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It’s Time to Disrupt the Church

It’s Time to Disrupt the Church

Note: This is an updated version of an article that was originally published over at Sojourners.

We’re well past the half-way mark into Donald Trump’s presidency. Progressives have seen, and continue to see, their worst fears coming to life. Xenophobic policies have brought immigration to a trickle, scapegoated Latin American refugees, and turned the border wall into a fascist symbol of hate. Islamphobic wars continue, with an intensification of drone strikes (now with a brazen disregard for civilian casualties). We are on the brink of a whole new oil-war with Venezuela. Trump’s son-in-law is discussing bringing nuclear capabilities to Saudi Arabia. And the dismantling of environmental protections, social programs, and civil liberties continues.

These are grim days for the American experiment.

What we see now, in Trumpian neo-fascism is a continuation of America’s original sins. And the worst imperial impulses of the United States of America find their root in a form of Christianity that legitimizes militarism, economic exploitation, racism, xenophobia, and sexism.

By now, most of us have learned that 81 percent of white evangelicals who cast their vote did so for Trump. And the same is true of 60 percent of the white Catholics who voted. And, lest mainliners feel off the hook, 58 percent of Protestants, in general, voted for Trump. And while one would hope such voters have since repented for the political mistakes, Trump currently enjoys an 88% approval rate among republicans. It is easy to see the ways in which current social injustices reflect the commitments of conservative white Christianity.

Yet any blame we place on Trump, his administration, and their legislative accomplices must be cast wider. Trumpian neo-fascism is simply the latest fruit from a much older tree. As my representative Ilhan Omar recently stated:

“We can’t be only upset with Trump. … His policies are bad, but many of the people who came before him also had really bad policies. They just were more polished than he was,” she said. “And that’s not what we should be looking for anymore. We don’t want anybody to get away with murder because they are polished. We want to recognize the actual policies that are behind the pretty face and the smile.”

It isn’t enough to challenge conservative Christianity and the ways it has nurtured a toxic form of Christo-fascism; we need to challenge progressive Christianity, as well.

Progressive Christians, out of a sense of politeness, unity, and respectability, have failed to challenge directly those churches that provide the theological justification that gave us Trump. We have learned only half the message of Dr. King:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Many of us have heeded King’s words to the point that we are willing to make strongly worded statements on social media. Some will raise our angry voices in the streets. Our clergy will don their collars and stoles to attend justice rallies. A handful will join movements like Black Lives Matter to shut down the interstate. Fewer still will make the trek to Standing Rock.

But our myths weren’t born on the streets. Our most pernicious and toxic habits and beliefs were forged in the pulpits of thousands of congregations. As my dear friend, Pastor Jin Kim of Church of All Nations, says: “The church provides the foot soldiers for the American Empire.”

Nevertheless, while a growing number are willing to protest in the political arena, a precious few are willing to do so in the church. We have made unity an idol. In the Body of Christ, we prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Let us take an ax to the root. Our nation’s Christian roots aren’t incidental to our imperialism; they are central.

The engine of Western imperialism is the quasi-Christian set of national myths that teach us that we, uniquely, embody the good life and should spread that life to the rest of the world. This Christian supremacy has been the justification for the deepest of our national sins.

White supremacy is the child of Christian supremacy, which elevates civilized Europeans over the rest of humanity, and turns creation into something exploitable.

Sexism, heteronormativity, and transphobia are rooted in religious dogmatism. Most recently, this can be seen in the vote of the United Methodist Church to double-down on it’s collective belief that homosexuality is incompatible with their faith. Such official positions directly contribute to violence against our LGBTQI+ kin, who experience violence and homelessness at higher rates, largely driven by religiously-inspired intolerance.

If we want to confound and disrupt the narratives of oppression, we need to raise our angry voices in the pews as well as the streets.

I don’t mean that figuratively. I’m not advocating that we send challenging statements to our denomination’s national assemblies. I’m not suggesting that we start or join a justice committee in our church. I’m not even suggesting that we withhold tithes until our churches demonstrate a willingness to take the radical message of Jesus seriously (though that last one would be a great start).

