Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Family Idol

family-idol (1)I initially wrote this piece for another website I was trying to get off the ground.  It failed…more on that some other time…but this is one that has a lot of meaning to me and it is in line with another piece I finished this weekend.

I grew up in an abusive and broken family, believing pretty awful things about myself that I had been told by my father my entire life. As a result of my messed-up thinking, I made bad choices as an adult and ended up in an incredibly unhealthy, painful, and dark marriage to someone who was…less than a good match. And, years later, I endured the process of a long and painful divorce and the unspeakable anguish of watching my children be turned against me—the torture of having to make the dangerous choice between fighting and letting them go. I chose the latter and it nearly killed me.

It was during the divorce process that I found myself in weekly counseling therapy, working through the decades of lies I’d believed and acted upon—the unhealthy self-preservation habits which had become intuition for me. In fact, I’m still finding it a daily battle to overcome and to make healthy, godly choices for and about myself in a proper and healthy relationship to the world around me. I fail a lot, but I’m doing better.

Though I am remarried, now, to a godly woman in a far healthier situation, I still find that my worldview about “family” has been affected. My relationship with my father and his family (he and my mother divorced and he remarried decades ago) is virtually non-existent. My relationship with my children has been better, but still, at times, strained and quite painful for them and for me and my wife. They live a very different life from me, in a place with different values. It is my greatest failure and source of pain and doubt.

My situation, sad to say, is hardly unique. Truth is, in a world in which there is sin, violence, and narcissism, there will be pain and broken relationships. That God has worked through his son to resolve them in the cross and to restore that world in the resurrection is the only and best hope we have. In fact, I found myself thinking the other day, as I considered the anger of one of my children towards me, “If it wasn’t for Jesus and the resurrection, there’d be nothing in this world to find joy in.” Jesus and his kingdom remain the work of God—his sole mission on this earth.

Therefore, someday, I look forward to living here on this restored world, in the harmony of the resurrection.

As the book of Revelation seems to tell us…until then, there is the cross. And the cross is what we must all bear until our deaths. The cross…the epitome of death which Paul called “foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews”(1 Cor 1:18-26) is, as he said, the power of God to make things better here. It is so, precisely because our own participation in bearing Jesus’ cross with him destroys that sin, violence, and narcissism within ourselves (Rom 6). It recreates us to walk in the resurrection before it actually happens. It creates in us the first fruits of the kingdom of God, as we await for the final work of the kingdom, the restoration of God’s good creation—the earth (Rom 8). Those first fruits, of course, being for Paul in this last chapter (Rom 8) the result of a cross-formed life. Cruciformity, as Michael J. Gorman calls it.

And that is, I think, the point of Romans 8. We have, to look forward, the resurrection of our bodies and the restoration of this universe—all of nature waits for this; it waits to join us in what is happening within our minds and what will happen to our bodies. This wondrous event when God restores his created order will be greater than any suffering we endure. Yet, until then, there is the cross. There is sharing in Jesus’ suffering. In fact, Paul insists that we cannot be his co-heirs in glory if we do not also inherit his cross.

That each person’s cross is a prerequisite of their resurrection means that, just as Jesus did, we endure the cross, scorning its shame because we, like Jesus, are looking ahead to what will be (Heb 12:1-3).

My cross, as is the cross of many people I have known (and many more I have not) includes the pain of familial brokenness. In fact, scripture is replete with examples of people whose family life is hardly reminiscent of a 50s sitcom. Yet, when I look at my own situation from my own perspective, I find that mine seems the most confusing and the most painful—to me. I find that, for me, my family has always been a cross. Being in my family has always been being crucified.

Those who have been divorced…buried a child…watched a child walk away…endured disability…chosen not to have children, or even marry, have often endured that same cross.

This pain has often been intensified by well-meaning folks in Christ’s church who have been aboard that popular “traditional family” bandwagon. In fact, part of the irony of my life has been that, as every moment of my life has been shaped by the sting of broken family, the church I have loved so much has continually made the “traditional family” its poster child. Statements like: “The family is the basic unit of society,” and “the family is under attack” indicate that many in our churches understand the family to be a battleground in the culture war.

Hence, churches have often emphasized the family to the point of idolatry. You’d be hard pressed to throw a rock without hitting a church whose focus is “young families.” And just try looking for work as a minister without at least being married. Many churches won’t even consider someone who has taken Paul’s admonition to remain single seriously (1 Cor 7). Beyond that, “family” has been preached from the pulpit and written about as if it and not the church is God’s primary kingdom work on this earth.

On the one hand, I can hardly blame folks for feeling this way about the family. Marriage and children can be a source of great joy when all goes according to plan. Yet, it often doesn’t. And no amount of theologizing can guarantee that it won’t. As much as I wish it weren’t so, there simply is no way to guarantee that the “joy” of the family won’t turn to agony because there is no way to guarantee that spouse or children will always choose to do what is right.

