Christ-archy and “faithful improvisation”

I do not believe that one has to be anarchist to be a faithful follower of Jesus.

Let me say that again: I do not believe that one has to be anarchist to be a faithful follower of Jesus.

I say that lest I be accused of “theological” divisiveness over my “political” beliefs, as I have been accused in the past. While I do not believe the “theological” can so easily be divided from the “political”, we must nevertheless remember that we do live in a world that not only makes such a distinction quite easily, it does so as a basic tenet of modern social thinking. Regardless of the practical and historical problems with such a distinction, it is part and parcel of the world we inhabit, and a good many people who sincerely desire to follow Jesus make the distinction.

I’m going to take that statement a step further now – I believe one can be a participant in partisan American politics and be a faithful follower of Jesus. The higher one goes up the ladder, from voter to local office to state office to the various levels of national office, the more difficult I believe it becomes, but I do not think it impossible. I do think there is a basic contradiction between the things expected of one as a public official and the expectations Jesus has for his followers, but I am not the one to ultimately judge an official’s state of righteousness before God. The truth is that it’s doubtful there is any one mode of political engagement that is absolutely faithful – every modern way of engagement is likely compromised at some point or another, and that includes the method of not engaging (which I tend to think is practically impossible anyway, but some have tried).

But, and I know you saw the but coming, that does not mean there are not ways of existing politically that are MORE compatible with being a follower of Jesus than are others. For example, being a neoconservative who supports using military force to implement “free trade” policies, using the WTO club to pull the rug out from under local economies, and gutting social programs in favor of corporate welfare is (I would say) much less compatible with being a follower of Jesus than other ways of engagement. While I believe that an anarchic approach to Christianity is the most faithful mode of engagement in the present world, I do not wish to kick my sisters and brothers who favor other political views to the curb. I do pray daily that God would show us all the right path, which should not be confused with praying that God would show THEM the right path (though if I’m honest I’ll say the thought crosses my mind from time to time), but I do not believe in excommunicating someone just because s/he is a Republican/Democrat/Green/Socialist/etc.

The truth is that no one today can claim to have it “all right” with regards to how s/he applies Scripture to today’s world. Are there approaches that are more fruitful than others? Absolutely. But the fact that we are in many ways quite far removed from the worlds in which the Bible was written, with the pervasive codes of honor/shame, limited goods, patron/client, reciprocity, dyadistic personality, and so on written into the worldview just as deeply as unlimited goods and individualism are written into ours.

N.T. Wright takes what I think is a very helpful approach to the Bible in this regard. First, he points out (as does Robert Webber in his excellent Ancient-Future Faith) that the early Christians did not begin their faith with the Bible (they didn’t have it all put together yet!), they began with Jesus. The purpose of Scripture is to witness to Jesus and to provide the church with the paradigm for life in the world as followers of Jesus. He conceives of Scripture as a 5-act drama with an epilogue at the end. The 5 acts are 1) Creation; 2) Fall; 3) The story of Israel from Abraham to Exodus to the conquest to the monarchy to its corruption to the exile to the return and into the intertestamental period; 4) Jesus’s life and ministry to his death on the cross and resurrection; 5) The history of the Church, which includes Acts and the Epistles. The epilogue is Christ’s second advent when he comes to fully establish the Kingdom.

The interesting thing is that we only have the first scene or two in the fifth act… and then a long blank spot until the second coming. We are, in fact, writing the rest of the fifth act, which is quite a long fifth act but considering that even if you’re a young earth creationist there were at least 4000 years from the creation to Jesus’ first coming we may have a ways to go yet, as we anticipate the end of the story in its epilogue. Wright maintains that, in the meantime, we practice what he calls “faithful improvisation”. We know what has come before us in the story; we know how the story ends. With that information, we seek to inhabit the story faithfully, finding our place between what has been and what will be. Wright lays this all out in very easy-to-read-yet-profound terms in The Last Word.

Because we are improvising in performing the next part of the story we inhabit, it is NOT ok to simply do whatever we want and put the “Christian” stamp on it. We must drink deeply from the wellspring of living water and dig in to the words we have to guide us, the story of God’s interaction with the world through Israel, Jesus, and the church. But because we are, fundamentally, improvising, I believe my place is to call others who call themselves Jesus-followers to better understand our place in the story we inhabit even as I am trying to understand it better myself, not to tell them they’ve got it all wrong. I desire to point to the ways Jesus and his earliest followers were radical within their contexts as inspiration for us, that we may likewise be radical within ours. I wish for my story to be a part of this grand story of Scripture, and for my life to be defined by it.

I invite and encourage you to come with me.


