our willowness

(Jason is that friend who has never failed to be present, to speak a word, that has rescued me from the dark night of the soul. In his poetry he extends this rescue to all of us. This is a selection from Jason’s newest book of poetry Being a Willow.)

I have, in those
comfortable moments,
thought too much of
my own fortitude,
imagining myself
tall, held fast,
and strong of mind,
stretching firm
oaken arms and
rooting deep
with walnut feet–

only to find myself
blown about by the
slightest winds of
circumstance,
and fear strikes my trunk
like the woodsman’s axe,
chipping that strength away
with violent blows until,
with a great creak and snap,
I fall crashing
into that dark place
where my heavy heart
aches sore and sinks
into despair

and I think I could
fail to imagine
a way of living on

despondent, I stare
into that darkness,
lost in the outer quiet which
belies the fearful screams
inside my broken soul

I close my eyes and
turn my face to the sun,
breathe in the air and
remember…

I am no oak
I am no great walnut

I am a willow tree,
small and drooped,
dangling delicate,
flowing branches
into the cool stream
I am planted near
which carries away
the tender leaves I drop
in my weakness

and joy comes in
being aware of my place,
in trusting that my
strength is not found
in my own trunk,
or my own branches,
but in the
earth beneath me,
and the sky above

it is found in the birds
and the grass, the deer
and the fish in the waters

it is found in friendship,
and the commonness
we who acknowledge
our willowness
share together, and
the love descending
from the Maker into
our hearts which
finds its fulfillment
only in the sharing

Order your copy of Jason’s newest book here.

On the Resurrection of the Earth

To live a life of peace is to be committed to the pursuit of rightness, of what is just and good.  This is because there can be no peace outside of equality of concern for one another’s needs and well-being.  This is a reality that many who prescribe to the prevailing false gospel simply cannot understand, which may be why it was so sensible to adopt the Trumpian “America-first” mantra–or why his insistence that the world is better served if everyone in it is looking out for their own interests only (which can only perpetuate a world of ceaseless conflict and struggle against one another and the world itself) didn’t raise any alarms with so many who claim to follow the man who said “love your neighbor as yourself” or his apostle who said, 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.[i]

If the life and actions of Jesus are to be considered the highest ideal, I suppose the religious culture of our day (like that of centuries past) has some explaining to do.  Its love of power and comfort over and against the needs of its neighbors seems to have accepted that the reality of our world is exactly the one mentioned parenthetically earlier–a world of ceaseless conflict and struggle.  The rightness (think “righteousness” of Jesus’ claim “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness “) that we truly hunger for which can just as easily be translated (in this context and in the beatitudes) as “justice” is one which is intended to produce the opposite: a world without conflict and struggle against one another.  A world that is free to exist in peace.

This is the world I take to be promised in Romans 8.  In this passage, I believe Paul is teaching that we (if we have shared in his suffering[ii]) may look forward to sharing in Jesus’ resurrection and that of the entire earth (kosmos), which has also shared in his suffering (just not by its own will).  That this good earth is awaiting a final restoration that will take place when these bodies are restored as well indicates to me that the justice (rightness, righteousness) which is a promise of the Kingdom of God is his promise to restore this creation’s intended order.  And it is our call as followers to live a life in this time which bears witness to that resurrected order.

It is that witness that, I believe, is vital to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  And this has little to do with regular church attendance and completing religious rituals.  It has more to do with living together in a community in which we look out for one another’s needs and care for one another.  Where we share the body and blood of Christ and take these into ourselves, bearing them in our own bodies.  

It also means that we reject the values of the world: its idolatries and violence.  If we are a people who believe that God has something better for those who follow, then we are free to refrain from killing one another to protect our own lives.  

These idolatries include not just the violence we do to one another, but that done to the earth itself, its exploitation and destruction.  The earth is a gift that we were intended to live within and care for, according to the earliest stories of our scriptures.  Importantly, Paul’s statement in Romans 8 that the earth suffers not because of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it to suffering, bears another clue.  For some time I have taken “the will of the one who subjected it” not to be God’s, but to be Adam’s (humanity’s).  We are the ones who have subjected and continue to subject one another and the earth to suffering.  And it is the peacefulness of the Kingdom of God that is intended to alleviate that suffering in anticipation of the resurrection.

