Stewards of Eden

Sandra L. Richter: Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says about the Environment and Why it Matters. InterVarsity Press, 2020, 168 pages.

A few years ago I attended a talk by the brilliant and affable climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe at a Christian college and seminary. Hayhoe specializes in communicating climate science to skeptical conservative Christians: her husband is an evangelical pastor in Texas. She recognized early on, then, that while there were a lot of voices speaking against climate science in the dialect of evangelical Christians, there weren’t a lot of voices speaking for it in a language that those Christians would be able to hear or accept.

One of the panellists who responded to Hayhoe’s talk was and is the leader of a denomination in Canada on the periphery of evangelicalism, and it so happens that I went to college with his son and we were sitting together in the crowd. In his response to Hayhoe, this leader mentioned that he cares about these things but needs others to help keep it on his radar. Challenge: accepted. I spoke with him afterward, and we’ve been loosely collaborating on slow efforts to keep climate change and creation care on the radar for thousands of Christians in Canada.

The challenge for us is the same one that Katharine Hayhoe is striving to meet: how do we communicate the ongoing disaster of climate change and environmental degradation to people who have been told, through the conservative Christian subculture they consume, that it’s fake or unimportant? We’ve seen over and over again that when a Christian leader makes a statement that goes against the narrative of Christian subculture, rather than influencing that narrative it tends to serve as notice that this leader isn’t really our kind of Christian. The sheer momentum of that subculture means that it will not change course; anyone who steps out of its stream is left behind. And with the fractious nature of Western Protestantism, if a denominational leader makes a statement that steps outside the stream of the subculture, churches would probably just leave. Truth at the cost of schism is a tough pill to swallow, and while truth should obviously win out, communicating that truth in the least schismatic way possible is obviously the goal.

So we’ve been looking for resources that talk about environmental stewardship in the most evangelical-friendly way possible. From the science side, Hayhoe is the obvious choice: check out her YouTube channel. But from the scripture side, we’ve looked at a lot of great resources that just didn’t quite seem to fit: bang-on theologically, but too academic in tone or reading level; communicates climate science in an accessible way, but talks repeatedly about the age of the earth (and let’s pick our battles one at a time, shall we?); hits the sweet spot on both science and theology, but comes from a “liberal” source; and so on.

Then I was cleaning up some stacks of books that I somehow haven’t found time to read despite the pandemic lockdown, and stumbled upon my forgotten copy of Stewards of Eden. And it’s perfect.

Sandra Richter has all of the Evangelical credentials: she teaches at Wheaton College, one of the few schools with name recognition among historically anti-intellectual denominations because of its association with Billy Graham. She teaches biblical theology (Old Testament) – none of that systematic theology fiddle-faddle that liberals use. She’s on the translation committee for the NIV, the go-to translation of the Bible for Evangelicals. Beyond just speaking their language, she literally chooses the language Evangelicals use to read the Bible.

The book is short, to the point, and broken into clear themes to explore in Scripture. Each chapter introduces a topic and then walks the reader through what the Bible says about it, a contemporary case study, and an application to Christian life. Each chapter finishes with discussion questions, making it perfect for group study; and the appendix is full of additional resources for anyone who wants to go further.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wonders what the Bible says about environmental issues, or any church that is resistant to any talk about climate change or environmental stewardship.

A Time for Prophets

Evangelists

Growing up in the evangelical movement, evangelism was drilled into me as our reason to exist. Evangelicals look back to the early church, skipping over centuries of tradition and theological thought in their effort to reproduce, as closely as possible, the early church; and for Evangelicals, even those who don’t self-consciously identify as Fundamentalists, that means taking every New Testament call to “spread the good news” as a direct command that drives the formation and growth of the church community. If the church was anything, it was the vessel of the good news and the community shaped by the delivery of that news.

When I joined the Pentecostal movement, that only intensified. Pentecostals take the emulation of the early church a step further – more of a leap further, really – by embracing the notion of spiritual gifts and expressions of power. And while some branches of Pentecostal quasi-Christianity explicitly focus on the power itself, wiser and more grounded Pentecostals will remind them that the power itself is not the purpose of the church, but that the power is only in service of evangelism: signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit that empower our witness to the power of God in Jesus Christ.

Both of these movements are trying to be true to the early church, seeing it as both the prototype and archetype of what the church today is supposed to be. And I appreciate and honour that desire. But it’s misplaced, and the emphasis on evangelism in both movements is evidence of that. Hear me out.

If we look to the early church as the archetype for what we do today, and aren’t very careful about how we do it, we run the risk of killing it. What I mean is, the church is first and foremost a community of people, named after Christ because we are called after Christ (i.e., to follow or emulate him), and described as his body because we embody him. Community and embodiment both require life, and life is highly contextual and fluid, always adapting to and interacting with the world around it. The church has done plenty of adapting and interacting with the world over the last few millennia, maybe more often for worse than for better; but if we skip over that and try to import the early church into the present exactly as we see it on the page, we take something that was dynamic and alive and make it something static, copied and pasted. And then we’re surprised that it’s…dead.

If we try to make the first job of the church today be about evangelism because that’s what the early church was about (or seemed to be about based on the narratives we have about it – but we can get into “seemed to be…based on the narratives” in another post), we miss just how much evangelism was a contextual imperative. That is, nobody in the ancient world had heard the good news, so that’s why they had to tell it. That isn’t true anymore. All of Western society is steeped in Christian stories, and the dominant countries and cultures of today claim Christian heritage even when they don’t claim to be “a Christian nation”. We could split hairs about whether everyone on earth has heard the gospel (there are still uncontacted tribes deep in jungles somewhere), or whether everyone has heard the gospel (maybe we need to teach people the real faith, not the knock-off or corrupted version that those rival churches have been propagating), but both of those scenarios are drastically different from the situation of the first disciples and the churches they founded. Evangelism, at least as it was practiced by the early church, is dead; and continuing to enshrine it as our raison d’être produces dead fruit.

That’s really harsh, sorry. But evangelizing a world that’s already heard the Jesus story is no longer about inviting people to participate in that story; it’s about trying to convince or cajole them to accept something they haven’t been drawn to or convinced by. At its worst, it’s about forcing conversions through shame and exclusion from the in-group, converting people to followers of a social club that waves a Jesus banner. At its best it’s about conscientiously trying to embody the gospel in ways that transcend those in-groups – but that doesn’t fit very well with a first-century model of evangelism either, and it isn’t as effective as evangelism-focused churches want to be. They’re more interested in being convincing, producing results, so they embrace the arguments of apologetics to try to “win” people over. But as a Bible college prof once told me, “what you win them with is what you win them to.” A church focused on arguing people into conversion produces people who like to argue people into conversion. And that’s nothing like the church of Acts that we’re supposedly trying to emulate. It isn’t a dynamic, living community that adapts to its environment; it’s a self-replicating community that tries to dominate its environment.

