Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Red Letter Christianity

Mark 1:15

Fans of the Colbert Report may recall the Super Tuesday eve episode where the parodying Colbert characteristically went off on the huge role conservative Christians would play in presidential primary outcomes. “As a candidate,” he said, “you either have to appease evangelicals or get out of their way!” Colbert stressed that in addition to Barack Obama (who is a radical Islamic terrorist) and Hillary Clinton (who is Hillary Clinton) John McCain was going to have a particularly hard time. Eight years ago he called Pat Roberson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance” and “as we all know,” Colbert deadpanned, “Christians do not forgive. It’s not in their nature.” Ha-ha. Colbert then introduced his evangelical guest for that night, Tony Campolo. The erstwhile sociologist and popular speaker for years has pushed to bring issues of social justice back into the evangelical mainstream. During the self-indulgent eighties, he made headlines on the Christian conference circuit for asserting that driving a BMW is a sin. Lately he’s back in the headlines with a book entitled “Red Letter Christians.” Baited by Colbert, Campolo remarked that unlike the media stereotype, he was an evangelical who was not anti-environment and was not pro-war … at which point Colbert interrupted. But wasn’t Jesus pro-war? Did the Lord himself not say, “I have not come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword!”? Ha-ha. OK, so Jesus did say that. But not about war. Campolo retorted that Jesus also said, “love your enemies” which he interpreted to mean “don’t shoot them.”

Campolo is both passionate and prolific. In one of his blog posts he wonders whether in fact evangelicals are not only losing any moral authority we once had, but whether we are also “losing our opportunity to carry out what we believe is our Biblical imperative to preach the whole Gospel to the whole world. One of the distinguishing traits of we Evangelicals has been our zeal to carry the good news of Christ’s salvation to every nation. Sadly, one of the consequences of our support of our nation’s foreign policies is that the doors for missionary work are being shut. Because Christianity, throughout the Muslim world, is associated with America, anti-Americanism has heated up anger against Christians in many parts of the Islamic world. Tens of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq under a siege of discrimination and even persecution. Churches are being burned down in Baghdad for the first time. There is little doubt that evangelism, which ironically was allowed by the evil dictator America drove from power, will be curtailed under this new government which we helped establish.”

While I tend to wonder similar things, my particular interest for the sake of this sermon, and the ones that follow, are these red-letters of the New Testament that Campolo has chosen to rally around. If you have a “red-letter” Bible, then you know that it as the words of Jesus printed in red ink. In his book, Campolo argues that to be a red-letter Christian is to have a high view of Scripture, to believe that Jesus is alive and salvation can be had through faith in him, and to have a passionate commitment to social justice which inevitably leads to an intense involvement in politics. Inasmuch as this is an election year and politics are front and center everywhere you look, I thought it worthwhile to remind ourselves again of what Jesus said and how obedience to his sayings informs not just our personal piety, but public and civic engagement. Now so-called “Red-Letter Christians” tend to be Democrats (ironic given that the letters are red). I myself am a registered Republican. But as far as I can tell Jesus was neither. Thus to look at his words is not to seek support for a particular political platform (though we do that all the time), but hopefully to better understand whether and how what he said may have political implications.

Take tonight’s passage for instance. “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” On the one hand, you read this and interpret it as Jesus speaking primarily about heaven and salvation and personal faith in him. But then you look more closely, especially at the word near, and you discover that it’s a word that could also be translated as at hand, or even right here. Suddenly you wonder whether Jesus is speaking about something other than heaven out there, or even heaven in your heart. For his original audience here in Mark, Galilean Jews chafing under brutal Roman rule, to hear that the rule of God had arrived could not have been construed as anything other than a radical denouncement of Roman rule. This is what made it such good news. And what made it political. Jesus proclaims that Rome’s time is up. God’s kingdom has come.

It’s just what the prophet Daniel had predicted. In Daniel 2 we read, “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.” And then in Daniel’s vision of chapter 7, “As I watched, a ferocious fourth beast waged war against the saints and defeated them, until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom.” Their rescue would come by one “given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language will worship him.” Jews understood the fourth beast to be Rome. The “one given authority” was the Son of Man himself. For oppressed Jews to hear Jesus say that “God’s kingdom had come” meant that God’s justice had come too and that the power to rule would soon be theirs. Never mind that the one standing before them making this pronouncement was an unemployed, homeless carpenter—and not much of a Messiah.

Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus’ first sermon was received (though I imagine some people probably thought, “wow that was short!”). However in Luke, you’ll remember, when Jesus announced the arrival of God’s justice in his home church, folks there came close to throwing him off a cliff. Why? I used to think it was because they thought Jesus was mocking their faith. How dare some vagabond homeboy declare himself the anticipated bringer of God’s justice! It’s like Ralph Nader declaring his candidacy for president again. Who can take that seriously? But on second thought, I don’t think it was Jesus’ appearance, social status, lack of experience or outrageous assertions that proved so offensive. I think the thing that would have gotten everybody’s goat in this short sermon would have been another word repent. Think about it. You’re the victim. You’re the one who’s been run over and abused by a tyrannical government. You’re the one who needs rescue and justice. And here’s Jesus telling you to repent? You’re like, “What did I do?”

The answer may be found by taking another look at yet another word, this time the politically charged word kingdom. Then as now, to say kingdom is to imply power, and specifically, the power to control. In regard to Rome, kingdom power meant military power, control by brute force. Historians may describe Pax Romana as a time of world peace, but the peace of the Roman Empire was a peace by way of war, extortion and the elimination of enemies. Roman apologists naturally called such imperial domination good news, which it was as long as you weren’t an enemy of the state, a slave, an immigrant, a woman, poor or Jewish. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, good news was not Caesar’s rule, but his downfall. That God promised to bring this about fueled their own audacity of hope. But they’d been hoping for a long time. Too long for some. Among the Jews were those called Zealots, people who believed that they needed to hurry God’s kingdom and that the only way to do that was through open revolt. Meet violence with violence. Others, known as Pharisees, opted for a cultural war. Bring on God’s kingdom by righteous legislation. Follow all the rules and compel God to reward. Scapegoat the sinners and shame society into submission. The Sadducees, on the other hand, figured that if God was going to take his time they might as well take advantage. Cozy up to the Romans and reap the benefits of proximity to political power, even if it means hiding your faith under a basket for a while, or even redefining it altogether.

For each of these groups—Zealots, Pharisees and Sadducees—kingdom-come still meant ruling power. Whether through violence, legislation or accommodation, the end game was all about getting your hands on the reins. It’s a narrative that’s played out through church history too. From the Crusades to witch trials to Northern Irish violence and Rwandan genocides, Christians have long used God’s name to sanction state violence. From indulgences to prohibition, money and marriage, ongoing attempts at legislating Christian morality without the accompanying Christian faith constantly founder, too often due to the exposed hypocrisy and immorality of the legislation’s proponents. Moreover, cozying up to political power never works either. It only dilutes Christian faith into a civil religion not worth its salt. All of these efforts fail because in the end, governments are not God. Governments lie and therefore cannot be trusted. Only God can be trusted. Therefore trust God.

For Jesus to say repent in this context is to call to conversion those who understood kingdom only in terms of ruling power. As theologian NT Wright puts it, in Jesus, “God was issuing a fresh challenge to Israel, echoing back to his promises to Abraham: Israel is indeed the light of the world, but its present policies have been putting that light under a bucket. It’s time for drastic action. Instead of the usual military revolt, it was time to show the pagans what the true God was really like, not by fighting and violence but by loving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek and going the second mile.” Nowhere is this more evident than in Christianity’s calling card. Rome viciously squelched insurrection and political resistance with crucifixion. Rome used crosses to expose the futility of political resistance and execute the death sentence on rebels. But by contrast, Jesus uses the cross to expose the futility of Roman violence and religious complicity with it, while executing a sentence of forgiveness on his crucifiers. Christ accepts rejection and injustice and responds with resurrection. In his kingdom, peace is not made and kept through the shedding of enemies’ blood, but by the king shedding his own blood. God’s kingdom makes and keeps peace by way of nonviolent suffering, humility, grace, reconciliation, generosity and love.