In about a week, we’ll be starting a new class at Ploughshares Bible Institute.  In this class, we’ll be discussing these issues specifically: the tie between peacefulness with one another and peacefulness with the earth itself.  I’ve written about this in greater length here.  The course is called THE 310 Christian Community in the World.  It is a study of the Kingdom of God as it restores community and creation.  We’ll be reading some beautiful works of fiction and poetry, essays and scripture, and having some amazing discussions about the Gospel’s burden for Christian community and the place in which that community lives.  We’ll even witness some examples of hints of resurrection in our world now.

Join us!


Click here to register.


[i] Philippians 2: 3-11 (NIV)

[ii] It’s become increasingly fashionable to wear the title “Universalist.”  For my part, while I applaud the desire for inclusivity and share it, I cannot help but feel that this must mean, first, an inclusivity to share the cross of Jesus.  I, myself, would bar no one from the invitation to participate in the Kingdom for any reason.  But I cannot escape that this seems to be the prerequisite of enjoying the resurrection in my reading.  It seems to me that Universalism is only reasonable if one holds to a substitutionary (penal) understanding of Jesus’ work of atonement.

A Gospel for the Earth and its Creatures

A friend who writes a lot about gender equality admitted that someone once said to him, “Stop worrying about women and concentrate on the gospel!”  The assumption, of course, is that whatever one takes to be “the gospel”[i] has nothing to do with whether women are treated as human beings.  It’s just about getting your “sins” erased so that you can “go to heaven.”  And any time we spend worrying about anything other than getting people to heaven is a distraction.

The problem, of course, is that the actual Gospel[ii] has next to nothing to do with “getting our sins erased so we can go to heaven” and everything to do with the establishment of the Kingdom of God.  As the Lord said in his prayer, we seek God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.  In other words, being saved from sin means being saved to live differently according to a very different set of values and assumptions.  These assumptions are shocking to the world.

The religious dualism that convinces people the Gospel has nothing to say about systems of power, injustice, and oppression is the same one that has convinced many that it also has nothing to do with “economy” or “economics.”   I use “economy” here broadly, not just (but including) the concept of money.  Economy is bigger than money. It’s about how everyone and everything survives, how resources are used, and how things, creatures, and people are taken care of.

It’s no coincidence that after the Pentecost event and the establishment of the church in Acts 2, the first description of what the church did included worship, prayer, teaching, and the establishment of an alternative economy within the body that looked very different from the power-driven, exploitative, military-checked capitalism of the Roman empire—an economy which most folks back then assumed to be necessary.  It was just the way things worked.  There were poor classes and rich classes and slave classes, merchants and consumers, everyone in their place under Caesar.    

It’s not much different for 21st century Christians whose thinking about things like shopping, how much we consume, what we throw away, what we eat and drink, and where we get our food (and whether or not slaves are involved) is captivated by the central assumption that our economic values are “necessary,”[iii] that they require no reflection and are morally and theologically neutral.  Shopping is a form of entertainment, food comes in throw-away plastic containers, and what does going to heaven have to do with any of that?

It’s similar to asking the question (even without assuming the answer), “should Christians serve in the military?” Frequently, one is met with, “What do you mean ‘should?’  Of course they do!  You want a bunch of pagans fighting your wars?”  The lack of ambiguity is simply a forgone conclusion.

When pressed, though, the person asked will, invariably, become irritated and, eventually, offended.  And it’s precisely because assumptions formed by the teaching of Jesus about something like violence undermine the assumptions that people use to make sense of the world around them—assumptions which help them feel safe and secure.  There simply are “bad people” who want to harm “us” and must be killed.  We prepare to kill them if they ever enter our homes and we send our children to kill them overseas on the world scale.  That some of them will certainly die doing so is the “sacrifice” that makes our “freedom” noble.  To begin to rethink this reality calls into question every other assumption one has about what is true and right.  To consider the possibility that it’s wrong is deeply unsettling.