That’s how viruses grow. They reproduce themselves as much as possible wherever they find themselves, destroying the cells they depend on in the process, always moving outward to convert more and more cells into virus-replicating organisms. They don’t change in a way that creates harmony with their environment; when they change at all, it is through mutations that make them harder to contain, or that make them die off quickly.

So evangelism in a world that’s already heard of Jesus is usually well-meaning but often misses the point of the church and leads to unhealthy communities that grow in ways that can actually be harmful. Which should be enough to tell us that this isn’t a time for evangelists.

Prophets

In the Bible there are ebbs and flows between the priestly tradition, which was about establishing and reinforcing the people of God and the proper worship of God; and the prophetic tradition, which was about denouncing injustice and idolatry. These don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they’re often in tension. That’s because the priestly tradition tends to be very conservative, while the prophetic tradition tends to be very liberal. The Bible holds these two traditions in tension, and so does society.

There was a point when evangelism was the embodiment of the Spirit, delivering the story of Jesus as a prophetic jolt to the systems that ruled the day. Jesus’ message inverted hierarchies and power structures, defied conventions and denounced idols, and revolutionized economic systems and social norms. It was a story that came from the margins of society and challenged the core. Evangelism in that context was prophetic.

A few hundred years later, Christianity went mainstream – it became the core. It was the state religion, and began to spread through forced conversions and social norms. Spreading it no longer had anything to do with challenging the injustices of the elite; it quickly changed into reinforcing the hierarchies and power structures of the empire, if unintentionally. For centuries after that, the church continued to go through the ebbs and flows of priestly and prophetic traditions, with the Spirit sending prophets to start desert communities or reformations or revivals.

The evangelical movement often skips over all of that in order to get back to what they think the church ought to be, but our context today is one in which evangelism is not prophetic. Evangelists are now of the priestly tradition, reinforcing systems that, it is increasingly clear, have been corrupted. The time for evangelists is gone, for now; this is a time when we need prophets to slice to the core of our religious institutions with the sword of the Spirit, burn them down with holy fire, and remind us that Jesus remains on the margins.

Jesus remains on the margins, but the evangelical message doesn’t come from there. The message of the evangelist is to come join us, come in, share our table and our culture and be part of our community. But meanwhile, Jesus is with the “least of these”, the most vulnerable. Jesus is outside, facedown on the pavement with a knee pressed into the back of his neck, gasping for breath and crying for his mother. Jesus is standing on unceded ancestral land while militarized police deploy to clear the path for the bulldozers. Jesus is a refugee, again, separated from his parents at the border and sleeping on a concrete floor. Jesus is still the good shepherd who leaves behind 99 sheep to go find the one that needs him most, putting himself at risk to protect that one against the beasts that would kill it, working to save the “least of these”. And the dominant evangelical message in the world right now is that “all lives matter”, while we stand and watch the least of these be treated this way.

Damn that. Straight to Hell.

How many self-styled prophets of the new “Pentecostal” movements are calling the church to repent for our complicity with systemic injustice? Because that’s pretty much all the prophets of Scripture did. And I don’t hear their voices in our churches now. And maybe that’s the point. You can’t be a prophet from within the dominant tradition: the dominant tradition kills prophets, or drives them out into the wilderness. And maybe that’s where I have to go too, because I can’t stand by and watch the church ignore injustice anymore, or baptize nationalistic politics anymore. Maybe I’ll end up in the wilderness too, maybe as a prophet or maybe just as a scapegoat (if there’s even a difference).

But it’s okay, because that’s where Jesus is.

Following Christ in 2020

What a year already.

There are always current events and issues that add a new spin to the perpetual, daily question Christians must ask themselves: “what does it mean to follow Christ today?” Answering these questions has always required Christians to make choices, sometimes simple and personal, sometimes complex and public, and we don’t always choose the same way. (I wonder if this is largely because we don’t frame our ethical questions this way; if we really were asking “what does it mean to follow Christ today”, or even the cliché “what would Jesus do”, rather than just doing what seems right in the moment, Christians might have more in common with one another than we do with our political in-groups.)

But the choices of 2020 may be the most stark I’ve ever seen. Based on the way that news is filtered down through social media which feeds back into politics, we’re strongly encouraged to weigh in and identify with one position or another on current issues, and the issues are framed in the most divisive of terms.

We’re literally being asked to decide if we should open the economy at the expense of the lives that will be lost to COVID-19. To decide between life and money.

We’re being asked if governments should have the authority to deprive us of freedoms – and whether they should be forced to do so because some people are unwilling to sacrifice their personal freedoms for a short time in order to better care for their neighbours. To decide between a temporary, voluntary compliance with social distancing, and setting a new precedent of government control over civil liberties in our societies.

And that’s just the most covered issue. Other crises have not gone away, even though they are no longer in the headlines. We’re still being asked to choose between the economy and the life of the planet, asked to weigh the value of corporate profits trickling down into society vs the value of entire species that are already disappearing forever. We’re still being asked to weigh the value of the lives of Mexican children languishing in makeshift prisons along America’s southern border against the sense of safety some Americans might lose if those children were reunited with their parents. We’re still being asked to choose, on many fronts, between demanding our own liberties and restricting those of others.

These choices are always framed as binary, one-or-the-other kinds of choices, and usually in with-us-or-against-us kinds of terms. Even here I’ve framed them that way, for reasons I hope are clear. The answer someone gives to any of these questions depends first and foremost on which side of an issue their own in-group or political affiliation comes down on – which is to say, a person can answer all of these complex questions without even learning anything about them; and if anyone dares to get into the weeds about a given issue, they tend to learn just enough to justify their position to themselves and those around them, and we have plenty of biased sources curated by interest groups and fed to us through our social media feeds to make doing so all too easy.

Who can blame us for turning complex issues that we have almost no knowledge of and little or no input on into simple yes/no questions? It’s the only way our minds, and our communities, can handle the enormous amount of complexity in our connected world. But Christians have our own way of reducing that complexity in order to find guidance and make ethical choices. We have to keep asking that daily, sometimes moment-by-moment question: “What does it mean to follow Christ today?” Or to paraphrase how Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “What is Jesus Christ doing in the world today, and how can I participate in that?”

That question reduces the complexity even further. We no longer have to consider the political context of the issues of the day to determine which camp we should belong in. We don’t have to look to political or cultural leaders to interpret the news for us. We often don’t even need to read the news, because so much of it is about things that are outside of our own context and control. If we start first and foremost with the question “What is Christ doing in my home today, my neighbourhood, my community, my province or state, my country, the world?” and imagine Jesus addressing a situation, the answers tend to be clearer than we’d otherwise like to admit.