I literally mean we should disrupt our churches. Just as Black Lives Matter employed a politics of disruption to raise the national alarm about racist policing. Just as the water protectors at Standing Rock have created a human barrier against pipeline construction. So too, should we disrupt and confound any and every congregation that fuels militarism, economic exploitation, sexism, racism, Islamophobia, or transphobia.

While such an approach is uncomfortable and risky, it is hardly novel. We worship a man who marched into the Temple during its most busy week, disrupted its market place, and proceeded to occupy it for a week while telling stories that overtly undermined the authority of the priests and scribes and exposes their complicity with Rome.

Jesus was so offensive that “the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him.” Jesus, like all the prophets before him, disrupted the injustices of their day by going to the center of myth making. They went to the Temple, the palaces, and the places of sacred meaning. And with bold words and deeds, they disrupted.

And it was, I believe, effective. Conventional wisdom tells us that interstate shut downs or Temple disruptions only “hurt the message.” But Paul Engler, director for the Center for Working Poor in Los Angeles, suggests that divisive tactics like those employed by Black Lives Matter and other groups force people to form an opinion about issues even if they disapproved of the tactics being used. He and his brother Mark write, in their book This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century:

“Time and again, patterns of polarization appear in democratic movements in the United States and abroad. Looking back from the safe removal of history, it can be easy to imagine that landmark social and political causes of the past–whether they involved ending slavery, securing the franchise for women, or establishing standards of workplace safety–were popular and widely celebrated. But the truth is that, in their time, these issues generated tremendous controversy. In promoting them, activists had to make the difficult decision to invite division and acrimony before they achieved their most impressive results.”

This is an Uprising, page 208

We need to do likewise — even if it offends our sensibilities and challenges our desires for unity. It isn’t enough to simply offer an alternative Christianity; we must disrupt the way a distorted gospel fuels imperialism.

It is time that we don the prophetic mantle within our churches and engage tactics of disruption so that Christians no longer feel comfortable going about business as usual. So that the vast and moderate middle is forced to contend with the issues and no longer remain complicit with the ways that Christianity has been used to justify oppression.



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The Politics of Jesus 6: Objections to a Radical Reading of Scripture

The Politics of Jesus 6: Objections to a Radical Reading of Scripture

A Roman coin.

There remain many open questions. My point here isn’t so much to defend a radical read of Scripture as much as it is to give a sketch of the possibilities. We read Scripture in ways that support authoritarianism because we learned how to read Scripture in authoritarian contexts. Once you start pulling the loose threads, you begin to find the whole authoritarian fabric unraveling. For sake of brevity, I’ll address the two most commonly raised passages against Christian radicalism.

The first is Romans 13, where Paul tells his readers to “submit to the governing authorities”:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Romans 13:1-7

When interpreting this passage, there are several things that one must keep in mind:

1) This passage occurs immediately after Romans 12, where Paul challenges his readers to bless persecutors, live peaceably, never avenge, feed enemies, and overcome evil with good. By clear implication, the “governing authorities” are persecuting enemies whose evil needs to be overcome with good. Given that Paul is likely drawing directly from Jesus’ teachings, it may be best to interpret the call to “be subject” as an application of the call to “turn the other cheek.” It is not a call to mere obedience or happy citizenship.

2) Jacques Ellul suggests “the passage thus counsels non-revolution, but in so doing, by that very fact, it also teaches the intrinsic nonlegitimacy of institutions.” In other words, the very fact that Paul has to argue, in light of enemy-love, that the people should forsake (violent) resistance reveals that the “governing authorities” are, in some sense, worthy of revolt. Just like Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek recognizes that, under normal circumstances, one would hit back. To refrain from violence is a testimony to the the Roman Christian’s goodness, not the goodness of Rome.

