God than an actual, lived, relational experience of God.

All for one and one for all

So yes, please, thank God for your dry bed and your hot shower and the roof over your head. Thank God for a life with more comfort than discomfort. If you must, even thank God for that great parking spot.

But don’t lift your privilege above your purpose. Remember that whatever gifts God gives you, God gives you not just for your benefit, but for the benefit of all.


Welcome to the reboot of joewebbwrites.com. After an extended dry season where my writing has been limited to a few sermons and work projects, I’m re-launching this week with a series of articles on the theology of purpose vs. privilege. I welcome your feedback and conversation over the concepts I present here…just keep it civil and keep it classy.

The kingdom is coming, y’all.

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I don’t like you, but I really want to love you

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“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.” –Matt. 5:43-47 (MSG)

So I’ve been trying to do something really radical lately.

I’m trying to love people I don’t like.

This is one of those strange paradoxes of the Christian life. We know, or at least we assent to the notion, that we’re called to love our enemies.

But if we’re honest, for most of us, all that really means is that we hold those with whom we’re in conflict at arms length, agreeing without words to stay out of each other’s space.

But that’s not love. That’s just polite avoidance.

By both his words and actions, Jesus provides an example for how to not only tolerate, but actively love those we deem unlovable.

Actively, as I was reminded by a friend in a recent conversation, is the key word here.

For me to love my enemy means more than just passively setting aside animosity. It means actively seeking his or her well-being. It means—more often than not—sacrificing my own wants and desires so that someone I disagree with, someone I strongly dislike, or even someone who means me harm, can actually benefit from my actions.

The more I try to love people I don’t like, the more I find out that it’s not just hard. It’s actually costly. It requires something of me, something sacrificial.

It requires that I examine my motives, confront often previously-unrecognized prejudices, and become vulnerable. After all, there’s no guarantee that it will be reciprocated.

I’m beginning to believe, though, that learning to love people we don’t like might be among the most important things we can do if we truly want to follow Jesus.

Let’s face it. Arguing, fighting, insulting, bullying, and belittling don’t work. If they did, the problems of the world would have been resolved long ago. No authentic relationship was ever built on coercion.

And yet, those things continue to be our default settings. When confronted with ideas we find disagreeable or offensive, or with people we find rude or ignorant or otherwise flawed in our eyes, we move instantly to criticism and condemnation.

What we fail to recognize is that, in doing so, we rob the other person of their very humanity. The moment we categorize someone as this type or that kind of individual, we have made him or her a thing and not a person. In our minds they are little more than an object to be sorted into our narrow definitions and classifications.

This, in fact, is at the heart of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. As he declares the outcasts and unlovable to be blessed, he reminds them of their humanity. A humanity of which the religious and social elite of their communities too often had robbed them because of their failure to live up to accepted norms and standards.

He reminds them that each human being is a creation of God, loved by God. Equal under sun and rain, in good times and bad, whether good or evil.

And he reminds them that loving one another—actively and unconditionally—is the most powerful thing they can do. In fact, it’s what opens the doors to the kingdom of heaven.

We’re good at loving people who look like us, think like us, act like us and talk like us. We’re good at loving those who share our beliefs and values and worldviews.

But when we come up against opposition, with people who look different, believe differently, behave differently, we turn instantly to condemnation.

Disagreement challenges us on a primal level. Feeling that we’re “right” about a particular viewpoint reinforces our sense of well-being and identity. When confronted with the notion that we might be wrong about something, we react defensively out of a need to protect that identity.

That’s why loving those we dislike is so costly. It requires that something within us—an opinion, a preference, a belief—must, in some fashion, die.

But what comes to life in its place is always something better and more beautiful.

And when our “enemies” experience that, and when others around us see it, it is a catalytic force for transformation and reconciliation.

So I’m going to keep trying to love people I don’t like.

I’ll fail. A lot.

But I hope by actively seeking the best for them, I’ll find the best in me.

And ultimately, in us.

Authority

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(This is the eighth and final installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Thanks for walking through the season with us! To view the entire series on a single page, click on the Lent 2015 tab above.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 7:13-29

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

He had redefined the law. Fulfilled it.

Love. Unbridled, unconditional. Counter-intuitive, upside-down, inside-out.

Love that puts the welfare of others ahead of self.

Love that places no burden on others. Love that sees through God’s eyes.

Love that sees through God’s heart.