Can you imagine Jesus putting Mexican children in prison because they crossed a border? He crossed the border into Egypt as a child to seek safety; would he approve of sending ICE after his own relatives? Can you imagine the man who told his followers to expect and embrace their own deaths for the sake of doing the right thing, to justify harming others for the sake of safety?

Can you imagine the Jesus who called money “the root of all kinds of evil” and explicitly told his followers that “you cannot serve two masters; you cannot serve both God and money” now saying that reopening the economy in the middle of a pandemic is necessary despite the loss of life it would cause?

Can you imagine the Jesus who so frequently taught us to learn from the natural world around us to be okay with that natural world being pushed to the brink of extinction for the sake of present economic growth? Would his apostle James, who taught that focusing on economic plans at the expense of recognizing the true source of our wealth, also teach us to sacrifice the earth that sustains us for temporary profit?

Can you imagine the Jesus who was unjustly executed at the hands of, as Paul put it, the fallen powers and principalities, thrones and authorities; and who triumphed over those earthly powers, exposing their injustice by willingly submitting to their authority even in its corruption; can you imagine him approving of granting oppressive control over others? At the same time, can you imagine the Son of God, who gave himself up for the world and revealed his character most fully in the humble service of others, to insist on his own rights at a time when others might be better served by him temporarily setting his own rights aside?

If you can answer YES to any of these questions, is your answer rooted in the character of Jesus as demonstrated in the gospels? What gospel story justifies your impression of Jesus’ character? And if your position is not rooted in the person of Jesus, can you call yourself his follower?

Of course, Jesus doesn’t judge us based on what opinions we air on the internet; his judgments are based on how we treat one another. So far more important than what position we hold on these political issues that are beyond our control is the question: how can I participate in what Jesus is doing in the world today? It’s one thing to know how he would respond to a pressing political issue, and to use your democratic power to support what you think Jesus is doing about it; but it’s far more important to look at what Jesus is doing in the world you can immediately affect, and participate in it.

Humanity and Politics

I just voted for myself, for the third time. I’ve now run in federal (2015), provincial (2018), and municipal (this coming Monday) elections. When I started studying theology, I didn’t anticipate this turn to politics. In hindsight, it seems inevitable.

There were two concepts that jumped out at me when I started reading systematic theology, ideas that keep coming back to mind both for being complex and for being simple, blindingly obvious once conceived. (I started with Bonhoeffer, and haven’t expanded much. He has a knack for prompting the kinds of questions that keep my mind busy.)

The first is that when God became a human being in Jesus Christ, he became the most humanest human to ever be human, the true human. This is a common notion in the doctrine of incarnation, but I first saw it in Bonhoeffer, and it was in Bonhoeffer that I saw the greatest emphasis on ethics as the distinction between being more human and less. I won’t try to splice ethics from morals here, but the point is that Christ is the true human, and it is in other people (the “ethical encounter”) that we encounter Christ, and it is in Christ that we find our own humanity. To the extent that we are becoming like Christ in our actions or ethics, then, we are in a very important sense becoming more human.

The second concept that jumped out at me in my first or second year of Seminary was a theological notion of social institutions. Bonhoeffer talks about them in Luther’s language of Divine Mandates, but I found a more comprehensive discussion of them in the theology of the Powers and Principalities, on which I eventually wrote my MA thesis. While Christians have traditionally conceived of evil primarily in personal, radical form (i.e., Satan, the devil, demons), the apostle Paul devotes a considerable number of words to describing evil in institutional form (powers, principalities, dominions, thrones, elements of the universe, all of which have been overcome by Christ in his resurrection). I wrote my thesis comparing these views, which exist in tension in the Bible but are rarely acknowledged in theology today, and concluding that in either case the Christian response to evil is expressed in a distinct ethical character (i.e., whether people are possessed/influenced by personal radical evil or oppressed by institutional evil, the way that we “fight” this evil is through radical love and virtue).

The theological theory of social institutions is not so different from the sociological view of social institutions: whether cultural or structural, they govern our lives in ways that can create order but can also cause great oppression. In theological terms, institutions can be fallen or even demonic. For example, a justice system meant to deter crime and foster repentance or rehabilitation can over time become a system of racial oppression, hurting those it was meant to help and delivering as much injustice as justice. Walter Wink, whose theology of the Powers is the most comprehensive that I’ve seen and formed the backbone of my thesis, referred to the culmination of institutional evil (wherein many different social institutions are fallen in ways that oppress people from multiple angles at the same time) as the “Domination System”, which he believed was personified in Scripture as “Satan.” He offered a kind of mantra: “the powers are good, the powers have fallen, the powers must be redeemed.” Redeeming the powers (through reform) is preferable to destroying them (through revolution), if the latter is even possible. A central point of this theory is that even though human beings hold positions of power within institutions, these institutions have their own character and power that is greater than whoever currently sits on the throne. Even if we tried to destroy a power by destroying the social structures or institutions (e.g., a government) through revolution, history has shown us that what follows is usually a nastier form of the same; at that point it doesn’t particularly matter if the fallen power has been destroyed or has simply survived the regime change, the fallen and oppressive nature of it is enhanced by the destructive nature of political or cultural revolution.

Redeeming the powers through reform feels impossible. As social institutions, they are bigger than any of us, and our impact on them is limited even if we are in a position of leadership or authority within them. For someone outside of a position of influence within the powers, we can combat their oppression by supporting the oppressed, offering love, generosity, peace, community. But for those who are in positions of power, we can redirect the powers through those same things, making an impact on the character of the social institution by the nature of our own character.

Today as I walked home after voting for myself I was reminded of the challenge before me. Getting elected is difficult, but not the true challenge. Having a character that will make a positive impact on the institution of our government is the true challenge. My personal ethics and character will determine whether or not I am successful, should I be elected, in bringing even small positive influence or reform. But what struck me today is that, should I be elected next week, I will have more feedback than most people about whether or not my humanity is deepening or dissipating. Am I becoming more like Christ – more human – or less? Most of us have to guess about this and hope we’re going in the right direction, but I will be able to read about it in the newspaper. What a blessing, but the thought of it leaves me in a cold sweat.

My insight today goes far beyond just me though. When we think of institutional evil we often juxtapose it with personal evil, either in a chicken-or-egg formulation or a downward spiral: do evil people make for evil institutions, or do evil institutions make for evil people? The traditional conception of evil as demons whispering in our ears supports the former; the theology of the powers aligns more with the latter. When it comes to what we are to do about it, it doesn’t particularly matter which came first; the important part is that we know how to stop the downward spiral – by being more human, more loving, more compassionate. But that also gives some insight into the question of which came first: could it be that the social institutions that are supposed to serve humanity have fallen not because we humans have fallen and thus made them evil, but because we as fallen human beings lack the authority to order the institutions that order our lives? If we were more truly human, would we be so impotent against the oppression of the powers, and would they so easily shift from their designated role as servants of humanity to become our lords? It’s a subtle difference, but important, and one Scripture makes much of.

Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. Sociologists distinguish between authority and power: authority is obedience freely given, while power is compelled or forced obedience. These concepts exist in relationship with each other, so that a leader who relies on power loses authority, but a leader with sufficient authority need not use their power. Jesus Christ is the ultimate figure to show the distinction: as God he had ultimate power, and yet refused to use that power even to save his own life. The New Testament suggests that it was this ultimate refusal of power that resulted in him receiving all authority, so that in his unjust death at the hands of the powers and principalities he triumphed over the powers and principalities. It was in this authority that he cast out demons, and that demons were cast out by others in his name after his death; but an episode in Acts shows that while demons responded to his authority, they did not respond to the abuse of his name by those who would use it as a word of power.

So this is the question: if we actually became more like Christ, more truly human, would we have sufficient authority, whether moral or social or any other way you might look at it, over the powers? Would we not only look to direct them in more humanizing ways, but also have a greater ability to do so with more authority to draw on? Of course the answer is yes: that is the nature of authority. But why is this so hard to see when we look at our actual social institutions?

We must resist falling back into the dichotomy of personal vs social: we should not say, as many do, that the answer to all social evils is to look inward at ourselves; and we must not say that the answer to all of our own evils is the influence of fallen powers, either. Too much emphasis on either of these is dis-empowering and overwhelming. If the issue is my lack of character, well, I continue to be sinful and fallen despite my best efforts, so how can I possibly be an influence for good in our society? And if the issue is fallen social institutions that are so much bigger than me, how much influence can I possibly have even if I were perfect?

Instead, we need to flip that script. When confronted with a fallen power, when nobody else seems to be doing anything, we can say “but I refuse to let that change my character.” And when confronted by our own inner darkness and weakness we can seek the support of our community to find deliverance and light. And just like the chicken-and-egg view of evil, there is no clear answer as to which comes first, supportive community or personal character – but together they create an upward spiral.

By seeking election, I’m using my personal character to try to block the downward spiral of institutional decline. I pray that my character will survive the political process, and that I will become more human through it. But I will also rely on the support of my community to maintain and grow my character – and I’ve already found incredible support in my community at large, as well as my church community. From this, I hope that we can reform our local politics into something more positive, something that might have a positive influence on provincial politics too, and maybe from there to federal and international politics. It was theology that suggested to me that this was possible; I hope to see it happen soon. Pray that I will be human enough to have true authority over the powers.

The Politics of Epiphany

In the Epiphany (the visit of the Magi, see Matthew 2), the politics must be brought out from the background in order to understand the importance of the event.

First, the politics of the nation: Herod is the king of the Jews, but Caesar is his lord. The Roman Empire’s rule of the region is reinforced by an iron fist, a situation that is sickeningly normal after centuries of rule by the Greek empires. Mary and Joseph come to visit Bethlehem not to visit relatives, but by the order of Caesar (not Herod) to be registered for a census – which is itself a tool of oppression, as it provides the basis for levying taxes and conscripting soldiers.

Into this climate of oppression, Jesus is conceived. And even before he is born, he finds no welcome in his hometown. Jewish culture placed a large emphasis on hospitality, and his family’s inability to find a place to stay is reminiscent of the story of the angels who came to visit Sodom and found only one family willing to take them in for the night. While our common conception of Jesus being born in a stable is not borne out by Scripture (the only correlation is the presence of a manger, which would likely have been present in a house anyway – even up to the industrial revolution it would not be uncommon for poorer families to share their home with their animals), nonetheless Jesus’ birth occurs in a very humble and vulnerable setting. In Sodom, a lack of hospitality served as an indication of the hearts of the inhabitants of the city, which are clearly turned against God and headed for destruction. In this context Jesus’ other name, Emmanuel, is telling: Emmanuel means “God with us”, and we think this is warm presence, but in its original context it is the sign of God’s coming judgment.

So Jesus is born king of the Jews, an oppressed people who look for a saviour-king while they suffer under an existing Jewish king who himself is a puppet of a foreign emperor. Jesus is the saviour they are waiting for, but they do not recognize him – and even when they do, they respond with incredible violence rather than rejoicing. The religious and political elites refuse to recognize, and even work to kill, God’s anointed king from his very birth. Lacking proper recognition from his own, God welcomes it from outsiders, and in so doing judges his own. And they didn’t even notice.

I wonder how many of us notice today when God uses outsiders to do the things he has called us to do. Are Christians in North America conscious of our own lack of empathy for those who do not look like us, for those of other faiths, when those other faiths and cultures outshine us at generosity and hospitality? Are we shamed by unbelievers who, despite not believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ, embody his call to love and serve others? I come from a church that taught me that the Social Gospel traditions were anti-Christian because of their liberal theology, but all the while these churches have outshone us in the way that they serve the poor. And yet we continue to believe that God is only at work inside our doors, or that God works through other people only in spite of themselves, and that we are God’s only real partners.

I’m not sure that’s true. The Magi, whoever they were, were explicit in their aim to worship the king of the Jews. God spoke to them in a way that was true to their own traditions and faith, not to Judaism (which, so far as I can tell, does not have a strong tradition of astrology), and they recognized and served God in their own way, despite recognizing that he is the God of another people. God was bigger than Judaism, and was not afraid to conscript eastern astrologers to provide a proper recognition and welcome of his only son, the king of the Jews, in the absence of the hospitality and respect of his own chosen people.

So to the Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Pagans, Atheists, and more – to all of you who work hard to serve others, whether as an outcome of your own faith or without any extrinsic motivation – thank you. You challenge me, not as an adversary, but as a foil, an example. I know it can be patronizing to tell you that you are serving or embodying my God, and I don’t want to come across that way, but you do inspire me to serve and embody my God more because I see God in you and your service. To all of you wonderful Magi, I’m happy for the “competition.” 😉

Christianity Is Not A Belief

Last night at work I had one coherent thought (the Dayquil must have kicked in, however briefly): that Christianity has long been mistaken for a belief. It was one of those things that suddenly seem so embarrassingly obvious.

It is not a revolutionary thought. We’ve all heard the cliche “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” stuff, and that seemed revolutionary at first too, but that message didn’t seem to penetrate. These days, I usually hear that line from people who feel comfortable not bothering to engage with a church, or even any other form of Christian community, much less with the much harder work of actually following Jesus. The revolutionary, iconoclastic, non-religious nature of actually being a disciple of Christ, the call to dig down to the difficult and core notion of what it means to relate to the God of the universe, has become a cliche way to justify shedding the outward trappings of religion in favour of a similar level of complacency – now guilt-free!

