My worlds are colliding.
My worlds are colliding.
After my post yesterday on Shane Claiborne and the responses to him at the Envision conference, I thought I’d go ahead and reflect on this new article by N.T. Wright in The Christian Century called “Kingdom come: the public meaning of the gospels“.
It’s a classic summary of Wright’s views, and I think it provides some resonance with and some balance to Claiborne’s book. Wright laments that the church has not known what to do with the four Gospels:
The Gospels have thus been seen either as a social project with an unfortunate, accidental and meaningless conclusion, or as passion narratives with extended introductions. Thus the Gospels, in both popular and scholarly readings, have been regarded either as grounding a social gospel whose naive optimism has no place for the radical fact of the cross, still less the resurrection—the kind of naïveté that Reinhold Niebuhr regularly attacked—or as merely providing the raw historical background for the developed, and salvific, Pauline gospel of the death of Jesus.
Rather, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection together “launched God’s saving sovereignty on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of God, that is, the reign of God, is at hand. God has returned at last in the person of Jesus to take charge of his broken and rebellious creation. Jesus has proceeded to the centers of Jewish and Roman power (just as Paul would in the following years) to claim that he is the true Messiah of Israel, the true Lord of the world. In doing so, however, he refused to take up the sword and to bring about the kingdom by violence. He achieved a strange victory over evil, absorbing its worst and finding new life out the other side, eventually ascending to rule at the right hand of God.
Jesus didn’t shy away from power, but he did refuse to idolize the kind of power that is offered by the kingdoms of this world (starting with his temptation in the desert). He embraced the sort of power that can only be bestowed by God in response to self-sacrificial love in the face of evil. Jesus ministered on the margins, on “the fringes of empire,” but from there he also confronted the forces of evil at the center of empire and caused them to reveal their true colors. These were not two separate missions, but rather two integral parts of a single vocation. The ministry on the margins gave meaning to the final confrontation in Jerusalem, while his death at the hands of Herod and Caesar brought his work to its climax and opened the way for his healing love to be unleashed to the corners of the earth.
We have a challenge in bringing these insights forth into our present day, because now we have more options for how to relate to power. In Jesus’ day, either you collaborated with the empire, you revolted, or you embraced Jesus’ mysterious third way. In our day, we have the ability (the responsibility?) to influence (or even to become!) our ruling authorities through democratic means. Wright (with the support of scripture) encourages us to see government as a God-given institution, intended to keep order, to keep the strong and the wealthy from squashing the weak and the poor. But we are to bear prophetic witness that our transient rulers are serving on borrowed time, and that they serve at the mercy of the one who even now is the true Lord of the world, Jesus.
Could this include attempting to become one of the rulers of the world? Certainly, but not if doing so involves becoming owned by and bound up with and compromised by the many different interests scratching and clawing for more and more power. I would love to see many followers of Jesus running for political office, campaigning on principles reflecting the generous, restorative, peace-loving heart of God and remaining fully uncompromised by the messy political process–even if this meant that they all lost! What a powerful witness it would be to have vast numbers of Christians living, with Shane, at the margins of empire, with the suffering and the forgotten . . . to mount uncompromised political campaigns at every level, with candidates concerned more about the love of God than their own victory . . . to mostly suffer defeat, but in so doing to force the political system into showing its own true, worst colors. That would be preaching the gospel like Jesus did.
Vice President Cheney’s Christmas card from 2003 contained the following quote from Benjamin Franklin:
“And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”
Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw have a lot to say about the American empire of our day in their book Jesus for President.
They call it “a project to provoke the Christian political imagination.” It’s about what to do when the empire you live in gets baptized . . . when the lines between faith and patriotism get blurred. It pushes the question, where does our ultimate hope lie . . . in kings and presidents, or in God? When it comes down to it, too whom do we pledge allegiance . . . to our country or to the Jesus we find in the scriptures? Referring to the Constantinian compromise as the “Fall of the Church,” Shane and Chris mount a compelling case that the followers of Jesus will most appropriately locate themselves on the margins and the fringes of empire, modeling a radical alternative lifestyle of allegiance to “another king” named Jesus. They echo the call of John in the book of Revelation to “come out of” the “great whore” of the global market and the kingdom of Caesar (apparently not all Bible passages come with a G rating).
Their emphasis is not on how to vote on November 4, but how to live on November 3 and 5. They want us, as followers of Jesus, to be able to say with a straight face and a clean conscience, “If you want to know what we believe, look at how we live.”