The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Their religious leaders had gotten it so wrong. It was so easy for them to condemn the imperfect and unclean. To protect their comfortable traditions, their strict legalism, their cozy doctrine…that, Jesus said, was a wide and easy path.

Anyone can cling to those things that benefit oneself and exclude those who don’t measure up. Anyone can call others to conform to their self-interest.

Anyone can love their friends and hate their enemies.

But this way of love, a love that gives and sacrifices and humanizes even those who would do us harm…this way is narrow. This way is hard.

This way is life.

Repent. Reorient.

Discard the way of false truth that destroys life on its way to self-salvation.

Real truth reveals itself in real love. Real peace. Kindness, patience, generosity, gentleness. Against these, there is no law.

Bear good fruit, Jesus says. Not the bad fruit of the Pharisees and religious elite that poisons and kills, but the fruit of love that nourishes and flourishes.

You can call out my name all you want. Use me to declare your own power and righteousness till you’re blue in the face. But unless you love, you’ll never know me.

Good news. Kingdom news.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

Follow.

Love is the way to life. Love that respects the God-breathed humanity and dignity of each other person. Love that blesses the undeserving.

It had to be true. No other “truth” could measure up.

There was authority in these words, in this man, like none they had witnessed before.

It was as if their leaders, the ones who claimed God’s truth, who called them to follow God’s law, who confidently declared who was “in” and who was “out,” didn’t really know God at all.

To truly know God, to be citizens of his kingdom, was to truly understand that love alone fulfills the law.

This was a kingdom worth living for.

This was a kingdom worth dying for.

Judgment

Pearls before swine old quotation from bible

(This is the seventh installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 6:25-7:12

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Love your enemies. Treasure what God treasures. Pray for love.

Their worldview was fully unraveled now. This was Israel. Chosen nation. God’s own people.

Tied together by legal codes that specified who was and was not in God’s favor.

It was all about getting from out to in. From unclean to clean. From excluded to included.

These were things worth fretting over.

But even this, Jesus says, is not as it seems.

Why worry? Isn’t God in charge? Either he is or he isn’t. See these birds? They work, but only to be what God made them to be. See these flowers? Each one beautiful, not because it chose to be beautiful, but because God created it beautiful.

You are blessed. From the highest and greatest to the lowest and least. Blessed.

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Righteousness. There’s that word again. Not the righteousness of the Pharisees, of the law-enforcers, the status-quo-protectors.

The righteousness of God.

You have heard it said…but I tell you….

Anger, contempt, indulgence. Objectification. Dehumanization. Condemnation.

Splinters and logs.

You must see others for who they are. Created by, loved by, cared for by the One who created, loves, and cares for you.

Condemnation blinds. Only love can see.

It was all so hard to hear. So hard to accept.

Particularly, perhaps, for those most threatened by it.

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

This Kingdom is dangerous. Love is dangerous.

Be perfect, Jesus said. Repent. Reorient.

But if even the Pharisees and teachers of the law have missed the point, how then could these outcasts and misfits access this love Jesus proclaims?

Ask. Seek. Knock.

Grace.

It cannot come from human will alone. Only God has that power.

But God, it seems, is willing to share it with his children.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your strength.

And love your neighbor as yourself.

This is it! This is the law!

Love God fully. Love others fully.

Trust God, pray to God, to give you power where you have none. To see as God sees.

Not through eyes of distrust or condemnation or judgment.

But through eyes full of the light of love.

Next: Authority

Treasure

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(This is the sixth installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 6:1-24

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Love perfectly, Jesus said. Respect the worth and dignity of each person. Even those with whom we disagree.

Even those who would do us harm.

Lofty words. High ideals.

But how?

If the Pharisees in their righteousness cannot instruct us, what does it look like to put this perfect love into action?

I lift my eyes unto the hills. Where does my help come from?

The religious leaders make a great show of their piousness. Their worthiness is obvious.

My help comes from the Lord, creator of heaven and earth.

In secret. Jesus says to do it all in secret. As if one hand doesn’t even know what the other is doing.

It’s not about how others perceive your deeds of kindness, your acts of sacrifice, your stirring words of prayer.

You don’t need their approval.

For your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Whether in public or in private, pray like it’s just you and God.

Father…Your kingdom come. Make our lives like yours.

Show us how to love the way you love.

Feed us your very self.

Make us forgivers so we can experience your forgiveness.

Protect us from the trials we will face. Deliver us from persecution.

In this prayer, God’s way becomes our way.

This is no chant or charm, no formula for getting what we want.