I have found the same incredulity of response when questioning American consumerism.  In a conversation a few months ago I made a statement that made sense to me but just bewildered a friend of a friend.  I said, “I think we have to learn to stop treating the earth like it’s a source of resources.”  I thought it was obvious that I meant we ought to think of the world as more than a source of resources and that those resources are limited and meant to be shared—that we should treat it like it’s our home and like it requires our carefulness.  This person, clearly astonished that I could be so naïve, responded, “Where else are we going to get our resources, Mars?”  His next comment implied he had serious doubts about my intelligence.  I was the guy who was against killing cows but thought hamburger was ok because it “came from the store.”

The exchange would have been humorous if it weren’t so sad.  His incredulity was due to his unwillingness (perhaps inability) to consider that the ways and rates at which we consume “resources” (a useful reductionist euphemism for the land, creatures, trees, and people around us) has moral and even theological implications.  “Hell, we gotta get our resources from somewhere!”  What I was presenting him with was so different and so challenging that it undermined his central assumption about how economies work.  It was outside of anything he had ever thought about and was unsettling for him.  And he responded the way people do when their core assumptions are called into question.

On a larger scale, one sees this in the phenomenon of climate change denial.  For some time, I’ve wondered why the notion that our lifestyle has affected the climate generates such passionate screeds and accusations of “liberal agendas.”  Why is clean water a political agenda?  Well, it’s actually obvious.  When people respond to data suggesting CO2 emissions are harming the earth, it implies that driving cars and clearcut logging are no longer morally neutral things.  Pointing to plastic islands in the Pacific and plastic crises in third world or developing countries implies that our greedy, throw-away lifestyle is ruining other people’s lives and we have an obligation to stop. 

Think of it this way: the accusation that being concerned about climate change is tantamount to “socialism” is an admission that western rampant capitalism is destroying the planet.[iv]  Even Donald Trump understands this.  In a recent press conference, when asked whether he still rejected the data on climate change, Trump claimed he wasn’t interested in losing American wealth on dreams and windmills.  He understands (I make no claims on how explicitly) that love for our neighbors, plants, creatures, and the earth means changing the values of the economy.  And he (explicitly) chooses greed over love.  That “believers in Jesus” applaud this reveals just how dualistic and simplistic the faith they’ve been taught actually is.

This is what becomes evident when one examines it in much detail.  These economies (I want to speak more broadly than just American capitalism) are inherently violent and unjust.  They exploit and use up and destroy without concern for neighbors, fish, trees, and birds.  The way we set up and live in our societies are, in fact, extensions of the way we view one another and the world.  They are contingent on the minds and imaginations of sinful, greedy, and violent people.  They are founded on a lie that we are all individual consumers in a land of unlimited resources, tasked by God to use up as much as we can before we die. 

But the Gospel of Jesus presents an alternative.  This is the alternative we hope to understand in our class, THE 310-Christian Community in the World.  The description is: A study of the Kingdom of God as it restores community and creation.  You can listen to Vangie Rodenbeck and me talk about it here. We’ll be reading together one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, one that puts feet on some of the remarkable values we’ll be discussing, a book called Jayber CrowIf you’re interested in the author, Wendell Berry, the best introduction to his work I’ve ever read is here.  For myself, I can tell you that this perspective has affected me deeply, and I’ve written extensively about it.  Here is one of my more meaningful attempts.

These are the questions which will be informing the dialogue of our class:

  1. What does peace look like when it comes to how cantankerous people live near and with one another?
  2. How does peaceful community challenge the myth of western individualism?
  3. What values shape Christian thinking about economy and consumption?
  4. Where does our food come from and why does that matter?
  5. What does a life shaped by these values look like?
  6. What does our theology have to say about the land and waters, the plants and creatures that live in these, the value of humans and their relationship to all of it?
  7. What does it mean to exercise the image of God in his creation?
  8. What is the eschatological message of a theology that cares about the earth, its people, plants, and creatures?