So that wasn’t what I was thinking when I had my moment of clarity on the factory floor. What I was thinking is that Christianity is not a system of belief; that’s Christian theology. Christianity, or being a disciple of Christ, is an activity of sorts: specifically, an ethical system or approach that presupposes or assumes the content of Christian theology. Simply put, believing Jesus is God does not make me a Christian; acting like Jesus does.

This also is not new or revolutionary. It’s straight from the epistle of James. I think the profundity of the thought, and what makes it worth sharing here, is how easily and repeatedly we miss this. We have to keep giving it new terminology to keep the message fresh. When “faith without works is dead” (from James) failed to prevent hundreds of years of empty piety and emphasis on orthodoxy (right belief) without orthopraxis (right actions) in the name of God’s grace, we went to “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” which itself lasted about ten minutes before it lost any power to actually change our behaviour. How many other warnings, commands, and cliches have there been to tell us that Christianity is something we do more than something we believe or ascribe to?

This brings me back to another question that’s been rattling in my head for the past week: what really makes someone a Christian? Despite James’ insistence that faith without works is dead, when Pastor Tim Keller was asked this question by the New York Times last week he spent the whole interview talking about the things someone must believe. On the other hand, when Jesus talked to his disciples about who his real followers were, it was all about actions:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” – Matthew 25:34-46

Serious stuff. After years of study and familiarity with the Bible, this passage still always chills me, fills me with the “fear of the Lord,” erodes my complacency. Because it gets to the heart of the matter, and I don’t know how I measure up.

Nowhere here does Jesus say that people had to acknowledge his divinity in order to be saved. Nowhere does it say that they must “invite him into their hearts”, that they must attend church and tithe, that they must believe theological statements or hold certain moral values or views. In fact, the people he acknowledges as truly belonging to him are mostly ignorant of having served him at all.

Which is not to say that we should not believe the right things; rather, behaving this way, embodying the Kingdom of God through ethical engagement with our communities and society, is only really possible and makes sense if we have a vision of that otherwise invisible Kingdom. Theology gives us that. Worship is not what defines us, but rather what forms us into people who, in our actions and orientation to God, resemble Jesus. Maintaining Christian community is not the goal of discipleship, it is the context of discipleship – it’s where we serve one another, and it is from where we go out to serve other communities. And holding moral codes is not the content of the gospel, it is our defence from the things that can distract us from our service to God and others. None of these things make us a Christian, but they can all help; but separated from actually following Christ, these things can just as easily be stumbling blocks, giving us a false sense of piety and complacency that keeps us from actually becoming Christians. The “goats” in the passage above (and other similar passages – e.g., Matthew 22:1-14) thought they were on team Jesus, but had missed the most important part.

By putting beliefs, morality, church attendance, etc., ahead of ethics we have developed a religion that is “a form of godliness but denying its power” (see 2 Timothy 3).

Minimalism, Purpose, and Focusing on Christ

I finally took the time to check out The Minimalists podcast. It’s a long podcast (90 minutes!), and over that time I got the impression that I was hearing more or less the entire philosophy through a few particular applications, which suggests to me that I might find it repetitive if I listened to it regularly. At the same time, that also shows that they’ve boiled their philosophy down to something clear, and that they’re consistent in their application of it – which is great, because it makes it easy for me to connect it to my own life.

Their philosophy, in a nutshell, is that they want to only have things that they will use and use well; that they get more enjoyment and use out of things that are essential, that reflect their values, when their lives are not also cluttered by all sorts of other stuff that they don’t actually use or enjoy. The great thing about this philosophy is all of the ways that it connects to so many other values and philosophies I have: for example, the episode I just listened to on parenting had a lot of stuff that sounded like RIE, our favourite approach to parenting; and the regular references to Rob Bell (despite the host mentioning that he does not share Rob’s religious convictions) underscored just how much minimalism connects with Christian ethics and tradition.

What really struck me as I was introduced to the minimalist philosophy is how much it is about refining our sense of self: the process of going through our possessions and getting rid of whatever it is that is not essential to our needs, our daily life, and even our character and values, requires that we know ourselves. The process itself also helps us to know ourselves, because when we see what we do not need, or what does not fit with our values, we have a greater sense of who we are without those things.

Things have a way of not only cluttering our lives, but also of cluttering our reality and our very selves. Parting with things can be extremely difficult because of what we have invested in them: sentimental value, a sense of security, or even a sense of self. Getting rid of something, even if you haven’t looked at it or used it in years, can feel like losing yourself. If I lose my childhood teddy bear, am I losing a part of myself, my history? If I don’t have two of everything, will I be safe or prepared if I lose something? Am I defined by having the newest, coolest stuff – and who will I be if I don’t?

The more I think about this, the more I think of the early church. They obviously didn’t live in a consumerist society in the same way that we do; first century Jews, in Palestine or the diaspora, were lucky to have their basic needs met – and Christians moreso, because they were cut off from a lot of the Jewish community that otherwise would have supported them. Early Christians relied on each other in ways that we do not, and that in itself formed the basis for a lot of their community, and the context for most of the New Testament letters. But even in a context of scarcity, the early church was minimalist.

Consider the 72 disciples that Jesus sent out in pairs:

10 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ – Luke 10:1-8

Jesus’ instructions strike me as being profoundly minimalist, but they are not minimalist for the sake of being minimalist; rather, they reflect the focused purpose of the disciples. They are sent out into the world with nothing but their message, leaving them with no distractions from their purpose. Where the message is appreciated, their needs would be provided for; where the message was not appreciated, they were instructed to waste no more time there.

Jesus never said that it was wrong to have possessions, but when wealthy people asked him how they might enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus told them that they had to give their possessions away (Matthew 19:16-30). Then we see in the early church in Acts that believers “were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything that they had” (Acts 4:32). Historically, there has been conflict within the church on the interpretation of this, with some using it as evidence for a kind of Christian communism and others finding ways to dismiss it as a non-binding suggestion for happiness or spiritual enlightenment (often in the context of a defence of capitalism). But seen in the light of the original context (of scarcity), it cannot properly be seen as a mere suggestion for personal enlightenment or happiness; and seen as an expression of the focused purpose of a disciple of Christ, it cannot be seen as a compulsory rule of community (that might be applied today) so much as the basis for that community itself.

The difference between the poor community of early Christians and the wealthy West today is so drastic that it’s difficult to directly apply any “rules” about possessions that we might find in the New Testament. They shared everything they had as a way to survive and thrive as social outcasts; we are all incredibly individually wealthy by comparison, and seek minimalism as a way of finding focus and clarity and peace in a consumeristic world. In both cases, it is an orientation toward possessions that is rooted in our focused purpose and identity in Christ (along with other often neglected disciplines and virtues, such as hospitality). But even back then it was difficult to do, which is why so much of the New Testament is about people looking to Jesus and his coming Kingdom as the example and reminder of who they are becoming. For example:

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:1-3

Minimalism, in and of itself, is a useful discipline to help us have focus. But it is also a natural outcome of discipleship, if we are willing (as the rich young ruler was not) to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven. God is calling us to the kind of focused purpose that puts all other considerations second to the goal of embodying Christ and his Kingdom, to the type of life in which we do not let any material possessions clutter our houses, our lives, our purpose, and our identity. In a society and economy focused on consuming, this is the most counter-cultural (and difficult) part of Christian discipleship.