It’s a door to a relationship. Where what we want becomes exactly what God wants.

What do you treasure? Your comfort? Your convenience? Your morality? Your power?

All these are so easily lost. In a moment, perhaps. Over time, certainly. Slowly, imperceptibly disintegrated by forces unseen.

But love. Love. There is a treasure which cannot be destroyed.

A heart of love sees things as they are. Undarkened by self-aggrandizement. Undimmed by self-indulgence.

Pure reality, bright and clear.

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.

There is but one way to pursue Kingdom life. One reality to which to pledge our allegiance.

On earth as it is in heaven.

Next: Judgment

Perfect

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(This is the fifth installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 5:38-48

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus was wrecking their worldview. Declaring them blessed. Imploring them to be salt and light. Challenging the authority of their leaders.

You have heard that the law is all in all, he said. But I tell you that it is how you think about others, how you treat them, your heart toward them that matters.

What could it all mean? What would he say next?

You have heard to seek revenge commensurate with the offense. But I tell you, when you are offended, return favor to your offender rather than harm.

But don’t our offenders deserve our revenge? Are we simply to roll over and accept it when we’re attacked?

We can’t appear to be weak.

Someone has to pay!

It was too much. But he wasn’t finished yet…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies.

Love our enemies? Love them?

It was one thing not to retaliate. Avoid them, maybe. Tolerate them, at best.

But love?

This is how the Kingdom works. The radical, righteous, upside-down-rightside-up Kingdom.

Empty yourself of self. Respect the dignity and humanity of others. Give freely. We are all created by the same God, loved equally. Remember how you thought you weren’t blessed? Why should your enemies be any less blessed?

Remember that you are dust…and to dust you shall return.

Equal under sun and rain alike, our enemies and us. Beloved by the Father. Whether we are brother or sister, tax collector or prostitute.

Blessed.

This Kingdom law, it seems, is not a behavior management program. It is not the righteousness of the Pharisees, which declares who is and is not worthy.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If the Pharisees and their version of the law are not perfect, then what is?

Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Anyone can love those who look like them, think like them, sound like them, act like them.

But you, O Israel! You are more than that!

Be perfect.

There’s only one way to live into a law like that.

Love must become devoid of self-interest. It must be filled with concern for the other.

It must become as the love of the Father.

Sun or rain, brother or sister, friend or enemy…the Father sees all through just one lens.

Love.

Perfect love.

Next: Treasure

Indulgence

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(This is the fourth installation of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 5:21-37

You have heard…but I say to you….

If the righteousness of the Pharisees is not righteousness, then what is?

Jesus is challenging the very core of what they had been led to believe. Striking at the heart of what their leaders had taught for generations.

Murder. Adultery. Divorce. Swearing oaths.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law were very clear about these matters.

Or were they?

Dig deeper, Jesus says.

Don’t murder, yes. But what leads to murder? Anger, condemnation, unforgiveness. Indulge these, says Jesus, and your heart is already murderous.

Don’t commit adultery, yes. But what leads to adultery? An attraction triggers a thought, a thought triggers a fantasy, a fantasy triggers objectification. Indulge these, says Jesus, and your heart is already adulterous.

Divorce? You make it too easy, says Jesus. You indulge your selfishness and dehumanize your spouse. Has she no more value to you than your crops or livestock? Do you care so little for her as to drive her to a life of poverty and indignity?

And those vows you make? Why must you swear by heaven or earth, or anything else for that matter? Is your word not enough? Are you so insecure that you need to manipulate others’ opinions by the power of your oaths? Have they no humanity of their own?

Indulgence.

We indulge anger and we murder.

We indulge lust and we commit adultery.

We indulge selfishness and we objectify.

We indulge insecurity and we manipulate.

This, he says, is the righteousness of the Pharisees. Obey the rules, period. You will be measured by your behavior and your behavior alone.

The sin, says Jesus, is more than our behavior. It is a heart that refuses to honor the humanity of others. That places more value on “me” than on “you.” And, by extension, on “we.”

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

If you think that life is all about you and how you behave, you’re missing the point. You might as well be blind or maimed, because that’s basically how you’re going through life as it is.

So what is righteousness? What does true righteousness look like?

Next: Perfect.

 

Blessed

beggar-peddler-broadway

(This is the second installation of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 5:1-16

When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them.

Who is blessed?

The knocked down, the kicked at, the spit on. The lost, the overlooked, the forgotten. The soft, the tender, the pleasers. The losers. The nobodies that nobody wants to be around.