Bonhoeffer quote on community

We just finished reading Bonhoeffer’s Life Together in my formation for ministry course. Here’s a quote from the reading we discussed tonight:

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone” (p. 77).

This is a profound statement worthy of much consideration.

“[I] had been living inside their imagination.”

Recently I read the excellent novel Imagining Argentina by Thornton Wilder. The book is set in Argentina under a military junta of the type the United States tends to support in our so-called “ally” countries. People are constantly disappearing, being abducted by agents of the regime, including the wife of Carlos. Carlos possesses a mysterious and wonderful/terrible gift, the gift of being able to see in his imagination what is actually happening/has happened/will happen to “the disappeareds” when their loved ones tell him their stories.

At a particularly poignant moment in the narrative, Carlos comes to a great revelation – that Argentina, under the rule of the junta, is essentially a creation of the generals’ imagination. He realizes the generals are essentially dreaming their very existence, and that “he is living inside their imagination”.

Citing Benedict Anderson and calling the nation-state “one important and historically contingent type of ‘imagined community’ around which. . . conceptions of politics tend to gather,” William Cavanaugh says:

Politics is a practice of the imagination. Sometimes politics is the ‘art of the possible,’ but it is always an art, and engages the imagination just as art does. We are often fooled by the seeming solidity of the materials of politics, its armies and offices, into forgetting that these materials are marshalled by acts of the imagination. How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world and kill people he knows nothing about? He must be convinced of the reality of borders, and imagine himself deeply, mystically, united to a wider national community that stops abruptly at those borders (Theopolitical Imagination, p. 1).

Cavanaugh posits Christian worship, particularly in imbibing the Eucharist, as the supreme act of alternative imagination. I developed several of my arguments from my last post about the nature of the church as katholikos, as universal-and-local symbiotically linked, from his conception of Eucharist and church linked mysteriously in/as the body of Christ. If our first allegiance is to the katholikos, and not to any nation, state, or economic system, then truly this is subversive practice, indeed – we seek to inhabit God’s imagination, not that of the state, militarism, or capitalism.

I’m not going to say much more than that for now, I just got back from Champaign, Illinois where Derrick Jensen spoke tonight on campus at the University of Illinois, and it’s well past time to sleep. But I wanted to leave you with a couple of questions, which you can feel free to answer in comments or to post on your own blogs, online journals, the corkboards in your dorm rooms, or whatever. If you actually do physically write your response and post it on a corkboard I would love for you to send me a picture.

1. In what ways are your community, whether it’s a faith community or simply the community of your neighborhood/apartment complex/residence hall, being dreamed by the corporations, by the government(s), or by other oppressive forces that seek to exploit or control you?

2. In what ways are you as an individual being dreamed in the same way?

3. What things you experience in your own life, whether in person or vicariously through reading or other media, give you the tools to begin living out of an alternative imagination?

4. Does faith fuel your resistance? If so, how? If yes, why (or if no, why not)?

5. What is something you can do to begin resisting in a new way, right now?

As an aside on that last question, remember that Lent is just around the corner – what an amazing opportunity not just to “give up” something out of some misguided sense of obligation, but rather to deeply examine your life to find a social/thought practice or consumptive habit that is not in line with the values of the basilea of God, to nail it to the cross with Christ, and to celebrate the breaking of its power over you with the resurrection? I’ll post more about this in the future.


Christ, the universal/particular, and Eucharist

One of my Livejournal friends asked this question on her journal:

Can I ever see from a non-western, non-American viewpoint to have only a “Christian” worldview? Oh, to receive truth from revelation and not only through analyzing the world through my lens. I wish I could be objective of my own self. My housemate said yesterday, “we all contextualize Christianity.” And the thought bothered and challenged me. Is it possible to get around that? Is there anyway to know truth despite interpretation… I must believe there is to have faith at all. I guess that is the role of revelation.

I made a short comment on her entry, but felt the question deserves a more thorough treatment than what I was able to give there.

My answer is no, there is no such thing as a “Christian” worldview that does not take any cues from cultural contexts, that is objective and independent of our individual and socially-constructed lenses – and this is a good thing! In the modern, Western world, people have long tried to find a rationally necessary, unassailable foundation on which to build a framework for knowledge that does not depend on cultural lenses or individual perspectives. The thought has been something like “if we can only get back to the one truth that defines all truths” then we will either create utopia (or something close enough) or otherwise gain irrefutable knowledge that reduces the whole world to a matter of propositions, rather like solving a math problem.