And yet, though I can hardly blame them for feeling this way, the truth is that the New Testament teaching on the family is hardly congruous with the contemporary “focus on the family” as the “basic unit of society” in the church. In fact, in the New Testament, it seems, the focus on the family is undone. Certainly, if someone has chosen to marry and have a family, Paul says, he or she has done nothing wrong (1 Cor7:28). Yet, Jesus (in Matthew 19) and Paul in the current passage both admonish members of Christ’s body to remain single. These statements, though not condemning the practice of marriage and having families, do indicate that the obsession with families in the church constitutes idolatry. As Stan Hauerwas says it:

The most extraordinary thing that…early Christians did that distinguished them from the Jews is that they didn’t have to marry. I mean, you gotta remember that Jesus was not a good Jew. He was single, he walked around with twelve guys….

So, followers of Jesus didn’t have to marry. You may think that was because they had negative attitudes about sex. They may have had negative attitudes about sex, but that’s not why they didn’t marry. The reason why they didn’t have to marry is because you don’t have to have a child to be a Christian. You don’t have to have a child to be a Christian because we’re an apocalyptic sect that grows by witness and conversion.

Every time Christians make a fetish of the family you can be sure that they don’t believe in God anymore. It’s exactly because they don’t want to witness to anyone about the truth of the gospel; they just want to make sure that their kids grow up thinking that they don’t have another option but to go to the Reformed Church. Singleness is the absolute necessary correlative of the fact that the church is an evangelizing body that grows by witness and conversion. Because, in one generation God could call every Christian to the life of singleness and yet we believe that God would create the church anew through witness and conversion.

Think about what kind of community, what kind of practice that community must embody. So, any community capable of sustaining singleness as a way of life must also be a community of trust made possible by speaking truth to one another….[i]

That the churches have focused on growth through the attraction of “young families” is precisely because they have forsaken evangelism for procreation—the latter being more popular. And that Christians have made, as Hauerwas puts it, “a fetish of the family” suggests that they have misunderstood that the church is God’s new primary community through which he does his work, not the family unit. It is the church who provides family to the family-less. It is the church which redeems the brokenness within our families. It is the work of the Holy Spirit within the church which makes whole that which has been broken within us in our families.

However, the danger for the church corporate in this fetish is that by focusing on “young families,” we ignore those whom Jesus came to serve: the widows, the lonely, the prostitute, the beggar, the lame, the disabled. Unfortunately, these folks (though loved by God) have little buying power in church growth models predicated on corporate business principles. We begin to see the church as a corporation selling a product to the most lucrative demographic, rather than the kingdom of God loving those whom Jesus came to save. And broken people, like me, are not the right demographic.

The danger for the individual Christian is that he feels he can justify loving his family more than the church. He justifies disservice of the church, even harming his fellow brother, in service of his children because he takes his “family” to be his highest calling and not the Kingdom of God. In essence, he has presumed that his family is the kingdom of God rather than the truth that his family is to serve that kingdom. He forgets Jesus’ command to “hate” father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters (Lk 14:26) for the sake of the kingdom. The danger is he forgets that Jesus calls his children to bear a cross as well as himself and, so, forgets the call of the kingdom in their lives.

It isn’t hard to understand why it has been so difficult to make the distinction. In our consumer economy, the family is the basic unit of society. We need lots of families making more families if we are going to continue selling houses and cars and college educations. Our national economy requires a strong emphasis on families to continue creating more consumers. I don’t think the leaders in our churches have been reflective enough to notice that the church, therefore, has been coopted to provide religious rhetoric that creates a moral imperative for the building of a consumer culture. Therefore, they forget Jesus’ statements about “hating mother and father” for the sake of the kingdom, and Paul’s about singleness.   We have forgotten that our “brothers and sisters” are the members of the church now, and not our families at all. We have forgotten that the church is an alternative to the family, a replacement of it. The church is our new family.

And, as a result of that forgetting, we worship an idol. The “family” becomes an idol. It’s an idol that, for some of us, is easier to ignore because our own idols were so very, painfully broken. But it is an idol, nonetheless because, as a result of our worship of it, we hurt Christ’s bride. We do a disservice to the widow, the orphan, the single mom. We devalue the aged and the single. We fight bloody and hateful cultural battles over the vocabulary which the empire uses to refer to marriage and, consequently, make God’s kingdom a group of militant culture warriors. All because we worship an image of the family born in the 50s. We see providing for our children as our highest calling rather than teaching our children about our Christian calling. We stop being a people devoted to being family to those with no family. We stop thinking of ourselves as family to one another in the church.