3) Some scholars have (rightly) challenged translating the Greek word tasso as “instituted.” Rather, they argue that a better translation would be that the authorities are “restrained” by God. Therefore, Paul could be advising his readers against revolt since God is already restraining the rulers.

4) Due to the nature of translation and the dualism in our modern imaginations (separating spiritual from political realms), we don’t often recognize that Paul’s language around the “powers” blurs the distinction between political and spiritual realities. When we read words like “authorities” or “rulers” or “powers,” Paul may be talking primarily about spiritual realities, political realities, or (most likely) both at the same time. This adds complexity to what would otherwise seem like a straight-forward challenge to be “subject” to the “authorities” because, elsewhere, such “authorities” are enemies to Christ.

5) It is a mistake to take Romans 13 as a universal message of how Christians everywhere ought to relate to government. Wes Howard-Brook states:

We can say, though, that whatever Paul meant to convey to the Christians at Rome in the 50s, it was not a general principle of subservience to imperial authority…we’ve seen how Paul’s letters regularly insist on attributing to Jesus titles and authority that his audience would certainly have heard as “plagiarized” from Roman sources…The most likely explanation of Romans 13 is that it was a message addressed to specific concerns of Roman Christians under Nero.

And so, from Paul’s perspective, the Christians in Rome in the 50s should not revolt. Rather, they should love their oppressors and leave wrath to God. This wasn’t because the Roman government was good, but because followers of Jesus are called to the way of love. Furthermore, God has restrained the authorities and will judge them.

Much more could be said about what such teachings could mean for us. At the very least, it encourages us to trust God and love our enemies. While Paul argues against violent resistance, his words leave room for nonviolent struggle. It would be foolish, I think, to extrapolate universal principles of governmental engagement from this passage. Nevertheless, once we understand Paul’s sentiments, we can better discern how to express the love of God in our own contexts.

Tied for the most referenced pro-Rome passage is Mark 12:13-17:

Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to trap him with his own words. When they came they said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful and do not court anyone’s favor, because you show no partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But he saw through their hypocrisy and said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” So they brought one, and he said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

Clearly they were trying to trick Jesus into publicly picking sides either would be dangerous. If he sided with Rome, he’d lose the support of the people. If he denounced Rome, he’d be a marked man. The fact that Herodians and Pharisees are working together against Jesus is telling; Jesus is so offensive that enemies have put aside their differences to resist him. What is remarkable about this passage isn’t so much that Jesus is clever. The implications of his statement are remarkable.

Are the implications that we should be Augustinian, creating a distinction between church and state? Or even separating them into two separate kingdoms with different claims as Luther or some Anabaptists have advocated? No. This is a very smart slap against Caesar without simply denouncing Caesar. By pointing to their coin (no good Jew should have a graven image like a coin in their pocket to begin with), Jesus is exposing idolatry and saying that such things belong to Caesar already, not God. If you’ve got any Caesar-stuff, it should be rendered accordingly. But what is God’s belongs to God. Or, to quote Dorothy Day, “If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar.”

Lest you think that such approaches to scripture are a recent innovation, I direct you to Irenaeus. Irenaeus was a 2nd Century bishop on the fringes of the Empire in Lugdunum, Gaul. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. In other words, he was removed from Jesus by two generations; he was a friend of a friend of Jesus:

The Lord himself directed us to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s,” naming Caesar as Caesar, but confessing God as God. In like manner also, that which says, “You cannot serve two masters,” he does himself interpret, saying “You cannot serve God and mammon,” acknowledging God as God, but mentioning mammon, a thing also having an existence. He does not call mammon Lord when he says, “You cannot serve two masters,” but he teaches his disciples who serve God, not to be subject to mammon nor to be ruled by it…

In other words, Irenaeus believed that the thing we should render Caesar is our renunciation. Caesar’s lordship is comparable to that of mammon 11. He is only your lord if you are his slave.