I love this book (how can you not when every page is a visual masterpiece) and the arguments are provocative as advertised. One cannot come away from this book without a renewed passion for following Jesus in radical ways in one’s own local family of faith. But I’m troubled by the lack of balance. (The following comments come with a grain of salt, since I haven’t finished the book yet.) Are the “fringes of empire” the only appropriate places for followers of Jesus to locate themselves? Is there a place for Christians as civil servants or legislators or presidential candidates? Because a government will never fully implement the reign of God this side of Jesus’ return, does that mean we should separate ourselves from it completely? Is it possible to pledge allegiance only to Jesus but to still seek influence in the halls of power?
These questions were floating through my mind going into the Envision conference. I had my ears tuned in to see how they would be addressed, since I knew the participants would have a wide range of views on the matter.
Shane talked about this stuff Sunday night, and panel including Shane, Lisa Sharon Harper, Bart Campolo, and Miroslav Volf returned to these issues Monday afternoon. I have some notes, but I seem not to have connected them all with a person who said them. I think it was Shane who at one point conceded that “if we see someone else [in politics] coming alongside the marginalized, we can go along with them.” Someone noted that Daniel, while in captivity in the Babylonian empire, became advisor to the king, while managing not to compromise himself (though he didn’t always have an easy time of it). Harper, while affirming our vocation to form communities embodying an alternative way of life, lamented that without political involvement, the volume of change that can occur (at least in the short term) is so much smaller. Someone added that “No candidate will deliver the kingdom of God, but they can contribute.” Bart Campolo, passionate and opinionated man that he is, insisted “YOU VOTE!” Volf argued that voting and participating in the political process is a way of stewarding that portion of your money that goes to pay taxes, and that even if you have little hope that political leaders will do real good, at least we can hope to prevent them from doing the kind of harm that they have in the past few years! He delineated the proper contributions that Christians can make to the political arena and the broader public square:
1) compelling embodiment
Also at the conference were others such as Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, who have been passionate advocates for political activism on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Sider didn’t even need to speak in order to make his point–I was told that he had to leave the conference early in order to meet with Barack Obama.
Together, the speakers clarified and confirmed my desire for a balanced view of our proper place as followers of Jesus in this American empire. My personal takeaway? Keep trying to live a balanced life of embodiment, vision, and critique, without idolizing political power or putting my ultimate hope in it.
Gregory Boyd has been doing a fascinating series during the last few months on what some refer to as the Canaanite massacre or genocide in the Old Testament. He considers it to be the most challenging objection to Christian faith.
The latest post on Yahweh’s war against the Nephilim is particularly intriguing.
I’m back from the Envision conference at Princeton. What a packed two and a half days! I made my way through Philly on Sunday afternoon, walking from Penn campus,
through the Odunde African festival,
to South Street for a cheesesteak at Jim’s.
A few trains later, I made it to Princeton. A highlight at the conference was running into my friend Rajeev Nandakumaran (a.k.a. G-VO) who performed his music the first night of the conference. We lived in a squatter community in Manila together three summers ago.
There was a conference bookstore with most everything 50% off! I stocked up, mostly on IVP books. I read one on the trip back to L.A. on “what postmodern skeptics taught us about their path to Jesus” which was really excellent!
I ditched one of the sessions to take a “Princeton Orange Key Campus Tour.” It was fun to learn some of the history.
Our last session Tuesday night took place in the beautiful chapel, where John Perkins was honored followed by Jim Wallis giving his characteristic rallying cry.
More soon on the content of the conference.
We’ve decided it’s time to start chronicling together our spiritual/religious journey. Partly for ourselves, partly for any others who might be at times encouraged by it, at times able to resonate with it, at times able to learn from our mistakes.
Part of the impetus for starting this blog now is that I will be attending this Envision 08 conference at Princeton from Sunday-Tuesday.
“Envision ‘08 is about the power of the gospel to transform the public square. It’s about Jesus and justice, evangelical history and heritage, and practiced theology. It’s about the next one hundred years of the church and its impact on the common good.”
I’m excited to brainstorm with others about how followers of Jesus can be a “counterculture for the common good” in our world today. I participated in an online synanim dialogue on June 2 which drafted some vision documents. You can also look at the official conference vision statement.
I’ve signed up for the following track:
Religious Pluralism and Christian Faith – Understand more deeply the meaning of Christian witness in a multi-religious world, especially where religion is a source of conflict and war.
Led by Miroslav Volf and Samir Selmanovic
I’m working through a couple of Volf’s books and hope to blog about them at some point.