Seeing it as something difficult that we’re called to do is not particularly encouraging, so it’s important to see the benefits of this kind of minimalism: in a sense, it can serve as a gateway to better living out other values. For example:

  1. Giving away items we don’t need helps us develop the virtue of charity;
  2. Becoming more aware of our own needs helps us to become more aware of the needs of others;
  3. Living outside of a secure state of self-sufficiency leads us to share more with others, building a community of sharing;
  4. Reducing the things we own and do to just the things that we value most can revive traditional skills and communities, such as food preparation and preservation, repairing items, gardening, etc. – things that we can do rather than buy;
  5. Reducing the things we buy and keep helps us to be better stewards of our finances, which ultimately belong to God, and help us to be more aware of God’s providence;
  6. Similarly, minimalism helps us to lower our footprint on the planet, living lightly as better stewards of the earth and seeing how that duty is central to our identity and purpose as human beings and Christians;
  7. Having a stronger focus on the things we really value, and forming communities around charity and sharing, and having a greater sense of our role as stewards of the earth, also helps orient us to be respectful toward other people; showing restraint in the things we buy helps us to show restraint in how we respond to others; etc.

So don’t treat minimalism as an all-or-nothing requirement of Christianity, as if you’re the rich young ruler trying to prove himself to Jesus; like him, I’m pretty sure we’d all walk away under that mindset. Rather, see it as a gateway to greater clarity in your life, your identity, and your purpose as a follower of Jesus, and a practice that supports and enables other virtues to grow and flourish. And look to Jesus, constantly, to renew your sense of purpose and identity: behold what you are, become what you receive.

For other help and ideas, check out The Minimalists podcast, blog, documentary, books, etc.

Reflections on Therapeutic Religion

Therapeutic Christianity is pervasive in the church, but particularly in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches – especially those that lean toward the “health & wealth” phenomenon. According to the health & wealth “gospel”, God wants us to be rich and healthy, so if we are not it must mean that we lack the faith to adequately receive God’s blessings. In such a worldview, God is the source of all good things; finding healing, peace, and success is just a matter of turning to God in the right way, with the right faith, and receiving them.

While health & wealth is the apex of therapeutic Christianity, it is obvious elsewhere too. I live less than a block from a Pentecostal church that, while it is not a health & wealth church, certainly believes that Jesus has the power to heal and that the Holy Spirit embodies that power in believers. I believe this too, but I’m not sure that I appreciate the digital sign out front that rotates through messages such as “Need healing? Come to our healing service!” or “Find inner peace. Sunday service at 10:30” or “Free kids camp! Starts at 10:30 am on Sunday mornings.” I agree that Christ can heal; there are long and deep Christian traditions and practices that promote inner peace; and parents are always looking for ways to stimulate their kids while giving them a few minutes of personal space. But this strikes me as shallow salesmanship, promoting Christ as a product, preaching what Jesus can give you rather than Jesus himself.

At the same time, North American society is almost satirically therapeutic. We live incredibly imbalanced lives, and then look for a simple and easy product or practice that can save us from our own mistreatment of ourselves. We tend to do it in binge doses and fads, drawing a new practice or technique from any source. For a while it was yoga, which was originally a deeply spiritual practice but has since been reduced, in North America at least, to calisthenics and stretching. Meditation is a fad that comes around every few years, renewing its appeal by drawing from a different branch of Buddhism. The religious roots of these practices has traditionally sent conservative Christians into a state of distrust and outright condemnation, because in some circles any therapy that does not come from a Christian source is suspect (though most of us are okay with doctors, of course). We produce Christian versions of yoga, and even devise Christian versions of meditation, completely missing the fact that Christians have been meditating as a religious practice for millennia. The point, though, is that all therapy needs to somehow be connected to Christ.

The craze right now is mindfulness, which is not the same thing as meditation, though meditation produces mindfulness. In our age of technological distraction, digital lives, and stress, we crave things like embodiment, focus, and peace. Mindfulness practices are usually some variation of meditation, but tend to emphasize being present: seeing and hearing the real world around you, noticing fine details, staying in one place for a long period, looking deep into the eyes of another person, hugging or kissing someone for a long period, etcetera. There is incredible value in this kind of emphasis on embodied presence.

In a few minutes I’m going to receive the eucharist, the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. Christians have a long history of emphasizing embodied presence, not only in our gospel of the embodied presence of God in Jesus Christ, but also in our understanding of vicarious representation, in which we see Christ in each other. The Holy Spirit embodies human beings, as God’s continued presence on earth. This is, at least to me, the most important and foundational notion of Christianity: that God is here with us, sanctifying our very bodies and this physical world with a constant presence. So every week I take a day in which I try to stay offline, I walk to church and enjoy the fresh air on the way, and I receive the body and blood of Christ. It is refreshing, empowering, and wonderfully therapeutic.

The difference between that therapeutic experience and what is promised on the church sign is subtle. I have to grant to the health & wealth movement that their emphasis on the way we receive from God has a bit of truth in it: our intentions, attitude, and even our very posture have an effect on the way we understand and approach God, even if our actions are identical. In the eucharist, I celebrate and consume Christ himself; in therapeutic models of Christianity, I am oriented to the therapeutic consumption, rather than being oriented to Christ himself. Health & wealth gets it exactly wrong: they emphasize approaching God in such a way as to receive/consume, and God becomes instrumental – a blessing dispensary. That’s why some theologians have taken to calling this kind of theology “therapeutic deism”, because the actual distinct person of God in Jesus Christ fades into the background and can be completely replaced by a general idea of a distant God who gives us what we desire or need.

I was recently listening to an episode of Note to Self, the tech podcast about being human, in which a former Google guru named Mang talked about why he changed careers from being a tech god to writing and educating people about Buddhist mindfulness as a way of promoting world peace. Mindfulness is all the rage in Silicon Valley, which eats up any therapeutic trend that promises to help maintain the levels of energy and creativity needed to succeed in a fast-paced innovation-driven environment. They pointed out that yoga and Buddhist meditation were once deeply spiritual practices that had been reduced to hollow shells, and I suddenly made the connection to therapeutic deism masquerading as Christianity. It appears that there is nothing unique in the way that Christianity is packaged as a therapeutic product to be consumed: we do it to everything. The distinction is that yoga and meditation are recognized as coming from spiritual practices, but are not generally equated with those spiritual practices, no doubt in large part because North American Christians still want to distance themselves from other religions. We remove them from their contexts and package them into products and classes. Meanwhile, the market for Christian-style therapeutic deism is not so much in DVDs and kiosks, but in actual churches where we put our money into the plate. Our therapy is the performance, our product faith itself (often without referent), and we pay for it like a subscription service – in weekly or monthly payments.