In one of my classes years ago, I quoted NT Wright about the irony that some who were strict “creationists” were those who were the least concerned about taking care of “creation.”  The immediate (and sincere) response from one of my students was “but what about abortion?”[v]  She, like many evangelicals, had been fooled into thinking that abortion is the only contemporary moral issue the Gospel has any application to.  That to care about how we treat the earth means we must accept partial-birth abortion.  This, however, is a lie which has distracted evangelicals from a myriad of other important issues, manipulated them into blind political allegiance which embroils them in ceaseless culture wars, and is itself antithetical to the Gospel.  In my opinion it has even disrupted their ability to think about abortion itself. 

The truth is, the Gospel speaks into every part of our lives because it seeks to restore God’s whole created order, and believing this only deepens our understanding of the work of Jesus in this world, of peace and the value of life, and how to live as an alternative Kingdom community within the kingdoms of the world whose values are not the Lord’s…but, more on this when you take the class. 

Please join us.

Follow the Link here to register.



[i] I want to point out that I use a lower-case “g” when I’m referring to a gospel that I take to be different from the Gospel.

[ii] See what I mean?

[iii] It may not be clear, but my intent is to use the term “necessary” in an ontological sense—as opposed to “contingent.”  “Necessary” here meaning “having itself as the source of its own being.”  It just “is” and can’t be helped. 

[iv] Politically, this is something that “progressives” like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez readily (if not partially) accept and have attempted to write into their national policies.  It is something that, I believe, “conservatives” try to ignore and have attempted to stifle by drawing ridiculous caricatures of these policies.  My concern is that conservatives and progressives, each, are too invested in this economy to adequately address the problems.  It will require a change of thinking and values to truly present a Kingdom solution.

[v] The truth is, this is a common reaction and one which genuinely mystifies non-conservative folks who struggle to understand how people who can be so adamantly “pro-life” can be so unconcerned about the places we “live” in.

Please be Offended

“What a great sermon! Now, if we can just do that!

I remember that Sunday as we drove away from church. My father, a young (and remarkably self-absorbed) preacher in his thirties had just delivered what he had intended to be a scorcher. His brand of preaching was, unquestionably, motivated more by frustration than love: frustration that after graduating summa cum laude from Bible college he had not “made a difference” right out of the gate; frustration that no matter how hard he tried, no one seemed to be listening; and I think frustration that (as much as he tried to understand it) his own faith never really could provide truly satisfying answers to the real wrongs of the world he so desired
to right—he never felt like he thought he should feel like.

Being a narcissist didn’t help him either.

But the thing about my father, as a preacher, that I actually do still identify with is the sense in which he never could abide people pretending you said something different from what you said. My father was never a very profound theologian, but when he stumbled on a point that he thought was important, he was pretty sure he wanted you to understand it. And every preacher knows the Ecclesiastes-style-vanity of the moment when, after repeating your main idea a dozen times just like they taught you in basic preaching class, the people shaking your hand on the way out the door thank you for saying something completely different than you actually
said.

Such was the case that Sunday when, after preaching a message of desperation to get his little non-instrumental church to actually commit to something other than semi-regular Sunday attendance in the pews, a message in which he had said, “All you need to do is make a decision to give more to the church and we can make a difference in this neighborhood!”

“Thank you, Ray. Now if we can just do that.”

I heard her say it and watched him rest his head on the steering wheel on the way home.

I get it. I get pouring your heart into a point that the people who are “hearing” you just can’t hear. As someone who came to believe that following Jesus means *gasp* being unwilling to kill someone, my own preaching experience was even harder. I have found that belief in Christian non-violence is such a contradiction to most American Christians that, unless one says it in the clearest of terms, the listeners will almost invariably assume you didn’t mean what you said.

I’m sure there’s a high falutin psychological term for the phenomenon, one which I should probably know off the top of my head. But I’ve found that most people’s basic assumptions about what is real, true, right, and good are so deeply ingrained that the message of a peaceful Gospel just bounces right off. You can say, “Put down the sword Peter,” a thousand times and everyone in the audience will nod and say “amen” about Peter and his sword and then go home and practice shooting human-shaped silhouettes in the event of a home-invasion without the slightest sense of
irony.

