Homecoming or Going-Away Party? Questioning the Rapture through the lens of homelessness

This is the sermon I gave at Patchwork Central’s Sunday evening worship on July 26, 2009. Of course, these texts are not the only ones pertinent to discussion of the so-called “end times,” but 1 Thessalonians in particular is of major importance since it is the text most-often used to discuss “what the Rapture will be like.” Judging by the number of bumper stickers and t-shirts with stupid slogans like “in case of Rapture, this car will be UNMANNED,” it is a matter that is sorely in need of an injection of good, contextually-informed Biblical theology in the popular arena.

As this is the full text of a sermon (approximately 30 minutes in length), it’s considerably longer than my usual entries.

First reading: Isaiah 40:9-11
Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

[I started the sermon by recalling a story from my time at Harlaxton, when I spent the better part of an afternoon in Cambridge having dinner with a homeless man named Ian. Rather than try and recall exactly how I told the story on Sunday, here is my description of the event upon returning to Harlaxton that evening.]

Of course, as we all know, homelessness is not just something that happens in England. I remember growing up in Petersburg, a town of considerably smaller size than Evansville, and every few months I would hear advertisements on the radio for programs to benefit Street Relief and other efforts to serve the homeless in Evansville in some way. Now, being from a small town and having never seen a real, live homeless person before it was all a bit of an abstraction for me. It was hard enough for me to just get my head around the notion that there were people out there who didn’t have a stable place to go every night to sleep. Homelessness was something that, for me, only existed on the radio or television, or maybe I would have a teacher mention something about it in class. By the time high school rolled around I had a little better grip on things, having taken a few trips to cities such as Washington D.C. and seen first-hand people whom I knew would be sleeping under the stars that night – and not because they were on a camping trip with friends.

When I moved to Evansville for college I began to get a fuller picture of things, though being a dyed-in-the-wool Reaganite conservative I assumed homeless people, or at least most of them anyway, were there because they wanted to be, or because they were just too lazy to get a real job. Needless to say, since then my thoughts on the matter have changed a bit. I have had a few rather significant interactions with homeless people, like Brian whom I mentioned earlier, a guy named John who used to hang out with us around what is now the art colony, back when it was still Synchronicity, who fancied himself a bit of a traveling preacher for one. He and I used to sit on a bench either on Haynie’s Corner or on Main Street and talk about all kinds of stuff, and boy did he have some good stories to tell. I’ve been a part of the crowd at the Rescue Mission, both during times when I volunteered or coordinated groups that wanted to volunteer, and during times when in fact that was the only place I could afford to eat. I’ve never actually been homeless myself, but there have been at least 3 occasions when I’ve been anywhere from a few weeks to a few days away from not having a place to call home. Perhaps some of you have been in the same boat, eh?

There’s been a lot in the news lately about foreclosures and people not being afford to stay in their homes and all that kind of stuff. Not just people on the lower end of the economic ladder, but increasing numbers from the middle and upper-middle classes as well. No doubt the number of certifiable homeless has increased in the past year, though I have found reliable statistics predictably hard to come by. But even before there was talk of a mortgage crisis, a housing sector crash, Wall Street shenanigans, and the “R-” word (not to mention the “D-” word, which you’ll never hear out of any politician’s mouth unless he’s talking about how we’re not going to have one), the fact of the matter is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1% of the US population, depending on what studies you cite and which methodologies you accept, went from day to day not knowing if they were going to be able to have a shelter to sleep in that night. That’s around 3 million people, if you’re counting. Continue reading

The Cross and the lynching tree: Good Friday reflection

In God of the Oppressed, one of the most important theological works of the 20th century, James Cone compares the cross of Christ to the lynching tree. When slavery existed lynching was not common because slaves were considered valuable property, but after the end of slavery whites used lynching as a method of asserting dominance. This use of lynching corresponds well with how the Romans utilized crucifixion, which was primarily a punishment for rebellion and other crimes that threatened to undermine the foundations of the Roman social order.

One of the major threads of argument throughout the book is that God is paradoxically presented as the Liberator, who also suffers with his people. In fact, it is precisely when God’s people are faithful even in the context of oppression that God acts to bring liberation. Cone partners the Exodus of Israel from Egypt with the experience of black people in America and deeply challenges our understanding of the crucifixion and its meaning for people today. It is well worth reading, and re-reading, and re-reading again, particularly for people who are white like me who are used to understanding the crucifixion as we have heard it preached, most often by white preachers in the midst of a white-dominated culture.

