by Mark Sandlin
In response to my last article, “10 Things You Can't Do While Following Jesus
,” I was accused multiple times of being political. All I was trying to do was follow Jesus. So, I thought it'd be interesting (and generate tons more hate mail) to show what a list would actually look like if I were being political intentionally. Like the first list, this is not a complete list but it's a pretty good place to start.
There will be those who comment and send me messages berating me for “making Jesus political.” It's okay. Fire away. Jesus didn't worry much about stepping on political toes and the Bible insists that governments be just toward the least of these (the books of the prophets alone make this point very clear). Frequently, people who are the most vocal about not making Jesus political are the same people who want prayer in school and laws based on their own religious perspectives. By a happy little circumstance that brings us to my list: 10) Force your religious beliefs and practices on others.
One of the strengths of the faith Jesus taught was in its meekness. The faith he taught valued free will over compulsion – because that's how love works. Compelling people to follow any religion, more or less your personal religion, stands over and against the way Jesus practiced his faith. If you are using the government to compel people to practice your spiritual beliefs, you might be the reason baby Jesus is crying. This does get tricky. There is a difference in letting your beliefs inform your political choices and letting your politics enforce your religion. This article is about the first part. 9) Advocate for war.
There's a reason why he was called the Prince of Peace. Sure, you can quote, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” and even two or three other verses but they don't hold a candle to the more than fifty-some verses where Jesus speaks about peace and peacemaking. It's funny how things keep coming back to love but it needs to be said, it is way far away from loving a person to kill them. I guess there's a reason why we say, “God is love.” In the end, love wins. 8) Favor the rich over the poor.
This is actually related to #4. Favoring the rich over the poor is a slap in the face of Jesus, his life and his teachings. In terms of the teachings of Jesus, it is bad enough when we allow the rich to take advantage of the poor, but when we create laws which not only encourage the behavior but also protect it? Well, let's just say it becomes crystal clear how ironic it is that we print, “In God We Trust,” on our money
The final entry of my sabbatical adventure away from the Church entitled: "Church No More."
Almost three months ago I (an ordained minster who has gone to church my whole life) walked away from church– for three months. It is what I've decided to do with my sabbatical. You can read about my initial thoughts on my blog or on The Huffington Post. As the journey unfolds, I will be blogging about it in this series entitled, “Church No More.” I hope you will not only follow along, but add your voice to the reflection by commenting or joining the discussion on my FB page.
They say you can never go home again. The thinking being, having left and experienced new things, you have changed and the people back home have continued in their lives just as you left them. Your experience of going back home again will necessarily be very different from your experience of home as you remember it, even though it may have changed very little.
In many ways, Church is one of my homes and I left it. I walked away for three months and experienced a bit of life outside of it. The three months are up and I'm going back home. This Sunday (September 2) is my first Sunday back.
The saying “you can't go home again,” probably originated from Thomas Wolfe's novel, “You Can't Go Home Again
.” It's the story of an author who leaves his home, writes about it from a distance and then tries to go home again. It doesn't exactly go well. The folks in the town are none-too-happy about him airing their dirty laundry so publicly. So, you can't go home again.
Well, I'm going to try. Yes, I left the Church and wrote about it from a distance and judging from some of the comments and emails I received, some folks are none-too-happy about some of the things I said, but it's time to go back to the Church.
The good news for me is I'm primarily going back to church (little “c,” as in the church where I serve) and then secondarily to Church (big “C,” the institution). I love the folks at Vandalia Presbyterian Church. We're a small church with a big heart. I'm looking forward to seeing them all again and to doing ministry with them again. Here's the thing: I've changed. That worries me a bit.
(This article is also posted as audio file read by the author at the end of the post).
Ah.... I LOVE this time of the year!
Some people wait with bated breath for duck season, some for deer season, but for me it is all about Christmas season. That's right I'm one of those lefty, liberals that have declared a War on Christmas. That's right! Sign me up for the War on Christmas! … but maybe not for the reasons you might imagine.
You see, while I am signing up to help in a War on Christmas, I'm not on, what by default gets called, the “non-Christian” side. I’m also not signing up for the side that news pundits falsely purport as the “Christian” side. If anything, I’d make the argument that the dominant face of Christianity, as it is seen on television and promoted through news programming, is itself far from what Christianity is supposed to be about. It is a sort-of white-washed, sanitized version of Christianity that every year presents an increasingly cleaned up version of the Christmas story to the viewing public.
You see, the baby we remember this time of year, was not part of the dominant culture the way the religion he started now is. The religious stories that were told in those days were told under the shadow of the dominant culture. They were stories of oppression and hardships, stories of overcoming unthinkable odds, stories of hope for a people living in times and cultural positions that – well, quite frankly felt hopeless.