The problem is that over and over again those things which were purportedly universal have been demonstrated to be contingent and cultural. All knowledge seems to depend on making a foundational assumption that cannot be proved, regardless of what field one studies. The so-called knowledge of progress at the turn of the century was exposed as Euro-centric imperialism as colonial empires shattered and “scientific” regimes proved more barbaric than any tribal society – making the 20th century the most violent in the entire known history of humankind. The supposed universal turned out to be largely Western white, male-dominant, capitalist, etc., and wholly contingent upon human actions and decision making over the course of recent history, and usually calculated to benefit the few at the expense of the many. This is not to say that all of Western culture is morally bankrupt, but it needs to be seen for what it is without hiding its particular nature and its failures. The quest for universal knowledge needs to be called out by its name, “hubris”, and if not discarded in favor of a celebration of particularity and contingency then at least undertaken with MUCH greater humility.

It is no accident that the Greek word translated “to comprehend” in John 1:5 is more often rendered “to overcome” or more literally “to seize”. That which is known can be manipulated and appropriated, left devoid of mystery and assimilated into the technopolistic order that seeks to make everything “efficient” and “orderly”. If Christianity could be seen objectively, that is as an object, then that object could be grasped at, controlled. The gift of salvation would become something other than what it is, a gift – it would be made into a technique, a process, a “sure thing”. Not surprisingly then, there is a venerable cottage industry related to training apologists and evangelists in the right steps to win an argument or a conversion and pastors to write nice, neat 5-point sermons on how to clean up your life because that’s what Jesus is supposed to do for us. The inscrutable doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity; the unfathomable recapitulation where God becomes human and takes humankind up into the divine embrace, enabling us to join the perichoresis, the joyful, eternal dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the mystical communion of saints and the full presence of Christ “where two or three are gathered” in his name – these mysteries and more are at the heart of the faith, and they strenuously resist being analyzed, compartmentalized, and objectified.

Even the mighty God himself did not come to us as a totalizing force to conquer our puny established orders and dominate our particulars in his overarching, glorious reign. Rather, the reign of God celebrates the local and includes a place for contextualized understandings in the kingdom. Revelation 5:9 proclaims that Christ has bought people from every tribe, language, people, and nation. Beginning in 7:9 a great end-time worship service is depicted, more numerous than could be counted, again from every tribe, language, people, and nation. The clear implication is that these redeemed people worship God as they are, as people from different ethnic groups, different language groups. There is no indication that they have been culturally conformed to some universal standard, in the way McWorld globalization threatens to bring the whole world under the rubric of corporate consumer capitalism. Jesus lived as a particular man, with a particular vocation (builder/carpenter), in a particular place (Galilee), at a particular time (the early 1st century AD), living under a particular imperial regime (Rome), and dealing with a particular oppressive religious reality (the Jerusalem Temple system and its vassal high priests). This Jesus embodies a reality that transcends his place in history, but it transcends it from his place.

The Kingdom isn’t some “timeless universal” that imposes itself upon and over our local situations, plowing us into its furrows and stuffing our localities into its rucksack. Instead God breaks into our human reality in all its contingent, contextual nature through the Incarnation of Jesus and in the ongoing indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the church -the body that is universal and yet has myriad expressions in places with wildly different customs, cuisines, and communal expressions.

No knowledge is universal, just like no human political system is universal. Only the Body of Christ is universal among institutions of this world – that’s the basic meaning of the Greek katholikos, which is transliterated as “catholic”. But it is not a universality that trumps the local; rather, it is a universality that only exists in its local expressions. There is a long line of thought in the church, going back to the ancient fathers, proclaiming that when Eucharist is celebrated and the congregation gathers to re-member Christ, there is present the whole body of Christ. It isn’t just a little bit of Jesus that is present in the bread and wine of communion, but the whole Christ in all his cosmic nature. Likewise, the gathering of believers that celebrates Eucharist is not just a local expression of the church. Through partaking in the bread and wine which is the whole Christ, the whole body is present – the local expression of the church can rightfully be called the whole church, as the apostles and early fathers called local churches, because the whole Christ is present and the whole church is joined in the celebration of Christ’s victory over the powers and principalities and over the forces of sin and death in our lives and in the whole world.

God’s image that is restored in Christ and the church is too grand to be limited to only one perspective, even one supposedly “universal” perspective (which is really a particular perspective with delusions of grandeur). Instead we must give up our pretensions to God-like-ness and inhabit the world as God’s image through our Scotch-Irish-English American-ness, our Nigerian-ness, our Pashtun-ness, and so on. The catholic depends on the local and is constantly transformed by it as the particular participates in the universal, all held together by the Spirit.

