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.

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One Response

  1. It is possible. As Jesus said everything is possible with God, even though he said it was impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom.

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