But today, our stories are told from places and positions of power. Today, Christianity is the dominant culture. So, instead of story of a olive skinned middle-eastern, unwed, pregnant mother, who was seen as little more than property, giving birth to what the world would surely see as an illegitimate child who was wrapped in what rags they could find and placed in a smelly, flea infested feeding trough in the midst of a dark musky smelling animal stall… instead of that story, we end up with a clean, white skinned European woman giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger that looks more like a crib than a trough in the midst of a barn that is more kept and clean than many of our houses.
So, “War on Christmas?,” sure sign me up. I'm pretty sure I'd prefer the elimination of what our modern “celebration” has become to the increasingly white-washed version we hear every year.
The Christmas story has been hijacked by a dominant culture. Places of power and positions of prestige have warped the comeuppance sensibilities of the original Christmas story. God’s vision of liberating the oppressed, the down trodden, has been slowly replaced year after year with a story that no longer brings fear to the Powers that Be, but rather supports the big business agendas of profit and mass consumerism.
“War On Christmas?” – come to think of it – they’re right. There is a “War On Christmas,” but it is actually waged by many of the very people who think Christmas is getting squeezed out of our culture in the name of plurality and other religions. If the Christmas they support wins – well, I for one, would have to say all is lost. So, yes, there is a “War on Christmas” and we Christians have been supporting it. If the present day, white-washed version of Christmas continues to be the dominant version, then I believe a great darkness will smother us in a sea of privilege and perverse oblivion to the struggle of those most in need – the oppressed, the downtrodden.
If the Christmas Present, with it's full on worship of consumerism, continues to masquerade as Christmas Past, our Christmas Futures will increasingly become a time when we give out of our abundance rather than out of a response to need and out of a response to God’s love – the kind of Christmas where we give to those who already have abundantly while the oppressed, the downtrodden, watch our overindulgence and rightfully judge us by actions that run contrary to our words of a child born to bring light into the dark corners of the world.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” For Dickens, those lines are meant to set the stage for a novel that takes place during the difficult times of the French Revolution. It is also a novel that struggles with the social injustices that come along with war and the pursuit of power. It is sort of a call to arms for the characters that will be called upon to live out another of the book's themes – self-sacrifice. It also can be argued that the opening line is an inverted foreshadowing for one of the predominate themes of the book – resurrection.
Now, from what I just told you, you should be able to deduce two things rather quickly. 1) My first undergraduate degree, indeed, was in English (yes, I am a book geek) and 2) in his themes of social justice, resurrection and self-sacrifice, Dickens is clearly flirting with topics near and dear to the heart of the New Testament.
That is where the Spirit of God drives us, toward lives focused on social justice, metaphorical resurrections and, when even necessary, self-sacrifice. But increasingly, that is not the case in many traditional churches in the U.S.
Part of our problem is that we have attempted to domesticate the Spirit of God. The very ruah (breath of God). The wild winds that ignited the flames of creation as they whipped recklessly over the face of chaos – in the beginning; God's essential nature described in Deuteronomy as a devouring fire; the radiant and elusive Spirit that gave the revelation of Jesus' messiahship at his baptism; the Spirit Jesus himself would describe to Nicodemus as being mysterious and unpredictable like the wind; the winds that rushed into an upper room ripping the windows open, resting as a flame on the disciple's shoulders, causing them to speak in tongues and be looked upon as if they were drunk; that Spirit scares us because we can't control it. So, we have attempted to domesticate God’s Spirit – much like the common dog. We tried to tame it, teach it to curl up beside our hearths and be obedient. We want to quantify it, objectify it, demystify it - train it, contain it and constrain it. Like our children, we want it stop being so wild and uncontrollable. We want it to lose its propensity to form something new out of a world in which we feel comfortable.
The Spirit however is unruly. It is apt to doing a “new thing,” to bringing about a change on God's people and on the world which God created. Should we really expect anything less out of the Spirit of God – not the God we created in our image, but the God that said, “behold, I am about to do a new thing,” the God who used chaos to form this world, the God who did the unthinkable and became human flesh, the God who overcame death itself...should we really expect the Spirit of that God to be docile, domesticated and dormant? In churches throughout the U.S., we seem to.
Churches throughout the U.S. must ask themselves, which Spirit do we follow? The one we, as a society, have created out of our own needs? The one that allows us to trust in ourselves? The one that plays nice and gives us warm fuzzies? Or are we ready to celebrate the Spirit of the biblical text? One who is willing to grapple with chaos. One that is unruly, unexpected, unconventional and unconcerned with what we want or how things have always been done. Which one do we truly celebrate?