As my friend Katie pointed out earlier today, “we’re taught that this horrible thing happened called lynching but it was a long time ago and only happened a few times by some Very Bad People who also sometimes put on white robes and burned crosses but of course everyone else knew they were wrong and that’s why it’s all in the past right?” I mean, we had slavery for 300 years, lynchings for another 100, but then about 50 years ago we had a Civil Rights Movement and now everyone is equal and happy, end of story.

Or maybe not. I don’t know about you, but that is very much how the issue of race in American history was largely presented to me in my school courses. There are bad individuals who are racist, but as a society we’ve moved on and everyone knows it’s wrong. This view, of course, completely ignores the deeply embedded effects of white flight, decades of systematic job discrimination, and rampant cultural appropriation and commercialization just to name a few (not to mention the fact, as Katie also pointed out, of the resurgence in KKK membership since Obama was elected).

For much of my religious life, I’ve been taught that Jesus died on the cross for my sins so that I could go to heaven and spend eternity with God when I die. I was told I was supposed to be good and love people and be nice to them and stuff, because I was grateful to Jesus for having died for my sins so I could go to heaven, but mostly that it was about me, as an individual, having my sins forgiven in a forensic exchange so that I could be whisked away to the otherworldly paradise when I died.

It should go without saying that such a view of the cross has little to say to the realities of systemic injustice that exist today – not only related to race, but also to gender and sexual identity, economic status, geographic location, and other categories. The focus is on individuals, not social realities, and on escaping the realities of life into a magical other-world. If this were really the core of the Christian faith, I might say my radical friends are right in their criticism and rejection of religion. However, Paul offers another explanation of the significance of Christ’s death on the cross.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Colossians 2:13-15, TNIV).

The reference to uncircumcision points to the fact that, before they were brought into the life of Christ, the people were cut off from the covenant community of God’s love. As this passage points out, in Christ sin is cancelled. Our sins, collectively, are nailed to the cross and have died with Christ. But it is not simply the cancellation of the sins of individuals that is meant here. “You” is plural, and refers to the church community. The sin that is defeated here is social, as well as individual. And the last verse testifies that there is much more going on here than a simple forensic transaction by which people enter from a state of spiritual guilt into otherworldly justification: on the cross itself, Christ disarmed the powers and authorities, making a public spectacle over them, and triumphed over them.

The purpose of the Roman cross was to make a spectacle of the victim, to inscribe the victim into the context of Roman domination and so re-inforce the might of the Empire through the rule of Caesar. Paul makes the audacious claim that what has in fact happened is precisely the opposite! The logic of oppression cannot inscribe the logos of God into its narrative. Christ is victorious, but not by operating according to the logic of the powers. Instead, Christ triumphs by allowing all the powers of sin, death, and hell to exhaust their fury on him. He trusted God unto his own death, and in so doing turned the force of evil back upon itself causing its self-destruction.

We must drink deeply from the well of Paul’s theology of the cross, because the cross is the place where the New Community of God’s people gather, the church of God that is liberated from operating according to the logic of oppression. The cross both convicts and acquits us, because in order to be healed by it we must enter into it. It may not be “good news” to learn of the ways we collude with the powers that have been defeated on the cross at first, but it is liberating because in naming the powers we open ourselves to being freed through Christ in order to live according to a more excellent way.

Paul’s argument in the rest of chapter 2 flows directly from the logic of the cross: since we have died with Christ to the forces that rule the world, why do we still live as if we were subject to its law? Because the logic of death could not apprehend the logos of God, neither can it confine us who wear the name of Jesus as our own. The logic of Rome, the logic of slavery, of collusion with and perpetuation of oppressive structures cannot define the way the people who follow the Way of the logos live.

Coming to terms with the concrete ways in which we share in the guilt of the collective sins of our age is painful – it can be no other way, because in many ways the sin goes to the very core of our self-identities, of how we define our personhood. But carrying one’s cross is more than just an exercise program, it is a march to one’s death, and if we are to be raised with Christ we must also be willing to die. The logos of God spoke creation into being, and it speaks us into the New Creation. It speaks to us from the cross, bidding us to come and die, and find that we will truly live.