Who is blessed?

The ones who never feel blessed. The ones who think “blessed” always refers to someone else—someone richer, someone prettier, someone smarter, someone popular.

Blessed. Even these, Jesus says, are blessed. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

There it is again. Kingdom.

The crowds who had just experienced Jesus’ healing touch—the diseased, the sick, the suffering, the demoniacs, the epileptics, the paralytics—now being told they’re something they never thought they could be.

Blessed.

Blessed? Why? What has changed?

Healing. Kingdom. Jesus.

But what does it mean to be blessed? What is blessing for?

The sin of Israel had always been its insistence that it was blessed just because it was Israel. Rather than share its blessing, it coveted it.

Israel was blessed—chosen—not to rule the world, but to fulfill a purpose. A vocation.

Salt and light.

To add richness and flavor to the life of the world. To shine God’s love on its neighbors.

But when the salt has lost its flavor, when the light has been hidden, then what?

Repent. Reorient.

But how?

Blessing. Healing.

Be blessed, Jesus says, so you can fulfill your purpose.

Be healed, Jesus says, so you can live Kingdom life.

You who feel un-blessed have been restored. You’ve been touched by the Kingdom.

You’ve been touched by Jesus.

You’re empowered to be who you were meant to be.

This is good news!

(Next: Righteousness)

“Delmar’s been saved!”

Some interesting conversation emerged over on my Facebook page after my last post about American individualism and its infiltration into the church.

One of the things that jumped out at me as part of that discussion was the popular notion that Christianity is primarily about our personal relationship with Jesus, and that “salvation” is something that is made available to each of us as individuals as we make a choice to enter into that relationship.

I want to be careful here. Having a personal relationship with Jesus is indeed a key tenet of Christian faith. Not only that, I believe it to be integral to my own identity. I believe it is, as theologians say, salvific. That is to say, it is at least in part what saves and is saving.

But I also believe that the notion of “salvation” as a strictly individual transaction is not, in fact, the primary message of the gospel…and the Western church’s insistence that it is may be part of what is currently tearing at the fabric of society in our world today.

These modern times

Bear with me a moment for a little philosophical background…

We live today in the shadow of the Enlightenment, the mid-17th through early-18th Century movement most famously embodied by Descartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”). It was a time when humanity began to see the possibilities that science and reason could provide rational explanations for everything, including our very existence.

The modernist movement spawned by the Enlightenment period began to reject religion as a source of meaning in favor of a belief that only knowledge—not religion—could be certain, objective, and good…and that only reason could ultimately lead to truth.

This required a radical commitment to freedom of individual thought over against collective religious certainty.

Predictably, the church of the time responded with fear and defensiveness. Fresh off the reformation, both Catholics and Protestants were scrambling to assert authority over their flocks. While the church was saying it was the ultimate arbiter of truth, modernism said humans could essentially take the place of God by attaining ultimate knowledge through science and reason.

“Delmar’s been saved!”

As James K.A. Smith points out in “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” (pp59-61), a great contemporary representation of the clash between religion and modernism can be seen in the Coen brothers’ cult classic “O Brother Where Art Thou?”

In the clip above, we see a philosophical clash between George Clooney’s character, Ulysses Everett McGill, and his rube-ish cohorts Pete and Delmar. For Everett, it’s a modern world where the quest for individual knowledge is the path to utopia. His bumpkin friends succumb to the irrational superstition and magic of religion…even to the point where Delmar believes Pete has been transmogrified by the demonic sirens in the river (“We…thought…you…was…a…toad!).

But what’s interesting is how, in the span of about a hundred years or so, the church actually began to appropriate modernist thought patterns. Even while railing against scientific knowledge as the basis of truth, it acquiesced to the notion that the individual was the most sovereign expression of humanity.

As Western societies developed in the wake of the Enlightenment, so Western Christianity ran a parallel path. In its fight against modernism by rejecting science itself through invoking a literalist reading of scripture, the fundamentalist movement (which emerged to counter the liberal social justice theology of Catholics and mainliners in the mid-late 19th Century) chose to fight that battle in the heart and mind of the individual.

And thus the goal of Christianity—just like the goal of modernism—became personal conversion.

“Jesus was a socialist”

I have to admit to a bit of gratuitous click-baiting in the headline of last week’s post. The point was not to debate or defend socialism as an institution, but to point out that the gospel of Jesus soundly rejects any notion of the value of individuals over the value of community or collective humanity.