I'm a bit ashamed of the Church. Oh, don't get me wrong – plenty of churches do lots and lots of brilliant things. Frankly, were it not for the missional efforts of the Church, I hate to even think of how far under some people would have slipped. The church where I serve, for example, is a small church, but we manage to feed a few hundred people a month. We're talking about people who have slipped through the charity cracks and probably have very few options for food left. Feeding them? That's a good thing. A really, really good thing. Still, I'm a bit ashamed of the Church.
We've become a lot less than we were created to be. We've been told what is required of us, we've been given examples of what that looks like and then we've proceeded to do what we want to do, take the easy way out and choose paths that allow us to feel good about ourselves for doing something, but never actually making a lasting impact. At least most of us have. We feed a person for a day, we turn their power back on for now, we give them shelter for a night, and that's a good thing... but we fall miserably short of challenging and changing the systems that will have those same people starving in a week, sitting in the dark next month, sleeping in the streets all too soon.
We've been told what is required of us, we've been given examples of what that looks like but we, the Church, busy ourselves with “the work of God” and miss out all together on the rest of the words of God. We let our silent good deeds be the end of our efforts to help, dooming struggling children of God to suffer under the oppressive and cyclical nature of systems designed to keep 'the least of these' in their place. We are much better and much more comfortable at giving people a hand out than giving them a hand up. Put simply, we prefer the self-serving feelings of charity to the self-sacrificing realities of justice.
Let's talk about Hell. Hell, why not? Seems like everyone else is. So, let's go there.
There's one thing I'd like to get out of the way right off the top. The Bible does not talk about Hell. Ever. Period. So, don't say, "Well, Jesus says that Hell...". I know that your
Bible has the word Hell in it, but Jesus didn't have the word Hell in him and neither did the ancient writings that now make up our Bible. As a matter of fact the word itself didn't even come into being until some 700 plus years after Jesus.
Jesus talks about gehenna
(as in the Greek god of the underworld). The New Testament also mentions tartaros
, but only once in II Timothy. The Old Testament talks only of sheol
, the place of the dead. While they all do have similarities to Hell as we have come to think of it (thank you Dante), they are not the same as Hell.
Just for fun, here is a really quick background on those words. Hades
are places of the dead - all the dead, good and bad. Gehenna
is the burning trash dump outside of Jerusalem. And tartaros
is the place that fallen angels go (now, I like you and all...but you're no angel and neither am I).
Again, not the same as our modern concept of Hell (damn you Dante, look what you've done... for that matter Plato didn't help either. Damn you too).
That leaves me with the question, "is there Hell and if so, what is it?" Jesus did speak of something after this life, of eternal life, and he also seemed to indicate that some form or concept of suffering might happen there. The theological kink in this chain of thinking is having an all loving God allowing a child of God to remain in everlasting torment in response to less than 80 years of bad behavior. Does that mean that in some cases Hell wins or is it more likely, as Rob Bell's recent book puts is, that "Love Wins
A Personal Response
To The Myth of Redemptive Violence
“Violence is the ethos of our times.
It is the spirituality of the modern world.
It has been accorded the status of a religion,
demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death.”
- Walter Wink
Inevitably humans end up at war with each other. It seems to be entrenched in our very beings at times. Over the course of history, peace seems to be a difficult place for humanity to find. We war over land, over political differences, over ruling parties, over race, over religious beliefs and over natural resources -- just to name few.
Many early religious traditions would suggest that war and violence are inescapable, necessary and even good. They would have us believe peace, even life itself, entails traveling a path that runs through chaos and violence. It is a perspective which is still pervasive in our world. It says that it is unfortunate but true that war is sometimes needed to achieve peace. It is a myth – a myth of Redemptive Violence and it has many roots in religion.
"Nonviolence is a power which can be wielded equally by all…”
Mohandas Gandhi, Harijan, September 5, 1936
I stand over and against the myth of redemptive violence. I'm a pacifist. I'm not the lay down and be stomped on like a doormat kind of pacifist, I'm the Jesus-wanna-be kind of pacifist. The kind that looks to the lives of people like Martin Luther King and Gahndi as models for non-violent resistance. Don't try to re-categorize me either. I'm decidedly a pacifist. Shedding blood should not happen. Period. Jesus laid down his life, shedding the ultimate blood, to show us what love looked like. Showing us that love knows no bounds.
In Christianity the myth of redemptive violence hangs from a tree. It is the ultimate story of redemptive violence is it not? Through pain and blood, sacrifice and death, one man saves the world. Clearly violence is redemptive, no?
No. We miss a few things when we see it that way. It was love that hung on that tree, not violence. Jesus did not die for the sake of the War Machine, he died in resistance of the Powers That Be which are protected by the War Machine. Jesus suffered that we might not have to. Jesus suffered to show us how far love was willing to go. Jesus' sacrifice shows us that if love is large enough, no one should ever have to suffer again.