Mang took a minute in the interview to teach a very simple and practical mindfulness technique: focus intently on a single breath. Even driving down the busiest highway in Canada, being conscious of a deep breath was immediately calming and invigorating at the same time. I was also immediately conscious of a little bit of guilt in the back of my mind, because I knew that there are Christian practices that do the same thing and yet there I was taking instruction from a Buddhist. At a few times in my life I have been incredibly blessed by the practice of the “breath prayer”, a traditional Christian mindfulness exercise that combines breathing techniques with a mantra: breathing deeply while mentally reciting a short prayer in time with the breaths. This practice has the calming effect of the breathing, with the centring effect of drawing our focus to Christ. It’s a wonderful practice, but given my epiphany about therapeutic deism only minutes before, it seemed inappropriate.

I want the benefits of these simple techniques, and I’m glad that mindfulness is a craze because I think it’s important. But I don’t want to focus all of my efforts toward mindfulness on Christ because I don’t want to treat him as a consumer product. I know that I will not get the full benefits of Buddhist meditation unless, like Mang, I determine to work hard at meditation; just as doing yoga once or twice a week will not improve my physical fitness significantly. But I don’t really want those things anyway – I don’t want to be a Buddhist or a yogi. Like everyone else, I want quick fixes – and I don’t want to put that on Christ. Perhaps it is problematically colonial for me to be okay with bastardizing Buddhism for therapeutic purposes and not be okay with doing the same with my own faith, but I think it’s still better than the self-worship of bastardizing all things for the sake of my own sense of wellbeing.

I still have a lot to work out in this regard, but in the meantime I want to breathe deep and be present in a generic human way, and actually meet Christ in the eucharist rather than just enjoy the side effects. I don’t think that God desires me to smear Christ all over basic things like breathing, like butter over bread, but rather to consume Christ himself as the bread. I’m in no danger of becoming an accidental Buddhist, even if I appreciate the way that Buddhist teachings and practices help me to become more mindful; and I think that my relationship with Christ is strengthened by removing all temptation to treat him as a therapeutic tool, to seek him for what he can do for me. I believe he can heal me, but that’s not why I love him; I believe he brings peace, but I do not worship peace; and I believe that he blesses people in many ways, but I would love him if he did not. If learning mindfulness from Buddhists and yogis and gurus helps me to keep that perspective, then I’d say that in some sense they help me be a better Christian. This, I think, is much more helpful than the guilty thought in the back of my mind that I’m somehow cheating on Jesus in the way that I’m stretching or breathing.

Critical Theology by Carl A. Raschke

In Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis, Carl Raschke uses the analogy of a black hole to describe how everything we know or think we know approaches an event horizon beyond which we cannot see, but where we know there to be a massive power source of creative destruction. He was using the analogy to describe the disparate field of “religious studies,” but I think it’s an apt description of the book itself.

I enjoyed this book more than I understood it. This is perhaps to be expected from a book that does not intend to describe something as much as to predict the forthcoming emergence of a new philosophical perspective. Raschke sorts through important perspectives and methodologies of the past century, praising their strengths but pinpointing weaknesses, in order to lay out the need for a “critical theology” to properly assess and address the post-secular globalized context we now find ourselves in. He gives excellent overviews of the development of critical theory, political theology, the secular-theological approaches of Zizek and Badiou, and religious studies, showing how each has contributed but nonetheless falls short of being able to understand our current realities. Like postmodernism and postsecularism, Raschke’s agenda is therefore primarily negatively defined, often dealing in nuances so fine that it’s difficult to tell how he hopes we’ll move past an existing theoretical approach. Throughout, and as often happens when I read books that push my comprehension, I experienced moments of elation: brilliant vistas of complex and abstract insight. I really do think he’s onto something here.

The crux of his argument for a critical theology, building on the secular theologies of Zizek and Badiou, is the way in which the incarnation and cross of Christ changes everything, providing the event that empowers existing theories ranging from the semiotic to the psychoanalytic to the political. On that we certainly agree. What he wants to do with that, or how exactly the Christ event changes us by elevating otherness, is only loosely sketched; presumably it will be worked out in an entire era of theory. I look forward to it!

Technically/stylistically, there were a number of errors that made an already dense read a little frustrating. Abstract theory is hard enough without misspellings. I also felt that he could have brought his thoughts together into a stronger conclusion, particularly because a good summary of his thoughts would have made the book much more accessible to the lay reader. That said, if you want a jumping-off point to study critical theory, Habermas, Heidegger, Zizek, Badiou, Lacan, or political theology, this book gets just enough into each of them to spark interest. Perhaps I’ll dig into each of them at some point, and revisit this book with a stronger foundation.

Confronting Christian Hypocrisy

Trump.

It was funny when he entered the race, ridiculous when he got his first Evangelical endorsement, outrageous when they kept coming in, shocking when so-called Christian leaders (apply the so-called to either term) defended his vitriol while he was popular, and downright shameful when, over the last several hours as scores of prominent Republicans abandon any pretence of supporting him, the Christians stand by him.

I feel sick, but I’m also angry. I want to look Franklin Graham, Eric Metaxas, James Dobson, etc. in the eye and say “That’s it, we’re pulling your card. Your claim to Christianity is revoked, you no longer have any right to identify with Christ.” But I can’t, because it doesn’t work that way. At the same time, I can and must call them out. Christians live with the call to offer grace and mercy and forgiveness, as well as the call to challenge injustice and expose hypocrisy. Doing them both at the same time is really hard, but it helps if we understand the situation.

Powers

When the Nazis came to power in a Christian country (yes, Germany was officially a Christian country), and ultimately when the holocaust occurred there, Carl Jung (famed German psychotherapist) described it as a type of “mass possession.” Why would so many otherwise decent people go along with such an awful regime doing such horrifying things? We are susceptible to something unseen, that thing that turns a large group of happy sports fans into a rioting mob, suddenly breaking windows and burning cars. That thing that causes otherwise stingy people to give to charities during disaster relief, leading to record amounts given; or that leads to people who haven’t watched a baseball game in their life suddenly wearing a Jays hat in public.