But, this idolatry is not universal in Christ’s body. In truth, I have found that there is an underground of those who understand the church as I do, who have come to find an alternative to their own broken families within the church. I, for one, having such terrible experiences in my own family can say that there are people in the church all over this country (and the world) who are closer to me than my family could have ever been. And I have loved them and have been loved by them with a love that surpasses understanding—a love I simply cannot put into words. We have been made one together by our participation in Christ. We have been made one by our communion together in his body and blood. We have been made one who were two because of the enmity that was put to death in his flesh. Because of this, I feel I can, like the Lord, say, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Those who do the will of the Lord are my family (Mt 12:46-50).” My family is the church. It is the bride of Christ.

[i] Stan Hauerwas, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder,” a lecture given at the “Sermon on the Mount Theology Conference” (2005). Available on the iTunes Store.

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Forgetting Jeremiah: The Lost Prophetic Witness of our Churches and Christian Institutions

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My wife sowing blueberries and peace on a cold MLK Day in 2016.

edited May 21, 2017

It was Martin Luther King Day at a Mennonite church my wife and I were members of, when I found a sign made of different scraps of wood, telling the story of the Anabaptist tradition and highlighting the traditional Anabaptist doctrine of Christian nonviolence.

The sign described the roots of the Anabaptist tradition as well as how it was received by the public.  Besides telling the story of how Anabaptist Christians refused to fight in war but, instead, served their community in other ways (including volunteering to be starved in order that researchers might study the effects of starvation on soldiers and prisoners of war / victims of the holocaust) there was one line that struck me.  It stated simply that, because of their unwillingness to fight, Anabaptists were frequently ignored by the larger public.

It’s been said before (by the great Hauerwas), and I’ve often quoted it, that violence is such a central assumption of our way of life that most people (including people who claim to follow the man who, as the ancient Christian apologist Tertullian said, “…in disarming Peter disarms every soldier”) believe not just that violence is morally neutral but that to not be willing to do violence is essentially immoral.  My wife and I have often felt that nothing makes the people we know angrier than claiming that we think Jesus “doesn’t want us to kill anyone.”  Violence is a value of our culture.

The sign was a wonderful reminder that the nonviolent witness of the Kingdom Jesus came proclaiming and instituting is, in fact, supposed to be a prophetic witness to a Kingdom which is very different from the world in which it is located.  Throughout the story of Israel in the OT and the church in the NT, God’s people were intended to be (sometimes succeeding and other times failing miserably) a witness to God’s Kingdom in the world but not of it.[1]

Israel’s (and, later, the church’s) missional calling was to be a very different people (a chosen, called-out people) living as a sign of God’s rule among the larger global culture which rejected him (and, by extension, them).  This would, as with the Anabaptists, frequently make them an ignored people, but also frequently make them almost impossible to ignore.  Their monotheism, their refusal to worship idols, their trust in an unseen God, and their unique commitment to an ethic which the rest of the world found ridiculous—all of these things were intended to make Israel stand out from the world and draw people to God by revealing that true life comes from living according to God’s law of love, and to not do so is to experience only death and destruction.  Even the function of the OT sacrifice, according to Hebrews 10, was designed to associate sinfulness with death.

Therefore, the essence of being a “prophetic witness” is to recognize the uniqueness of God’s Kingdom and follow in such a way as to intend to reveal to the world how very different it is from the world.  It is to live a very foreign life compared to the life lived by those in the world, to be a very different people, a called-out people.  To be odd.  Strangers in a strange land.

And, yet, throughout the history of Israel (and throughout the history of the church) what is clear is that God’s people have frequently misunderstood their prophetic role.  The early books of Israel’s history (Joshua and especially Judges) tell of Israel’s near routine cycle of flirtation and affairs with the idols of their neighbors—a pattern which seemed to hold all through their experience as a people.  Their desire for a king in 1 Samuel and their inattention to matters of justice as seen throughout the Minor Prophets (just a few examples: Ho 1:4 and Am 2:7; 4:1; 5:11, 12; 8:4-6) further illustrate their ability to be distracted from their calling by power, wealth, the illusion of security, and status.

Nor has the church been immune to falling prey to the idolatries of its own culture.  Luke’s early history, the book of Acts, revealed that the churches were always losing their way, struggling to put down their idols, being impressed with the power of Rome or the temple cults of the idols of their neighbors.  Paul’s letters, too, reveal the same.  Add to that tendency the kind of horrible persecution they often endured and it seems a miracle of the Holy Spirit that the church would survive at all.

Of course, by the Spirit’s help, it did.  But its history has been one of constant shifting back and forth between times of intense corruption (think of the wealth and political power of the Popes during the dark ages) and moments of rebirth as new movements would emerge from and react to those dark moments, but still would eventually become their own greedy and power-hungry establishments, and so on.