Privilege-checks are welcome in the comments. It’s only right, after talking about the need to put to death those parts of our identity that depend on the logic of oppression.

Shalom.

Romans 13:4 and irony

Romans 13 is often invoked (usually somewhat unthinkingly) as an objection to my ideas about Christian political engagement. The argument goes, as best as I can reproduce it here very simply, that Paul says we should submit to authority, the government is here for our own good, and we owe them certain things by virtue of the simple fact that they exist.

Each of these are highly questionable points, though I am not now going to systematically examine them or the passage in full. For now let me just examine two points of irony, one involving how the text is often invoked (at least in the United States), and one having to do with the text itself.

The first point of irony is that Americans who invoke Romans 13 as God’s blessing on the US government are justifying the results of a revolution approximately 230 years ago, while using the passage to delegitimate the principle of revolution. The same people who invoke Romans 13 generally (though not always) tend to be the sort of people who see the US as a blessed nation and some kind of agent of God’s work in the world. This is mildly ironic.

The second, more serious for our general purpose here, is that Paul himself makes reference to Roman propaganda in such a way as to cast the pallor of irony against all his seeming exhortations of the state as God’s servant and agents of good. Nero’s teacher, Seneca, wrote a letter to Nero called On Clemency (De Clementia) in which he says Nero can claim for himself the statement “with me the sword is hidden, nay, is sheathed.” Paul specifically refers to the ruler’s wielding of the sword – it certainly is not sheathed! This subversion of Roman proclamations of the Caesar as a ruler of peace casts irony on the passage as a whole, as one can imagine the ancient Roman Christian reader nodding along with the passage in realization that this is exactly how the establishment presents itself, though all know it is at least stretching the truth. Paul’s subtle twisting of the official party line undermines, not reinforces, the legitimacy of the governing authorities.

Reading these statements as irony makes perfect sense if one reads Romans 13 as a continuation of the line of argument found at the end of Romans 12, not as its own independent section, thus making the injunction to “be subject to the governing authorities” an example of how to love one’s enemy, not as an independent command without reference to literary context. Indeed, given the demonstrably subversive nature of Paul’s Gospel, it could hardly be otherwise. This is not the only time Paul’s letters make subversive reference to Roman propaganda (for one particularly potent example, see Colossians 1:15-20).

I’ve had a more comprehensive treatment of Romans 13 brewing in the back of my head for some time, but haven’t had time to put it together. Hopefully this post will help me consolidate my thinking and move me towards making the effort. My contention is that Romans 13 fits exactly within the Christarchy framework, and not at all into a collaborationist/correlationist system. I shall make this argument more fully in the future. Until then… Shalom!

A brief musing on Paul

We now can say from studies in all related fields, including epigraphy and archaeology, that the cult of Caesar the divine ruler was not merely one among other religious choices available to denizens of the ancient Roman empire. Instead, we should see it as largely the glue that held the empire together on multiple levels – political, social, religious, even economic. Particularly in the regions where Paul traveled and preached, it was the dominant cult and the means by which Rome controlled large parts of its imperial territory and population. After all, who needs armies when your king is a god and can be worshiped?

Because of this, Paul’s evangelism cannot be understood in terms of a traveling preacher who offered people a new religious experience, one superior to the religous understandings they had previously possessed. Rather, he should be seen as a kind of traveling ambassador (a term he actually uses to describe himself) for a new king-in-waiting, establishing colonies of people loyal to this new king, ordering their lives and practices according to the story and symbols of this new king, rather than to the imperial Roman story that formed the dominant religious, as well as political, mythos of the time. Paul called his converts to order their minds according to the truth of the story of Christ, not of Caesar’s. This can only be construed as deeply subversive and counter-imperial. The fact that Paul ended up in prison, executed under the reign of the “god” Nero is a sign that he did his duty for the new king quite properly.

Of course, as a Jew, Paul’s allegiance would have been to God the king, rather than to any human-made god or king. What’s interesting is that Paul defines allegiance to Christ in precisely the terms the Old Testament uses to exhort people to ally themselves with God and to eschew idols. Following Christ in Paul’s conception, then, cannot be divorced from a radically different conception of the world and how we ought to see it, smell it, live in it, than those conceptions the domination systems of the world would inundate us with.