We’ve long known that we are susceptible to peer pressure, trends, etc., but in some cases even a rational modernist like Carl Jung resorts to religious language of “possession.” These invisible forces not only influence us, but they cause us to do things that we would not otherwise do, even things that go against our own values, and deafen us to the dissonance. Theologians throughout the 20th century picked up on this, and connected it to Paul’s language of the Powers and Principalities.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. – Ephesians 6:12

This kind of language points us to a struggle that is both internal (psychological, involving our will and virtues/vices) and external (social, involving social institutions). In both cases it is a struggle to maintain our freedom against a force that would overcome our very self.

Here’s the thing though: we make the Powers. Think about it: we elect a government, and we grant that government authority over us by consenting to its use of power. Walter Wink, the latest major theologian to write on the Powers, describes them as an emergent spiritual property that arises from groups of people who form social institutions, formally or informally. The Powers are social institutions, but they are also spiritual forces that exercise influence over us – often even more than we have over them! Long-standing major institutions, like governments or political parties or cultural institutions (like the Religious Right) are very powerful forces that demand a lot from their followers, including deep loyalty and obedience – whether they state it explicitly or not.

Walter Wink

Walter Wink

There are two points we can take out of this to apply to Evangelicals who support Trump despite his obviously unrepentant sinfulness and demagoguery:

First, these people are caught up in something that they can’t control. Actually. Which is at least partially why leaders who scorned Trump as a buffoon during the nomination contest later endorsed him wholeheartedly. Sure, we could be cynical and say that they’re all faking it – but you can only say something so many times before you begin to believe it, and I really do think that these people believe what they say about Trump. Surely he believes what he says about himself. (I think Trump is caught up in this spiritual quagmire along with everyone else.)

Second, the Powers we’re talking about are the US government and the two major political parties. Even for non-Americans, we’re pretty much all involved in this. We are a part of this system, part of the group from which the spiritual Power emerges and over which it exudes influence. We are all complicit. Which is why we can’t just point fingers at the most grievous hypocrites and be done with it. We have to follow what Wink called “Jesus’ Third Way” – neither winning nor losing, but instead reconciling.

Solidarity with Christ

The thing about Jesus is that he managed to maintain solidarity with everyone. Not only did he refuse to get involved in partisan squabbling, religious or political, but he also lived and died with and for people in every station. He lived among the poor, and yet still moved among the rich. He died as an innocent victim, in solidarity with all victims; and yet he died a criminal’s death, in solidarity with criminals. We too are called to identify ourselves with the oppressed and criminals, saints and sinners.

Following Christ involves looking first at ourselves – because we are the criminals. As I said above, we are all complicit in this broken system that victimizes people. In that regard we also have to look at how this broken system hurts everyone involved: we are the victims AND the perpetrators, and so we need to recognize that those we tend to see as being the perpetrators are also victims, just like us. Recognizing that we’re all both perpetrator and victim gives us a solid base for solidarity. Because we cannot have real solidarity with Christ if we do not have solidarity with those with and for whom he lived and died.

Blind Guides

Naming the Powers, bringing them into the light to expose their injustice, is a painful process. After all, we’ve just established that it means looking inward and recognizing our complicity! But that also forms the basis for addressing injustice without becoming hypocrites.

Hypocrisy is the one thing Jesus refused to put up with, and he was in a position to tell it like it is. He addressed the Powers that ruled his world, refused to be complicit in them, and then called out those who blindly continued in their complicity but claimed to know better. We absolutely must address the hypocrisy among us, first in our very selves, and then in our brothers and sisters.

Tonight, James Dobson, who righteously condemned Bill Clinton’s sin of adultery after Clinton came clean and publicly repented, urged Christians to forgive Donald Trump for his sins (despite a non-apology) by way of voting for him. Rachel Held Evans tweeted that this is spiritual abuse, and she’s damn right about that. Should we forgive Trump? Sure. Trust him to represent the interests of women and people of colour? Absolutely not. Using Christian obligation to forgive as a way of directing voters is an egregious abuse of power, of the name of Christ, and of the people who trust you. Dr. Dobson, you are a blind guide, a white-washed tomb, and you need to repent.

That said, you’re always welcome among us. Not over us, but certainly among us. Because like it or not, we’re in this together. I will not follow you, but I hope you’ll join me as we follow Christ together.

The Church’s Mandate

American Christians are more political than just about any people on earth, and I actually think that’s a pretty good thing, so long as it’s well directed. The Church has a political mandate, but it has nothing to do with voting for a particular party or exercising cultural control.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was probably the most brilliant theologian of the 20th century, and that’s saying something. He was also hung by the Nazis. One of the things he was working on when he died was an essay on the Divine Mandates, which he named as Work/Culture, Government, Family, and Church. Each of these aspects of life is given a mandate by God, a reason for being, and they must all stay in balance with each other. Whenever one of them takes control of the others, the result is an idolatrous Power (using the language above).

Ironically, this is the cover of the biography of Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. I can't figure out how he doesn't see the dissonance between what Bonhoeffer died for and what he supports in Trump.

Ironically, this is the cover of the biography of Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. I can’t figure out how he doesn’t see the dissonance between what Bonhoeffer died for and what he supports in Trump.

Each Mandate has its function in society. For example, Government is supposed to keep society safe and ordered, but it should not take on the role of Family (e.g., what kind of society would put all children in government care rather than their parents?). The Mandate of Church is to keep the other Mandates in line, either by using our prophetic voice to signal when one Mandate is over-reaching, or by standing in the gap for Mandates that are being subordinated or are failing to do their duties. For example, when a family breaks down, the Church provides a home and family care; when Work is unavailable, the Church provides food and necessities; and when Government breaks down, the Church provides social services. None of these things are the sole responsibility of the Church, but the Church can be a surrogate to meet needs neglected by the proper Mandates. And the Church is mandated to cry out at injustice and expose the Mandates that exercise their power inappropriately.

Right now in America, the Mandate of Church (in the form of right-wing Evangelicals) is in a very strange position. First, it has attempted to usurp both Government and Culture (via the Religious Right), and has melded with Government (via the Republican Party). As such, it has completely undermined its own prophetic voice, making it unable to expose the systemic injustices of the institutions it has aligned with – or the personal injustices of its candidate. To illustrate how deep this complicity goes, consider this: even as many high-profile Republicans have denounced Trump over the last 24 hours, Evangelical “leaders” have stood by him and glossed over his disgusting, self-centred misogyny. Evangelical Christians are more committed to the Republican Party than the Republican Party is.

That’s demonic. That’s idolatrous. That absolutely has to stop. We’ve lost our way.

Repent

Jesus Christ and his followers have a crucial role to play in our politics. Our job is to see the Powers for what they are, to reduce our own complicity as much as possible, and to raise a prophetic voice against systemic injustice. We need to keep our heads and resist the “mass possession” that has led so many to support a man who is the antithesis of Christ. And we need to call on our supposed leaders who have become blind to their own complicity to repent, and do so with the solidarity of Christ.

If we can do that, the rest of this election season will look very different. I’d like to see that.