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The Politics of Jesus 5: The Radical Thread in the New Testament

The Politics of Jesus 5: The Radical Thread in the New Testament

Let’s jump right into the origin story. Luke tells the story of Jesus birth. Jesus’ mother, while Jesus was still in the womb, said the following words while filled with the Spirit:

[God] has demonstrated power with [God’s]
arm; [God] has scattered those whose pride
wells up from the sheer arrogance of their
hearts. [God] has brought down the mighty
from their thrones, and has lifted up those of
lowly position; [God] has filled the hungry
with good things, and has sent the rich away
empty.

Luke 1:51-52
Image by Ben Wildflower

Jesus grows up. He starts his ministry and is tempted by the devil in the wilderness. The temptation of Jesus by the devil reveals the manner in which Jesus understands his authority. Jesus’ sense of authority bears little to no similarity to kingly authority. In the wilderness, he is tempted politically, economically, and religiously to assert his messiah-ship. But he refuses. The diabolical nature of his temptation isn’t due to the source of the temptation—that the offer of political, economic, and religious power comes from the devil instead of God. Rather, the temptation concerns the sort of reign Jesus should pursue. Jesus is the unking.

Later in Luke 4, right after his trial and baptism, Jesus goes to his home town (Nazareth) and gives a political manifesto of liberation for the poor and oppressed, essentially announcing his messiah ship and the coming of Jubilee (the “year of the Lord’s favor”). Provocatively, Jesus seems willing to include oppressors in the kingdom. Which is why his hometown folks—who most likely knew him well—try to kill him.

Just to jump ahead a bit, in Luke 17:21 Jesus says (in words that would later inspire the development of Leo Tolstoy’s anarchism): “The kingdom of God is within you” (or among you). In the context, it seems to be a way of suggesting that the kingdom of God isn’t a place, a demonstrative regime change, or a clear event. Rather it is here. Now.

Later, when Jesus heard his friends arguing amongst themselves the pecking-order in this kingdom (Luke 22:25-26) he tells them: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”

Jesus is asking his friends to rethink everything they know about socio-political realities. The next time you read the Gospel of Luke, try to read it through the lens of Jubilee—where the ones who have accumulated have to give up and the ones who have lost receive. Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell everything and give it to the poor. He says the same thing to his disciples, by the way.

In case you think only Luke is quotable for radicals, the Gospel of John is also juicy. For example, Jesus calls Satan the “prince of the world” which is likely a way of referring to the Roman Empire.

In John 18:36, in a conversation with Pilate, we learn that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Actually, it is perhaps better translated as “not from this world.” Usually, this is interpreted as saying that Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual or heavenly. However, the way such dualistic language worked in that time makes such a meaning unlikely. Rather, Jesus is saying his kingdom is different. It is something entirely new. It is a gift from God–it comes from God.

After the resurrection, we read of an account of civil disobedience in Acts 5. When the disciples were ordered by authorities to stop their teaching, they answer: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Here’s what most people hear when they read that: “We must obey God rather than any human authority in those rare circumstances where there is a clear and obvious contradiction between what the law says and God says, since God’s laws trump human laws.” I’m not so sure. If you believed that your messiah was a socio-political/religious unking who died and then rose from the dead (and then mystically poured his Spirit out upon you), then you might simply mean “we must obey God, not any human authority.”

This helps us understand the way in which the early church practiced community. They were encouraged, among other things, to work out their issues internally rather than appealing to the courts. In Romans 12, Paul argues that his friends in Rome should “not be conformed to this present world [read: empire], but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God.” This is, again, often read as a call to be spiritual or heavenly minded. But, given the larger context, it is perhaps better to see it as a challenge to stop being so Roman-ish and, instead, pursue the way of love.

I am often asked to justify my anti-imperial reading of the New Testament. After all, the word “empire” doesn’t appear in the New Testament. Well. Here’s the thing. The early church was sneaky. They didn’t want to sound overtly treasonous. So usually we have to try to inhabit their context with our imaginations to see Rome closer to they way they saw it. And no writing is as anti imperial as, perhaps, John’s Revelation. Read Revelation 13, 14, and 17 for a not-so subtle picture of oppressive Rome.

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