In our world of mega-churches, church marketing, Christian radio stations, top-ten “worship songs,” franchised churches, multi-campus churches, and cult-of-personality preachers it is hard not to think that, just as Israel and the early church often did, what passes for the American church has largely lost its understanding of the uniqueness of its calling, of God’s intention that it be a prophetic witness.  It has bought into the idolatry of its own culture (the idolatry of consumerism) and functioned as yet one more propaganda machine of its own Rome with almost no reflection at all, calmly and comfortably denying its Lord by trusting in powers and money, building bigger and shinier barns, and (being impressed with its “success”) congratulating itself for its faith while its worship is not much more than self-indulgent, mindless babbling.  The church in America is a big-business attraction and the church-growth / mega-church phenomenon, the Christian colleges, the church developers, the publishing and book selling industry, the music industry, and the Christian conventions reflect the very same values of greed, blind ambition, and ruthlessness that drove the American economy to the housing market crash of the early 2000s.

Evangelicalism simply doesn’t know the difference between the church and Chic-Fil-A anymore.  It has been coopted by political parties, temple-cults, and corporate idealism.  Ministers no longer need to be trained to do biblical exegesis, all they need to know to run the church they can learn with a business degree.   Hence, they’re interested in members who look a certain way, and they tend to market to key demographics (show me a church that doesn’t say in its literature that it wants “young families”), usually from wealthy neighborhoods, because what they’re really interested in is keeping the money flowing in order to build more barns.  They schmooze powerful people and flatter rich people.  The disabled, the broken, the unemployed, the single mom…they’re “welcome” (until they become inconvenient), but they have no real value because they may not be able to contribute to the bottom line.  It’s about “success.”  It’s about “strategic connections.”

And because they are obsessed with these idols without knowing it, they imagine that they are still serving God.  And, having no love in their hearts for one another, they are able to justify all sorts of evil in the name of God.  They lie, they connive, and they grind people up under their wheels and throw them away when they’re done, shrugging it off as “the cost of business.”   Much like first century Israel sought a messiah who would defeat their oppressors, the messiah these people imagine Jesus to be looks much like Donald Trump, a personality-driven huckster who believes in big growth, is on “their side,” and claims to want to make them “successful” and give them a safe place to live.  But this vision is unsustainable because it is idolatry and far from God’s Kingdom ideal.  Idolatry brings death.  They don’t know Jesus and his Kingdom because they don’t read the gospels.  They don’t realize that he is in every way the antithesis of what they think he is.  They don’t realize that their values are no different from their culture’s.  They’re supposed to be a prophetic witness of God’s very different and strange Kingdom being worked out in this world, for this world, and calling this world out of itself.  Instead, they think they can call people to the Kingdom of God by offering it more of its own idols.  As Rachel Held Evans said recently in her book, Searching for Sunday,

The modern-day church likes results.  Convinced the gospel is a product we’ve got to sell to an increasingly shrinking market, we like our people to function as walking advertisements: happy, put-together, finished—proof that this Jesus stuff WORKS!  At its best, such a culture generates pews of Stepford Wife-style robots with painted smiles and programmed moves.  At its worst, it creates environments where abuse and corruption get covered up to protect reputations and preserve image.  “The world is watching,” Christians like to say, “So let’s be on our best behavior and quickly hide the mess.  Let’s throw up some before-and-after shots and roll that flashy footage of our miracle product blanching out every sign of dirt, hiding every sign of disease.”

But if the world is watching, we might as well tell the truth.  And the truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure.  It doesn’t offer a quick fix.  The church offers death and resurrection.  The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation.  The church offers grace.

Anything else we try to peddle is snake oil.  It’s not the real thing.[2]

One day in a chapel service at Bible college, a student was preaching a message which referred to an experience he’d had in a third world country.  In that message he remembered seeing someone worship an idol for the first time at a shrine.  He wept openly in his sermon, claiming he’d never actually seen someone worship an idol.  His passion struck me.  But now I wonder, “Really? Have you ever been to a shopping mall? Have you ever seen the New York Stock Exchange?  Have you ever been to a political rally or an NRA convention?  Have you ever been to a mega-church?”  We see people worshiping idols all the time.