As a result, when I was preaching and sometimes when I’m teaching when I make a point that I fear will be missed, I’ll say, “Now, I just said ‘x,’ but it’s possible you’re thinking, ‘surely he didn’t mean x, surely he meant y.’ Just so you know, I actually meant ‘x.’”

Even then…it can bounce off.

I’ve discovered, however, that there is a tool we have at our disposal that is very effective at breaking through that cognitive dissonance (I think that’s the term I’m looking for). The tool is to be willing to offend people’s sensibilities—sometimes even to hurt their feelings. What do I mean?

One of the ways we actually make it easier for people to hear something different than what we mean is that we try to be as nice as possible when we say it. We don’t want people to think we don’t like them or that we’re trying to insult them. So, we broach subjects tenderly and softly, handling everyone with a sort of codependent “kid gloves” approach that is sure to “let them down easy.” However, as any girl who’s tried to break up with a boyfriend who doesn’t get the hint knows, “letting someone down easy” can easily become a euphemism for not making it clear the relationship is over. And it can cause problems.

Personally, I refer to the prophets a lot and I think that people who know me best probably think it means I’ve got delusions of grandeur. But I think those guys and gals knew this very carefully. They were masters of making themselves understood with as little ambiguity as possible. It takes a lot of…courage…to stand up in front of a group of Ninevites and say, “y’all got 90 days before God levels this city.” It takes some…hubris…to say, “God’s name for you isn’t Pashur, but ‘Terror on Every Side.’” as Jeremiah did. It takes…forgive me…balls…to be baptizing people in one moment and then see the Pharisees making their way to the water in another and say, “Who
warned you to flee the coming judgment, you bunch of snakes?”

John the Baptist knew it. Mincing words wasn’t going to get the job done. Sparing feelings wasn’t going to communicate the truth in a way that made it unmistakable. Peacefulness doesn’t mean we’re always “being nice,” in fact, sometimes it means being downright brutally honest. As Stan Hauerwas has said, “Any peacefulness that [doesn’t make the truth clear] is accursed.” Further, he’s also referred to “southern civility” (a reference to a style of passive-aggressiveness that all of us who live in the south can identify quickly but which is by no means only practiced in that region) as “the most calculated form of cruelty ever devised.”

Hauerwas’ complaint, I think, is that avoiding saying something truthful that may cause the person listening pain for fear of offending them is a way of valuing sentimentality over truth, and allowing what isn’t true to rule. And it does nothing but continue to foster violence.

Christian non-violence will require us to speak honestly, truthfully, and clearly in such a way as to avoid misunderstanding. This means that we may (as anyone who knows an autistic person can attest) end up looking a little anti-social. But so much of what counts for sociability in our culture is a way of telling one another (and ourselves) little lies to save face. This is something autists, to their credit, simply cannot understand, and I envy that of them.

I’ve discovered that saying something so clearly that it offends people has a way of breaking through the BS layer and getting to the heart of things. It keeps people from being able to simply ignore what you say. They may reject it. But we’re told most people will. Might as well get it out of the way, right?

And it doesn’t mean you’re being a…jerk…although people will think so. You can love someone and say, “I love you, but that’s stupid, bro.”

I recently wrote a poem about carrying weapons in public. I tell you, I’m tired of pretending like carrying a gun to Waffle House isn’t rooted in fear and childishness. I shared it and offended my cousin, among others. I’m ok with that. I wanted it to offend. I’m tired of people pretending that being a pacifist means being “passive.”

A Christian Reflection on the Antitheses of Voting and Jesus’ Narrow Way

For the first time in almost two decades, I plan to vote in an upcoming election.   I am not proud, nor do I plan to wear an “I voted” sticker.  Mine is a confessional statement.  A repentance.

I am not a “loyal citizen” of the nation, as much as it may offend my close friends.  I am, instead, a person torn between my first and only allegiance to a Kingdom not of this world and the sense I have that the powers of this nation have become more ruthlessly cruel than ever in my lifetime.[i]

You must understand that I am not a Democrat.  I was raised to be a “conservative,” but I found that my reading of the Gospel changed the way I understood the Christian’s relationship to this world’s politics.  As I continued to read Jesus, the apostles, and especially John the Baptist in Matthew’s gospel, I realized that none of them (especially Jesus and John the Baptist) ever encouraged Christians to seek power in this world’s power structures.  This was, inherently, anti-Christian (in the sense that it is the opposite of what Christ taught), because the politics of this world are exercised through violence and exploitation of the weak.