We are to live into that kind of love. We no longer need to make sacrifices of blood. It has been done for us. What that kind of love lived out looks like is seen in the life of Jesus and mirrored in the lives of King and Gandhi.
Seeing the world through the lens of non-viloent resistance, makes a day like today (Veterans Day, formerly Armistice Day) an eternal conflict for me. I grieve for the dead. Those who died in their country’s service and those who died in the crossfire, sometimes coldly refereed to collateral damage. I cry tears for their families, for their friends for their loved ones.
But every year my tears fall like so many drops into an ocean of violence that is supported by the myth that violence begets peace, that loving one thing (your country) more than you love the reflection of God carried in the 'enemy's' eyes is somehow redeeming for humanity – growing us closer not only to God, but to the peaceable kingdom which we are to be ushering in. Every year I see an inordinate number of the poor sent to the front line, while the economically powerful fight their war from war rooms and well decorated offices. Every year the tears and the blood fall into the pools of the wars that preceded them.... and nothing changes.
So there is conflict and struggle in my heart, in my soul. The War Machine co-opts a day like today, wraps it in patriotism and manages the difficult task of both relegating the dead to being secondary to it's own promotion of the myth of redemptive violence and (at the same time) suggesting that anyone who has problems with the day are dishonoring those who have served honorably.
So many drops of blood have been spilled. With each drop, I weep. With each drop, God weeps. Each drop falls into the ocean of violence that came before it.
Today, I honor those who have died because of war, but I do not honor the War Machine. I reject the myth of dominance and redemptive violence, and substitute God's reality of love, peace and grace. With each drop of the blood of Christ, humanity was given a gift. We have yet to fully embrace that gift. Until we do, love continues to hang on a tree, suffering so that we might not have to.
In many ways, this blog page is my response to what I see as a general malaise that has fallen across Christianity in the U.S. We have bought so far into a kumbaya, turn the other cheek, Jesus is more of a doormat than a door theology, that we have rendered ourselves ineffectual. We think that being nice and kind and loving to one another means not making anyone upset and being non-confrontational. Worse yet, we have started measuring our success at being that kind of Christian by how many people 'like us' compared to how many people don't.
How we got here, I hardly know and, quite honestly, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that a very large number of Christians practice their faith by this misguided understanding of what love looks like. In that kumbaya version of Christianity having an “attitude of gratitude” means possessing a disposition of constant submission to the world and those who think they rule it – turning the other cheek so many times that you no longer know if you are looking left or right. Biblically that song is a disharmonious, disconnected and disturbing distortion of who Jesus was.
Need I remind us all that so many people didn't like Jesus that they nailed him to a tree. Not because he was a bad person, but because he did not make nice when people distorted God's message of love. He didn't turn the other cheek when politicians and religious leaders conspired to step on the 'least of these.' He stood up for what was right. He flipped tables in the name of God. He did not lash out violently at another human being, ever, but he did lovingly confront them. He was always motivated by love... but he did not back down, he did not sacrifice the Word of God for the comfort of humanity; he did not keep his mouth shut in the name of being nice.
For too long the people of God have suffered – for far
too long. God has claimed the meek and the poor in spirit and those who morn and those who thirst for justice and the merciful and the pure of heart and the peacemakers and those that suffer persecution for justice sake as God own, as the children of heaven. Those who take advantage of the meek and persecute people who work for justice, have been given a pass by Christians who think that 'turn the other cheek' means to sit passively by like a doormat as they and the marginalized get stepped on, used and abused, by the powerful who wipe their feet of the world's sometimes gritty reality so that the houses that they have built on the backs of the rest of us don't get soiled with the pain, the abuse, the hatred of the world that they themselves have created.
When Jesus was confronted with people that had distorted the purpose of the house of God, he flipped tables. When Jesus was confronted by people using God's name to dupe those who had little, who were meek, who were abused and marginalized, he flipped tables.
What makes a peace-loving, easy-going, hippy-dippy, Jesus freak start flippin' proverbial tables? People using God's name for false purposes. Politician and religious leaders using religion to further marginalize 'the least of these.' Pharasetical proclamations from 'Christian' leaders that inspire hate, division and at times violence (even if veiled in words like 'hate the sin, love the sinner).
I had had enough and so The God Article began. I hope you too have had enough. If you have, let me hear from you in the comment section, share this post with your friends far and wide. In the words of Bob Marley, “Get up, stand up. Don't give up the fight.” Start flippin' tables.
In the name of Jesus, people like The God Article
, The Christian Left
, The Progressive Christian Alliance
, Those Crazy Liberals...and Conservatives
are taking up the good fight. It's time for us to not only flip the tables but to turn them. It is time for us to take back the voice of Christianity. It is time for followers of God to start acting like followers of God. We must confront hate at every turn. We must profess love in every moment. We must see Christ in every face... and it might just take flipping a few proverbial tables.