It is naiveté to think of idolatry only in terms of ugly pagan traditions.  Instead, idolatry will always look attractive.  It is the cross which is going to be a tough sell.  The cross doesn’t generally draw huge crowds unless people perceive their enemy will be attached to it.  But Jesus’ Kingdom idea is going to look pretty unattractive to most people because it is a call for them to follow Jesus on the way of the cross, to deny (instead of indulge) self, to forgive, to submit, to give away.  It is a call to make ourselves smaller, not bigger, to be a mustard-seed kingdom that doesn’t impress with huge buildings and concerts but reaches out with acts of love and self-sacrifice.  It isn’t a place for egos and ambition, but for children and servants.  It’s a place where, rather than do anything to succeed, we’d die before hurting another person.  That, as, Paul said, it’s going to look like foolishness at best and a scandal at worst to most people (1 Cor 1).   But that’s what it means to be a prophetic witness in a world of greed and violence.

Paul said that though this witness of the cross is a scandal to some, to those of us who are being saved…well…we recognize it as real power, power to make things better, to build God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  So, we attempt to live our lives rejecting the will to use violence, to pursue power, to horde wealth, to build big shiny barns, and to be “successful.”  Those who live like this live as a prophetic witness that God’s Kingdom brings real life because they trust that someday every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord and that someday all of the powers will be done away and everyone will live as we believe God has called us to live.

The lifestyle of prophetic witness I’m talking about, besides being unpopular, is not widely understood.   If the violent, greedy, shiny, and successful lifestyle of the world is popular and taken for granted, then living and proclaiming the lifestyle of the Kingdom of God won’t be.  It will require us to speak the truth.  Speaking the truth will always mean confronting lies.  Confronting lies will seem (to liars and people who believe lies) offensive.   Calling what is violent “violent,” what is cruel “cruel,” and what is idolatry “idolatry” will be perceived as “judgmental” or “divisive” to violent, cruel, and idolatrous people who’ve fooled themselves into thinking they are following Jesus.  Lately, I have even experienced someone claiming that to call out a “Christian” religious institution for its idolatry is hypocritically “violent.”  “I thought you believed in non-violence.  Don’t you know your words are violent, too?  Don’t you know that you’re attacking the body?”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. experienced this as he sat in prison one April day in 1963 and read a newspaper piece written by local white ministers who “agreed” with King’s goals, but just wanted him to stop shaking things up so much.  “Couldn’t he find a ‘better’ way to accomplish his goals?  Couldn’t he ‘negotiate?’” was their question.  King wrote his brilliant “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” reminding them that he was in Birmingham because injustice was in Birmingham…and injustice had to be confronted no matter how tense and uncomfortable it made people.  In fact, that was the point.

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.[3]

As with those times in Israel, when the church worships the idols of its culture it gets comfortable with the status-quo.  It begins to value peace-keeping over peace-making.  It accepts as normal and amoral the injustice of society; it justifies it and participates in it.  It becomes so allergic to truth that, ironically, it assumes that it is worse to call something evil than to do something evil.  It opts for monologue and despises dialogue.

In these churches and institutions it is considered perfectly acceptable to clamber over one another for power, or to stab one another in the back, or to lie and get people fired from their jobs because they don’t like them—to even kill—but, by God, whatever you do don’t be indelicate about our idolatry.  Don’t say anything confrontational.  This is a reflection of the misunderstanding of what it means to see the Kingdom of God as a prophetic witness to an alternative way of doing life.  According to Jesus, we’re actually NOT supposed to kill, lie, cheat, and destroy.  But sometimes we ARE supposed to be indelicate.  Downright confrontational, in fact.

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Jeremiah 20:1-6  NIV

The tradition of the prophets includes stories like Jeremiah’s in chapter 19 and 20 of his book.  In that story, Jeremiah preached to the religious leaders of his day a message which was so offensive it got him placed in the stocks overnight.  After being released, he did not hold back, but told the high priest, “God’s name for you is not ‘Pashur’ but ‘Terror on Every Side.’”  Because God would soon reveal that Pashur was a terror and had prophesied lies in order to maintain his power.

Harsh?  Perhaps.  Prophetic? Yes. Violent?  No.  Just truthful.

John the Baptist, too, boldly spoke to the corrupt religious leaders of his day by calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers (Mt 3) and shouted outside Herod’s palace that it was not right for him to have his brother’s wife (Mt 14).  He died for his truth-speaking, but not before being called the greatest prophet in history by Jesus (Mt 11).

A hero of the Gospel of Jesus, without question.  Sarcastic?  Sure.  Prophetic?  Yes.  Violent?  Nope.  Just truthful.

Jesus, himself, was frequently very straightforward when calling those who claimed to be God’s people to grow up and act like it.  His actions in cleansing the temple (Mt 21, Mk 11, Lk 19, and Jn 2) were bold, perhaps furious.  He did no violence to people (the “whip” of grass cords was for driving out the animals) but he was brutal in his critique of their corruption. His monologue in Mt 23 is profoundly, shockingly confrontational.  Name-calling…ferocious…severe.  Read it if you dare.