Instead, their politic was one which was antithetical to the politics of power and, importantly, their engagement to those politics was purely prophetic.  Apparently, we followers of Christ would not change the world by working our way into the structures of powerful kings and rulers (something Jesus was tempted with when he was tempted in the desert), but we would strive to create an alternative Kingdom—God’s Kingdom—in and among the kingdoms of this world.  And this Kingdom would grow like yeast in a lump of dough or like weeds in a garden to gradually overturn it.

The politics of the King of our Kingdom are about servanthood, humility, and peacefulness–not power, self-aggrandizement, control, and violence.

Few people who call themselves Christian understand the Gospel this way (the way I think we do at Forging Ploughshares).  For this reason, for almost two decades, I have found myself a critic, not just of this world’s power structures, but of people who claim to follow Jesus and who dismiss the message of the gospels as they pursue political power for their chosen party.   The apostle Paul (as Paul Axton has articulated so well, so often) would, I think, call this “doing evil that grace may abound.”

In other words, many of my friends and neighbors, people that I preached to for years, I believe have rejected everything Jesus taught in the pursuit of control of the Supreme Court, for the purpose of overturning Roe vs. Wade.

Being willing to oppress and cage children whose families seek asylum from corrupt governments or gang violence and blindly supporting a man who is accused of sexual assault without even caring whether the claim is adequately investigated because you want to “save unborn babies” is engaging in evil in order to do what you take to be good.

Take, for example, evangelical support for the endlessly corrupt Trump administration.  Or the insanity of the Republicans in the Senate who have hypocritically broken every one of their own rules and run over any opposition no matter who it hurts or who it decimates for the purposes of taking over the Supreme Court (Lindsay Graham’s shouting “God, you all want power!  I hope you never get it!” is, perhaps, the most revealing moment of gas-lit, Freudian slippage I have ever seen on television—Shakespeare could not have written greater irony).

The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is, perhaps, the ugliest example of this evil in the Trump era so far.  Acknowledging that the claims of sexual assault made against Kavanaugh were, as yet, not proven, it was clear to nearly any onlooker that the Republicans were dead set against actually looking to see if they were true (and, admittedly, the Democrats were using these women [and any women who have been sexually assaulted] as well).  That said, it was easily apparent that no amount of hash-tagging “MeToo” would affect the steely hearts of a bunch of old rich white men inches away from controlling what they’ve lusted to control for forty years by putting a younger version of themselves in the court—a white man of obvious means with a self-documented history of bullying, carousing, drunkenness, and womanizing privilege.

Meanwhile, the “Christians” I have known in recent years have blindly gone along with it and even defend it—because, they, too, believe in the politics of power over and against the person they call “Lord” on Sundays without realizing that calling Jesus “Lord” means putting oneself at odds with “voting Republican” for the purpose of establishing “good” through power and control.  They do not realize that they have aligned themselves with the very wealthy hypocrites James chastises throughout his letter.

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? James 2:5-7

How could people whose sacred text contains these words have ever thought that putting the world’s greediest, most lecherous and gluttonous sexual predator in the office of president was a means of doing good?  How could they still claim to follow the one who said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head?”  Simply put—they can’t.  And the world recognizes it, even if they don’t.  And my neck (along with those of my friends) bears the scars of the people who have tried to behead me for saying so.

That Said…

That said, as much as some of my more progressive friends who are just as angry about the current state of affairs believe that voting “Democrat” this year is our only hope, I don’t.  I do plan to vote Democrat, but only because of my guilt that my “brothers and sisters” whose daily church is Fox News have sold their souls to put evil in power.   And, at this point, I am convinced (however self-deluded I may be) that my voting is not about taking power as much as it is about checking the power of the most evil group of people I can think of.

I feel like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestling with how to confront the political evil of his time.