Just as Jesus said trust God rather than public applause when it comes to practicing your piety, and trust God instead of money when it comes to storing up your treasure, here he says trust God rather than governmental power when it comes to the kingdom. “Repent and believe my version of good news instead,” he said. Granted, for Jesus’ followers, viewing crucifixion as good news was not an easy thing to do. Not even after Jesus rose from the dead. It really wasn’t until Pentecost and the Spirit burned it into their heads that they finally got that to follow Jesus by carrying a cross was a right thing to do. Popularity, moral accomplishments, monetary achievement, political influence and status—none of these went with crucifixion. To carry a cross was to become poor and powerless, to recognize that to such belonged the kingdom of God. As the apostle James wrote, “God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him.”

To be poor is not to be pitied. To be poor to be free of the enticements of wealth, free from the delusions of power. Study after study indicates that happiness has an inverse relationship to personal possessions; that those who are poor who are more generous toward others than those who are rich. Personal experience teaches that to be without engenders more faith. The poor trust God because they have no other choice. Little wonder, then, that to be poor is to be happier and more generous (which of course helps keep you poor and happy). Last Sunday our church collected over $30,000 to support the work of World Relief, serving the poor through the work of the church in Sudan, China and elsewhere. Many of you have signed up for our Love Boston Day this coming Saturday where we will spread out all over the city cleaning up trash, feeding and clothing the homeless and befriending the aged (You can still sign up on the church website). Next month a number of you will participate in the Boston Faith and Justice Network’s World Fair Trade Day, also supported by our church, where you will learn to support economic policies and products that do not exploit working farmers and that empower low-income neighborhood businesses.

And many of you will vote in November. One of the things we love about America is that our democracy not only invites but expects our participation. And Colbert was right: Christians do vote. Campolo says that for Red-Letter Christians, voting is an obligation (though I’m not sure where Jesus said that unless somehow you count “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”). While we do not put our trust in princes, we do express our faith when we vote for candidates whose policies at least approximate kingdom values rather than oppose them (beyond merely professing faith in Jesus—candidates always do that). I read how US military expenditures run some 21 times larger than diplomacy and foreign aid combined. Our country remains dead last among developed nations in foreign aid as a percentage of gross national product. One-half of one percent of the US Military budget, if reinvested in foreign aid and development, would cut hunger in Africa in half by 2015. Ten percent could nearly eradicate current global poverty. I can’t help but believe that America did that, if we voted for candidates who supported that, we could do more to eliminate our enemies than all the bombs we’ve heretofore dropped.

Personally, I possess no postmillennial hope of humanity doing anything but eventually sinking under the deluge of persistent human evil and greed. For me to trust God is ultimately to hold out for the Biblical vision of a brand new earth once Christ returns. But this does not mean I can just sit back and wait in the meantime. Until our prayers are finally answered and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, the church floats on as a counter-cultural Noah’s ark—defying the status quo through its sacrificial faith and life. Historically whenever the church has borne its cross, that’s when it taps into its resurrection energy. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus said. “Repent and believe the gospel.” And then follow where it leads us.


kristen said...

Well, no of course Jesus didn't tell residents of a Roman province that voting was a duty. But we're not subjects of a Roman province. We are citizens in a democracy. That changes the analysis.

I tend to think of this as a question of stewardship. I have a bunch of resources at my disposal -- most obviously my time, talent, and treasure, but also including my position as a citizen in the United States. As a Christian, I am supposed to using all my resources for God and God's kingdom. As a citizen, I have power. So what do I do with it?

I don't think that "do nothing and leave the world to the world" is an option because even to do nothing is essentially taking sides. It is taking the side of keeping the status quo in place.

Jeff said...

A mere lack of money is not the underlying cause of poverty. To say that by increasing foreign aid to some particular level we could eradicate it -- as though it were just debt that must be paid off over time -- glosses over a lot of issues. Corrupt and incompetent governments, unfair or non-existent judicial systems, and poorly managed economies are endemic to most of the poorest of countries and under these conditions, western foreign aid may very well do more harm than good if it simply maintains the established order.

Nations that have made significant progress in the reduction of poverty -- China and India, for instance -- have done so by liberalizing their economies, improving their infrastructure, and making conditions generally friendly to private investment, whereby the true gains have really come (though, indeed, foreign public aid probably played a significant role in this process).

Here is the problem for the voter. I don't think very many Americans are in favor of world poverty the way it is, though perhaps it is just not as important to some as it is to others. But what do we do about it that will actually work? (I do believe that there are a lot of valid answers to that question.) Do we vote for the candidate who promises more foreign aid or the one who promises more free trade or the one who wants looser immigration policies in our own country?