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Matthew 23:25-32

Indelicate?  Definitely.  Offensive? Yep.  Prophetic?  Absolutely.  Violent?  No way.  Simply truthful.

Reader…we followers in this time and place have lost our sense of what it means to be followers of Jesus.  We have forgotten that being a follower means being very, very different from the world.  It means having an ethos informed and transformed by the Son of God, the man Jesus Christ.  Yet, the popular Christian “culture” is anything but.  The evangelical church is no prophetic witness to this world.  Instead, the church has become one more dying player in the never-ending struggle for the power to control and manipulate the larger culture, its local bodies desperately competing with one another for precious consumers in order to keep its luxurious barns open—in order to keep the money and power flowing.  The evangelical churches are no prophetic witness because they fully worship their culture’s idols.

But there are prophets speaking to it.  They are doing so in print.  They are doing so online.  They are doing so in action.   They are preaching at little churches that no one cares about because they don’t have big buildings, shiny instruments, or coffee bars.  Most of the time they are ignored, dismissed, maligned, or labeled “liberal.”   Every so often, though, one of them lands a prophetic punch and the idolaters get pissed and lash out.  And I hear someone who is willing to murder their brother say, “How dare you be indelicate, critical, and judgmental of the body?  I thought you believed in nonviolence!”

That person doesn’t even understand nonviolence.  He doesn’t understand the Bible in his backpack.  He’s got it exactly wrong.

Don’t be cowed by that silliness.  Preach to the church until they kill you, prophet.  Like Jesus said, they always murder the indelicate prophet.  As Gideon discovered, people get pretty upset when you knock over their Asherah poles.  Do it anyway.  Let them come and get you.  Don’t listen to the hypocrite who wants to kill you tell you that being prophetic is doing violence.  And don’t worry about the injustice.  God will preserve his Kingdom.  Remember the Lord’s words in Rev 21:5, “I am making everything new.”  Preach that.  Write it.  Say it.  Let them do the killing; just don’t let them decide who gets to do the talking.

[1] Proponents of Christian participation in violence are usually quick to point out that the OT seems to tell the story of supposedly divinely ordained violence which they believe must soften what appears to be Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence.  Their mistake is that they read the Bible backwards, insisting on reading the OT and then trying to make Jesus’ teaching fit in with that reading.  Instead, we are actually supposed to re-understand the OT through the lens of Jesus.  We are supposed to understand that the OT is not the full revelation of God (Heb 1:1-4) but that Jesus is—therefore, we understand that while God may have acquiesced to and utilized his people’s use of violence, it was intended to be very limited (for instance, “an eye for an eye was about limiting violence, not endorsing it) and eventually completely undone in Christ (“You’ve heard it said…but I tell you….”).

[2] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Leicester, England: Thomas Nelson, 2015), ch. 30, (taken from an e-copy).

[3] Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Found at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

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Christianity and the Pursuit of Power: Zarathustra, Meet Bonhoeffer!

Suppose, finally, we succeeded in explaining our entire instinctive life as the development and ramification of one basic form of the will—namely, of the will to power, as my proposition has it; suppose all organic functions could be traced to this will to power and one could also find in it the solution of the problem of procreation and nourishment . . . The world viewed from inside     . . . would be “will to power” and nothing else.[1]

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (–its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on . . .[2]

Friedrich Nietzsche

The will to power. This was Nietzsche’s claim—that all of life is about the pursuit of power. All persons seek to gain control of their environment, including the other persons in that environment. For him, the pursuit of power defined all relationships. At best, when these relationships include people of equal strength of will, mental toughness, skill, determination, and goals, then these relationships might be mutually beneficial (Nietzsche believed that eventually all humans would evolve into this form by rejecting belief in God and embracing the “truth” of God’s death) . In that case, the two or more in relationship work together to gain power, teaming their strengths to overcome their weaknesses in order to vie for greater power, greater control. There is nothing transcendent about human life, no ethical standard revealed by some higher being. There is only humanity, striving to become stronger, more independent, more independently human…more like gods. The evolution of the human into this model would be similar to the evolution from ape to man.[3]

At worst, when these relationships include people of mismatched strength or skill, the relationships become dysfunctional abuse, often resorting to the use of religious belief with which to manipulate or control. According to Nietzsche, those who allowed themselves to be controlled by another were those who had not become “free spirits,” who had succumbed to a sort of “slave morality,” who had been seduced by a “master” in order to be controlled. He saw many of the teachings of Christianity to be exactly that: seductions used by the powerful to keep the weak under control.