Today, in response to the Kavanaugh decision, a friend of ours posted a picture of a woman in tears on her Facebook.  Like all things Facebook, one has to trust that the story behind the image is true, but this story seemed plausible.  It was an image of a woman weeping after the Kavanaugh confirmation because she wondered if women who had been sexually assaulted would ever be believed or even heard.

And, at that moment, as much as my friends are urging one another “Let’s hold them accountable at the polls,” the only words I could muster were “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for Justice,[ii] for they will be filled.”  These words, one of the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, promise that in God’s Kingdom, those who are hungry for what is right will be satisfied because they find what is right and just in Jesus’ Kingdom.  This, of course, is not possible in the economy of power of this world’s political structures, no matter which Caesars, kings, or presidents and senators are in power.  This is because the politics of power are antithetical to self-emptying politics of the Kingdom, which is the only true way to peace and real justice.

Yet, this is an idea which is so far removed from our imaginations as to be nearly incoherent.  And it is precisely because we cannot imagine a life without power that it is so.  Or, as Jesus said it, “It’s a small gate and a narrow way to this Kingdom, and few find it,” a statement rarely quoted in today’s Americanized Christianity which sees no tension between Jesus’ call to “let the little children come to me” or “go and sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me” and turning asylum-seeking children away or the selfishness of prosperity theology.  In a recent conversation in which I argued that VP Mike Pence is not a Christian because of his willingness to participate in and defend kidnapping innocent children whose parents are seeking asylum, I was told, “You’re claiming someone is not a Christian because of their politics?  Come on!”  Apparently, in this new faith, one can do all manner of anti-Christian evil and as long as one calls it “politics” the call of the Gospel is irrelevant.

My response?  “You will know them by their fruit.”

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend which I am hesitant even to share, but which I have concluded indicates that I, also, clearly struggle to find Jesus’ gate.  I told him that even as there is so much public pressure to overcome the tradition of the dismissal of women and children who claim to have been sexually abused or assaulted, I, too, in my darkest imagination (even knowing all of the statistics) have worried about being falsely accused of abuse.  In my heart of hearts, I know that Donald Trump’s vile fear-mongering speaks to a fear deep in my own heart.

My friend, wisely, admitted that this is a legitimate concern and that there are evil women out there as much as there are evil men who could, in fact, take advantage.  But he challenged me back that saying so could only hurt the “movement” which is drawing attention to centuries (millennia) of injustices to women.  There is, I suppose, no shortage of modern naiveté in assuming that such injustices can be cured with the proper application of democracy and social revolution.  But, as he and I talked, it occurred to me that the thing I’m really afraid of is my own vulnerability.  I’m afraid of my own cross.

The truth is, as a man, the socio-political structures in place favor me on this issue, and as a white man, even more so.  And I draw some comfort in that, knowing that a person who makes an accusation may not be immediately believed.   But that position of privilege puts those who are not in it at a disadvantage—one which is easily exploited by the Trumps and (perhaps) Kavanaughs of this world.  And, so, I find myself resistant and worrying that a change in this privilege makes me more vulnerable.  As it must.

Acknowledging, for the moment, that this supports my theory that what is behind all politics of power is fear (fear of insecurity, or of death—which John has told us that perfect love has “cast out”) the real idea that I must accept is that, as a follower of Christ, my own vulnerability is simply an accepted reality, or, more precisely, the entire point.  To follow the one whom the apostle Paul has said, “emptied himself” of power by becoming a human, a servant, and obedient to death on a cross, means that I, too, must empty myself of power (privilege) and become like him, obedient to death, even death on a cross.  Jesus, himself, said, “Pick up your cross and follow” and in another place, “A student is not greater than his teacher,” (meaning, if they did it to me, don’t think they won’t do it to you—be ready).

And this concept is entirely foreign to the pursuit of political power.

This year, I am voting for the first time in nearly two decades.  I do not do it lightly, and I do not do it proudly.  I do it begrudgingly, having agonized about it for nearly two years.  I do it primarily because I recognize the failure of the American churches to articulate the Gospel as Jesus preached it and, in doing so, have adulterated the Gospel of kenosis (self-emptying) for the false gospel of power and nationalism.   I do it because, if all Christians believed as I do, Donald Trump and these power-hungry monsters would not be in power, for all Christians would have seen what was obvious—that what we are seeing is the opposite of our faith, an idolatry of epic proportions, and would have been too busy being salt and light to have been taken in by Trump’s angry, hateful rhetoric.