Hearing differently leads to believing differently, which leads to imagining differently, which leads to living differently, which leads to hearing differently… “You will come to know me only as you follow me” (James McClendon’s translation of God’s revelation to Moses “I AM WHO I AM”). Only as we come to know God will we know ourselves. And only as we see the face of Christ in our neighbor will we come to know God. Thus the three loves, of God, neighbor, and self, are inextricably entwined. Let us imagine the world through the story of the Crucified God-Man, the one who washed his disciples’ feet and to whom all knees will bow.

Empire Remixed: To Hell With Romans 13

I’ve added the Empire Remixed site to my blogroll under the “Christarchy” category. Check it out, there is a lot of good stuff there. Empire Remixed is a project that had its birth in the “Wine Before Breakfast” gatherings in Brian Walsh’s office at the University of Toronto. I’ve written a bit about Walsh and posted links to and excerpts from some of his articles, as well as discussed items from some books he has co-written.

This particular article really struck a chord deep with me. All over the place I go, when I speak of Christianity and radical ideas and engaging the empire and so on and so forth, almost always the question comes, something like the refrain to a bad pop song: “What about Romans 13?”

I have been planning for some time to make another stab at answering that question, since my last attempt on the matter was really more of a prolegomenon to answering the question than an answer to the question itself, in response to a discussion I’ve had on and off over the years with a friend out in California. I hope to get that up sometime this week, since I’m currently unemployed and have all kinds of time to write, so we’ll see. In the meantime, I give you To Hell With Romans 13 by Brian Walsh.

An excerpt:

“Well, how can you use language of subverting the empire when Paul says that we are to submit to the governing authorities?”

And for years I have attempted to be patient in my response. My patience has run out. In the light of Guantanamo Bay, the deceit of the administration in leading America into war in Iraq, the refusal of that state to submit to almost any significant international treaty, and the idolatrous protection of the revered “American Way of Life.”

In the face of undeniable evidence of the human impact on global warming, I’ve lost it. I’ve got no more patience for this appeal to Romans 13 to justify idolatry, deceit, violence, repression and imperialism.

To hell with the Romans 13 of the Religious Right! To hell with the Romans 13 of lackeys of imperialism! To hell with the Romans 13 of those who are comfortable in Babylon!

Indeed, to hell with the Romans 13 of those who somehow think that an American Revolution in 1776 was divinely sanctioned but no such revolution should happen in 2007 because we must submit to the governing authorities…

Or to make my point more biblically clear – to hell with Romans 13 read out of context of Romans 12, the rest of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the life of Jesus, and the whole prophetic testimony of the Hebrew prophets.

Cornerstone seminar

The Cornerstone seminar went really well. The title of my session was “Sacred Anarchy: The Image of God and Political (Dis)Order”. I focused on Wink’s formulation of the Myth of Redemptive Violence, focused on Genesis as subversive to the Myth, and then took a trip through modern political philosophy to demonstrate how the modern state and most of our current modes of social, political, and economic discourse are based on the Myth. Then I presented an introduction to anarchism and discussed the anti-imperial proclamation of Jesus in the first century AD, with a call to the church to hear the Gospel as the news that Christ’s coming is the beginning of God’s return to his people, bringing the kingdom and God’s reign of peace and justice through the breaking of cosmic systems of evil, injustice, sin both systemic and individual, and through the healing of hearts and of creation, and that the inbreaking of this reign of peace and justice must inevitably be at odds with systems that are based on the Myth of Redemptive Violence. My hope is that the church will begin to catch more fully the radical nature of Christ and his Way, and seek to live accordingly.

I revised my zine for the session, and I’ve uploaded it to this site. Links in past posts to the old version have been replaced with links to the new version. Also, I’m going to upload the notes from my seminar as well as my notes from the “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination” seminar from last November. Look for them in a post in the near future.

Here’s the link to the new version of the zine: Radical Hope: Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination

A postmodern paraphrase of Philippians 2:5-11

The Incarnation is the mad story of the undeconstructible God who did not consider undeconstructibility as something to be grasped, nor did he despise deconstructibility, but rather taking the “human, all too human form” of a servant, he humbled himself to the point of inhabiting the very deconstructible structures of human law and culture—even to the point of suffering death at the hands of these institutions. But he did so not with a view to eviscerating the deconstructible, but rather to rightly ordering it such that the contingent, particularity of this deconstructible creation might reach its proper telos. — James K.A. Smith, What Jesus Did: The Incarnation as a More Radical Hermeneutic