There is no other way: the feelings of devotion, self-sacrifice for one’s neighbor, the whole morality of self-denial must be questioned mercilessly and taken to court . . . . There is too much charm and sugar in these feelings of “for others,” “not for myself,” for us not to become doubly suspicious at this point and to ask: “are these not perhaps—seductions?”[4]

Nietzsche’s belief in this shocking statement was founded in his other statement that “God is dead.” Nietzsche believed that our choice not to believe in God is the choice to kill him. And we ourselves have done it. Anyone who has heard Strauss’s movement The Sunrise, from the piece inspired by Nietzsche’s writing called Thus Spake Zarathustra, can imagine how Nietzsche felt as if he was “seeing the light” for the first time in his life. He imagined himself as a genius prophet, bringing light to a dark world—a sort of “good news” which, when believed, would free the world from its bondage to self-imposed subservience to a “higher power.”

That said, although he saw himself as a prophet and his message as one of freedom and a call to authenticity, Nietzsche also recognized that what he was proclaiming was a message with profound implications…sobering ones.

“Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?[5]

One can be either slave or master in this system—a system which is all about power and strength. Nietzsche believe that, once God was dead, it was up to each person to determine for himself what was right and wrong (ethics), what was true (meaning), and what our own purpose is. Nietzsche was proclaiming an early existentialism which, he believed, was a call to be truly human, truly ourselves. This is why, because those of us who would choose to follow him would no longer consider ourselves in submission to a god, he proclaimed that we, ourselves, would have to become…well…”gods.” This, for Nietzsche, was a step in the right direction. A step in the evolution of humans to a new level of existence, a new world, free from the restraints of religion.

One doesn’t have to try hard to imagine why Nietzsche would assume that life would become all about “power.” Nietzsche himself understood that a world in which each person was expected to determine right and wrong for himself, as well as meaning and truth, would be a world of endless conflict. It would be the strongest who would rise to the top. The übermensch, sometimes translated as “overman” or even “superman,” would rise above the weak and lead himself and those who were strong enough into a new world. There is no compassion for the weak. The weak must be overcome or used…not cared for.

Submission, compassion, love—even God himself—are all “controls” for Nietzsche. These must be shunned.

One also doesn’t have to try hard to imagine what a world like this would look like. Anytime there are people who are primarily interested in their own concerns, their own agendas, and their own desires these are people who have, on some level, accepted Nietzsche’s understanding of the meaning of life. Anytime there are people for whom there are no limits to their ambition, no line they will not cross…anytime there are people who have no conscience about what their actions may cost another…anytime there are people who are willing to justify hurting another to complete an agenda, who will moralize sacrificing another under the guise of “the greater good,” then you have found someone who has, whether consciously or not, believed Nietzsche’s story and is following his prophecy. They may not know it, but they have bought into the notion that they are gods and that life is about power and control. They are vying for power, greater power…perhaps under the impression that their cause is just or moral. But they believe in power.

Ironically, Nietzsche’s claims are not unscriptural—in a way. What I mean is that Nietzsche is not saying anything which scripture doesn’t. Scripture, also, teaches that sin is, in a way, a desire to “kill God.” In Luke 15 Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son is a primary example. In this parable, Jesus claimed that the younger son’s desire was to receive his “inheritance” now. We might say that, in a way, what he was saying was, “I want you to die so I can have what you have. I want power and control over my life and do not want to submit to you.” The younger son resented not being the father (God), not being the one who decides what is right for himself. And, so, in a way he “killed” his father, broke his heart, took his inheritance…and destroyed himself.Nietzsche Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Ethics, describes the issue of sin and death like this. For Bonhoeffer, “sin” is not merely about angering God by eating forbidden fruit. It is really not about “fruit” at all. For Bonhoeffer, the two trees in the garden are symbols of something more than trees and fruit. They symbolize what God had created people for and what he had not created them for. That “Adam” and “Eve” had been given access to “the Tree of Life” meant that God had given people access to…life. A life of meaning and purpose defined by their relationship to him. They saw themselves as extensions of him, images of God who participated in God’s creative speech-act by naming what had been created. In every way that they could be, they were like God. And they saw one another that way. They existed in a life of love and peace for God, one another, themselves, and creation.

Of course, in the story, they were forbidden from eating from “the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Again, we must not take this too literally. In the story, the tree is a symbol. It meant that knowledge of good and evil was for God and not for us. That they ate from this tree, for Bonhoeffer, meant that humans decided to take something which was God’s and God’s alone. They desired, not just to be in God’s image, but to be gods themselves—to replace God as the source of knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, and be that source themselves.

For Bonhoeffer, this meant “separation from God.”