But, as I vote, I will do it with eyes wide open, knowing that what I am participating in is not the Kingdom of Heaven that Matthew so carefully taught us, but the kingdom of this world that is fallen and cruel.  I do it knowing that my real hope for this world is that, after we have been crucified with Christ, we, too, will be raised with him on a new earth, one without earthly kings and presidents, one without powers and principalities, one that is just and peaceful.

I do it, repentantly, praying as John the Revelator did, “Amen.  Even so.  Come, Lord Jesus.”

[i] It is difficult not to hear NT Wright arguing that Jesus’ Kingdom may not be of this world, but it is certainly for it.  In this way, Wright argues for participation in the politics of power and violence, something he can hardly avoid as his church structure is tied to the British House of Lords.  This I take to be an equivocation and a contradiction to of Wright’s own teaching on Paul’s statement that Jesus has disarmed these powers (a question I once had the privilege of posing to Dr. Wright).

[ii] Most often translated “righteousness,” the word from the root dikaios, is likely better translated “justice” (think hunger and thirst for what is right or just).  In the first century, the term “righteousness” carried that sense. In ours, it is more likely to be understood as “personal righteousness” which is often translated to “being cleared of guilt.”  Using the word “justice” helps us to see that this was intended to appeal to those who are oppressed and marginalized, I think.

Chapter 3: A Conversation with Friends

This piece is a part of a larger project which dreams of the peace of the Resurrection.  

Chapter 3: A Conversation with Friends

It is appointed for each person once to die…and then the judgment.

“Well, she’s coming for a visit.” I said with some anticipation to my little raccoon friend as we crossed the valley on my way back to our mountain.  He’d managed to find me on the way out of town and had been following at a short distance, pausing only when he found something along the way more interesting than me.  Most likely what kept him following was the smell of food coming from my pack.  She had packed a few lunches for me for the trip back: some cheese and bread, one of those caramel apples from the fair wrapped in wax paper, and a bottle of fresh water.  The bandit (I had taken to calling him that) stopped and gave me a quizzical look when I spoke.  I’m never sure whether he’s really understanding me, or just being a raccoon.  But, for a moment, I got the feeling that he was puzzled by my sense of excitement and my anticipation at her visit. Continue reading “Chapter 3: A Conversation with Friends”

Chapter 2: Going to the Fair

This piece is a part of a larger project.  First published on Thinking Peacefully on September 27, 2013, it is the second chapter in a larger ongoing work which dreams of the peace of the Resurrection.  

Chapter 2: Going to the Fair

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Continue reading “Chapter 2: Going to the Fair”

Chapter 1: Moving In

This piece is a part of a larger project.  First published on Thinking Peacefully on September 22, 2013, it is the first chapter in a larger work which dreams of the peace of the Resurrection.  

Chapter 1: Moving In

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Continue reading “Chapter 1: Moving In”

Colin Kaepernick as Minor Prophet

Of the “controversy” surrounding the “take-a-knee” protests among certain players of the NFL (beginning with Colin Kaepernick), much noise and political commentary has already been made.  As is usual, social media and the blogosphere have been lit up with shrill opinions since Kaepernick first refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem in protest of repeated examples of egregious police violence against young black men and boys.  Because opinions on this topic tend to be immovable, I don’t doubt that my contribution here will have little impact.  Yet, I can’t help feeling that the perspective I wish to share here may be very different from the ones typically shared—certainly in “evangelical” circles. Continue reading “Colin Kaepernick as Minor Prophet”

Why Ploughshares Bible Institute?

Disenchantment.

If I had to describe my experience in getting my education (I have a BA in Biblical Research and an MA in Theology) and what I had once thought it would bring me in one word, I think “disenchantment” is the one which sums it up the best. Why? Continue reading “Why Ploughshares Bible Institute?”