It is a great mystery – “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Greg Boyd and Christian anarchism

Some of you may be familiar with Greg Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, open theism advocate, and author of several books including Letters from a Skeptic, God at War, and God of the Possible.

His recent book The Myth of a Christian Nation, challenges the widespread notion in the United States that the way for Christians to influence society is to wield political power, and explicitly challenges the connection between Christianity and the Right. The book was based on material he used for a sermon series at Woodland Hills, and I’ve been told (from an unverified source, I must admit) that quite a significant number of people left the church over the series.

I was first introduced to Boyd’s work my freshman year in college when a friend loaned me Letters from a Skeptic as an recommended introduction to apologetic discussion. Since then I’ve read several of his books and have developed a strong affinity for both the open view of God and a warfare-oriented theodicy, though there are probably a lot of things I would formulate differently than does he (for example my conception of the Biblical powers is more related to the discussion in Walter Wink’s Powers trilogy). So you could say he’s been a companion of sorts for me on the journey I’ve taken over the past few years.

In the past few days Boyd has written a couple of articles on his blog that explore anarchism and Christianity. They’re both well worth reading, his writing style is very personable and he has a gift for communicating complex thoughts in language that is more easily accessible for those of us who have not yet attained advanced theology degrees. Additionally, he and I have emailed back and forth a bit on the subject, and though the relationship between Christianity and radical ideas is still a pretty new area of investigation for him it seems to me there’s a lot from the areas he’s already heavily explored (especially his ideas on spiritual warfare) that lead very well into the topic. His articles on the subject are well worth checking out for some basic introduction to important issues of Christianity and anarchy, and his blog is a good read in general. I definitely recommend you check him out. His website is still under construction, but there’s a link to his old site that has tons of good content.

New article at Catapult

This morning the new issue of Catapult Magazine went live today, including my article “(In)Security and the Fall“.

I briefly re-viewed Eve Ensler’s excellent book Insecure at Last, casting her concern about security and the strange phenomenon of how cultures that focus strongly on security tend to be fundamentally insecure in light of the Biblical story of the fall in Genesis 3. Check it out, and also check out the other excellent articles.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

This is one of King’s most important speeches and yet one of his most little-known. Delivered on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated, this speech provides a scathing denunciation of the practices of the American government on the world stage, particularly in Vietnam. King extends his methodology of nonviolent action to the nation-state, famously saying “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

We have institutionalized King, making him into an icon of the supposedly American ideals of freedom and justice and neglected to remember his enormously potent critique of America’s very failure to live up to those ideals. He has been turned into some kind of fuzzy saint and placed high in the pantheon of “America’s greatsTM,” a would-be tool for those whose violence he denounced. It is imperative that we drink deeply from King’s critique of the violence of American society and extend it to the present-day situation, to the actions and even very nature of corporations as well as nation-states and revolutionaries, exploring the ways violence breeds violence and a violent reaction destroys our humanity just as surely as does oppression. We must inhabit his vision for reconciliation through loving our enemies. The following story, taken from Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be, demonstrates the depth and revolutionary power of King’s vision through the action of his comrades in the SCLC:

One evening, during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama, was the focal point of the civil rights struggle in the American South, a large crowd of black and white activists was standing outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, singing to pass the time. Suddenly a funeral home operator from Montgomery took the microphone. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capitol just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback, all escape barred, and cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. Then the mounted police waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. Our informant was the driver of one of those ambulances, and afterward he had driven straight to Selma to tell us about it.

The crowd outside the church seethed with rage. Cries went up: “Let’s march!” Behind us, across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” the crowd responded. . . “Do you you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song, “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!” Without warning he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark?” The sheriff?! “Cer-certainly, Lord” came the stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord” – it was stronger this time. “Do you love Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in: “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

The Rev. James Bevel then took the mike. We are not just fighting for our rights, he explained, but for the good of the whole society. “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark – do you hear me, Jim? – we want you converted. We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing.”

And Jim Clark did change. Realizing he could not be reelected without the black vote, he began courting black voters and later confessed that he had been wrong in his bias against blacks.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. realized that the vision had to include more than just improving the status of oppressed people – that it includes loving the oppressors and consistently applying the critique of violence to areas beyond our immediate sphere. As globalization increasingly brings us into the living rooms of people in Sri Lanka, China, and Bangladesh (and vice versa), we must become aware of our relationships with them, with the ways our affluent lifestyles do violence to them, and ways we can oppose violence and purveyors of violence while yet showing the love of Christ which transforms the most wretched sinners into beautiful saints.

May we, like Dr. King prays, know the world in which we live and how to be ministers of reconciliation, agents of the Kingdom of God within it.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4, 1967

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

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