In the knowledge of good and evil, man does not understand himself in the reality of the destiny appointed in his origin, but rather in his own possibilities, his possibility of being good or evil. He knows himself now as something apart from God, outside God, and this means that he now knows only himself and no longer knows God at all…. The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God.[6]

However, we should not see this in the classic way many of us were brought up—that God, somehow, could not be in relationship with us because of our sin. The issue was not God, but self. In the story, it is God who seeks out Adam and Eve and it is Adam and Eve who hide from him, covering themselves. Paul says in Romans 8 that human minds are hostile to God and in Ephesians 2:16 that it is human hostility toward one another and God that Jesus puts to death on the cross, not God’s hostility. It is Nietzsche who would have us think that God desires control over us.

But, Bonhoeffer explains that this hostility steals from humans something that only God can give them.

Originally man was made in the image of God, but now his likeness to God is a stolen one. As the image of God man draws his life entirely from his origin in God, but the man who has become like God has forgotten how he was at his origin and has made himself his own creator and judge. What God had given man to be, man now desired to be through himself. But God’s gift is essentially God’s gift.[7]

Being in God’s image is not something we can take for ourselves—though we may try. The lie of the serpent was that we could be “like God.” But when we try, just as Nietzsche says, we become “gods.”

 In becoming like God man has become a god against God.[8]

Which means that:

Man’s life is now disunion with God, with men, with things, and with himself.[9]

Bonhoeffer will go on to describe this life as a life in pursuit of greater power, power over people around us. Power to control. Power to achieve. This, for Bonhoeffer, is death. It is very much in line with the patterns of life described in the Old Testament—particularly the book of Judges, in which the final verse describes the brokenness and destruction of Israel this way: “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.

What Bonhoeffer and Nietzsche both describe, with great skill and thoughtfulness, is “life without God.” What is different about their descriptions is their conviction about what should be. Where Nietzsche sees the pursuit of power as freedom and authenticity, Bonhoeffer sees it as prison and destruction. Bonhoeffer prefers Jesus’ understanding of life. A life of peace. A life of self-sacrifice. A life in which we value the other and refuse to moralize—refuse to do “evil” for the sake of “good.” Bonhoeffer realized that the pursuit of power could do nothing but destroy. And he realized that Jesus’ non-violent kingdom of peace, his rejection of the power-systems of his day (the political, religious, and cultural structures), his support of and care for the powerless, the oppressed, the lame, the marginalized, the poor—all of these Bonhoeffer saw as the way of the cross. Where Nietzsche saw Zarathustra, Bonhoeffer saw Christ.

Would that I could be a fly in the room where Bonhoeffer and Nietzsche could have talked.

Both Nietzsche’s and Bonhoeffer’s approaches to power make my heart ache when I see Christians obsessing over the power structures of their day. When Christians believe in material wealth more than generosity…when they are impressed with giant religious structures…when they pursue political power…when they desire to use the people around them—even under the impression that they are doing “good,” my heart breaks. When they are unwilling to love those Jesus loved, to serve their neighbors, to show compassion for those who have destroyed their lives (as the prodigal son’s father did). When they believe in fighting and violence and destruction and politics and riches and big shiny things they demonstrate that, at some level, they’re thinking more like Zarathustra than Christ.

For Christ, life is not about power—at least not the kind of power Zarathustra believes in. Nietzsche’s prophet saw self-sacrifice as foolishness. But Paul describes the power of Christ this way:

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

         “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;

         the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” l

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:18-25 NIV)

Paul’s way of seeing Jesus redefines the world’s understanding of power and success. It undermines what sinful humans believe “power” is by rooting it in self-sacrifice rather than control. Paul, 1800 years prior to Nietzsche, dismantles our desire for power and success. He uproots our idols and replaces them with Christ…Christ crucified. For Christ, God-like life is one of peace, service, love, and generosity. It is a different kind of power.

And he reveals Zarathustra for a liar—a fool. Nietzsche’s prophet gave no new oracle. He merely parroted the words of the serpent in Genesis 3. And being a Christian means that we must acknowledge this. It is up to us, now; it is up to those of us who follow Jesus to believe in Jesus’ method of living life over and against the pursuit of power and control of the world around us. It is up to us to think smaller—to assume that the way of the cross which everyone thinks is ridiculous, or stupid, or “will never work” is actually the power of God to save the world from the destructive pursuit of power. It is up to us to acknowledge that we are powerless. We are unimpressive. We are dependent and small. But we are created in God’s image. And following Jesus is a restoration of that image, the kingdom of God on this earth. A kingdom whose power is founded on the love of God.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. by Walter Kaufman. (New York: Random House, 1989), 48.

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Translated by Walter Kaufman. (New York: Vintage, 1968), sec.636.

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by Walter Kaufman. (New York: The Modern Library, 1995) 12.

[4] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 45.

[5] Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Vintage, 1974), 181-182.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 1.

[7] Bonhoeffer, 22.

[8] Bonhoeffer, 23.

[9] Bonhoeffer, 24.

 

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