And so when we make the central claim of our faith to be about a personal relationship with Jesus, and we pursue intellectual assent to that principle (and call it “salvation”), we miss the point of Jesus’ message.

Again, I want to be careful. It’s not that Jesus’ message is not about a personal relationship. Even though that specific phrase is found nowhere in scripture, there is abundant evidence that personal relationships were of critical importance to the Jesus event.

My point is that Jesus’ message is indeed about personal relationship, but it’s also about much, much more.

Evacuation theology

Modernist Christianity (most specifically—but not exclusively—embodied in the fundamentalist and evangelical camps), with its stress on individual conversion/salvation, more or less follows the proposition that: 1) I am “saved” by intellectual assent and personal confession; and 2) I am called to love you; therefore I want you to be “saved” by whatever means necessary.

Also, our post-Enlightenment approach has suffered from a misdiagnosis of what Jesus actually means by “salvation” by making it all about the eternal disposition of one’s disembodied soul after death.

Again, I’m not arguing that a continued postmortem existence is not part of the message, but it’s not the whole message. Jesus’ promise of “eternal” life is as much about a quality of life here and now as it is about an ongoing quantity of life once our mortal flesh ceases to exist. “Eternal” in the early languages of the Bible connotes the life of God or the life of the ages. It is a present, as well as a future, reality.

So when we talk about salvation as something strictly individual that results in the transport of our immortal souls to some other-worldly “heaven,” we miss the point Jesus makes that the kingdom of heaven is sprouting up all around us, here and now, as we share his radical program of unconditional love in the times and places we find ourselves as human beings.

“On earth as it is in heaven” is not just a cute phrase in a memorized prayer, it is the actual goal Jesus has for God’s kingdom.

Salvation as holistic

I do indeed believe Jesus wants to save us all as individuals. But the modern Western church’s notion of salvation as primarily an individual transaction misses the larger biblical context for what salvation is really all about.

At the risk of being redundant, our Western/American arrogance and pervasive individualism get in the way of our ability to see what Jesus is doing and saying because we have 200+ years of indoctrination into the modernist primacy of the sovereign self.

What God has been about from the beginning has been the redemption of all things (Rev. 21:5). To me, that suggests that salvation is not meant to be individual, but holistic. And that it’s not about being swept away into the clouds when we die, but about a redemption and regeneration of the created cosmos, with love as the creative force that binds it all together.

So instead of saying, “I’m in and you’re out; but I love you and want you to be in, too,” a holistic approach is more like, “I’m a part of something, not apart from it. And if I’m a part of a greater whole, it’s only by the salvation of all things that my own salvation has any meaning.”

The longer we continue to put ourselves as individuals at the center of the salvation narrative, and the more we assert our rights as individuals over against the rights of others in our pursuit of our own salvation, the further we get from what Jesus actually intended.

Our challenge is to recapture that holistic sense of belonging, to become radically committed to the well-being of others, and to extend that commitment beyond our tight circles of those who look and think like us to those who disagree with and even persecute us:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Matthew 5:43-48 (The Message)

“Jesus was a socialist…”

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It the first day of a week-long seminary intensive course on the theology of John Wesley. I found myself in a classroom in central Kentucky viewing a satellite feed from another classroom in Orlando where our professor was conducting his lecture.

We were less than an hour into the class, having gone through brief introductions from everyone on both sites. Then, out of the blue, the professor dropped the bomb.

“Jesus was a socialist…and so am I.”

If a seminary classroom ever had a collective, unspoken “WTF?” moment, this was it.

Of course, the professor intended to create a stir. His statement was as much for shock value as anything…he was not making a political statement so much as he wanted to capture our attention and point us to something beyond what we’d mostly always been taught.

To a large degree, the church in America has hung its hat on the idea that our nation was founded on Christian principles. Our fight for liberty from an oppressive monarchy was, we’ve been taught, both right and righteous.

And as we drafted policies to protect our freedom to express our religious beliefs, that naturally grew into all sorts of other freedoms that were necessary to protect the foundational freedom of religion.

But as those freedoms have become more and more ingrained, an uglier side of them has emerged. We have gone from protecting ourselves against subjugation to the point where the rights of individuals have, in many cases, overridden the common good.

What was supposed to be freedom from oppression has become freedom to oppress.

Case in point: the current debate over vaccinations. There can be no question that childhood vaccination against diseases like measles and polio is beneficial to the vast majority of people and to society as a whole. Yet, in our staunch political defense of individual choice, we have allowed an illness that was once virtually dead in this country (and much of the world) to now create a public panic.

Which leads to the question: Have our freedoms enslaved us?

And, perhaps more to the point, to what extent is the church complicit?

For centuries predating the founding of America, church and state were effectively the same thing. From the time Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire, religion and governance have gone hand in hand.

And while the American project, with its explicit constitutional separation of church and state, ostensibly rebelled against extant Christendom, nothing really changed.

The predictable result, as history has shown over and over, is a rather unholy alliance where the agenda of the state invariably infects the agenda of the church.

And so as America grew in its love of individual freedoms and protection of our rights to make choices contrary to the common good, so the church became equally enamored of those freedoms.

Which is what made my professor’s statement so provocative.

Somewhere along the line we managed to turn a movement based on radical inclusion and sacrificial love into a hackneyed champion of the sovereign self. We have become so consumed with exercising what we perceive to be our individual “rights” that we can no longer distinguish where one person’s rights begin and another’s ends.

But the Jesus we claim to follow was no respecter of persons. Everything he did and said laid bare the claim that, while individual rights and freedoms are indeed important, the most free a human being could be was in setting aside personal rights in favor of the other…even to the extent of loving our enemies.

The radical claim of Jesus is not that we are so much free from something—oppression, marginalization, even sin or death—but that we are free for something.

And that something is the terrifying prospect of being able to love in the ultimate way…unconditionally and sacrificially.

The reason most of my classmates were shocked at my professor’s statement was that they have bought into the idea that our sociopolitical protection of individual rights is somehow a biblical concept. They immediately equated Christian socialism with political Marxism…which was not at all the claim the professor was making.

To claim that Jesus was a socialist is to claim that Jesus valued others above self, community above individuals.

21st Century America is arguably the most individualistic society ever to exist on the face of the earth. It is so much a part of our DNA that we don’t even realize it. The idea that we would sacrifice individual rights—even the right to ignorance—is not only completely foreign to most of us, it is downright offensive.

But the kind of love Jesus represents requires a vulnerability that flies in the face of militant protection of individual freedoms.

That’s why it causes me no grief at all to echo my professor’s provocative statement: “Jesus was a socialist…and so am I.”

It’s not a political statement. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the benefits and privileges that come with being a free citizen of this free country.

But we have to realize how often our personal rights and freedoms come explicitly at the expense of others.

The question for the church is, do we have the courage to repent?

Have Yourself a Compelling Little Christmas

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The gospel is compelling, not coercive.

Is there a statement that more fully embodies the Christmas story?

In a time when Christian denominations offer a fragmented picture of the body of Christ, when self-appointed gatekeepers impose narrow definitions and restrictive requirements for what is and is not acceptable, and when fear is wielded as the primary motivator of faith, we as the church would do well to be reminded of the compelling nature of God’s entry into our winner-take-all existence.

The ancient Hebrews spoke of God’s hesed love. Hesed is most often translated as “loving-kindness,” eliciting mercy, loyalty, faithfulness and compassion.

Hesed love is not conditional. It is not a love that wavers with our commitment or diminishes in the face of our disobedience. It is not love that pushes us to change in order to be acceptable.

Hesed is love that comes to us in a story of the poor and oppressed, of the despised and reviled. Of a baby born in dirt and filth to an unwed mother, whose coming was announced not to kings or religious leaders but to untrustworthy field workers and immigrant astrologers.

It is no coincidence that hesed is by its very nature incarnational. It is love that comes to us not as a warm and fuzzy feeling of attraction and excitement but as something that comes alive and takes shape in us and through us.

It is not just something that is delivered to us, but produces something in us, something new and surprising.

Something faithful and compassionate and merciful and just and beautiful.

There is nothing coercive about this kind of love. Nothing about it screams, “accept me or else!

But could there be anything more compelling?

Is there anything else, any other power in the universe that so captivates us? That grabs our imagination and makes us ask, what if life could REALLY be like this?

That’s the answer that Christmas gives us.

The compelling story that life really CAN be like this. That there is a love that reaches past our sorry commitments and our disobedience. That brings the incarnational beauty of hesed alive in us and unites us.

This Christmas, may we truly embrace the hesed loving-kindness of God through the incarnation of Jesus. And may we, like him, become a compelling force for mercy, love, justice, and compassion.

Happy Christmas!