Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Jesus and the rich, young executive

Now as He was leaving, a rich young ruler came running and knelt before him. He asked him, "All wise and knowing Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life and really have it all?"
He replied, "Son, stop trying to kiss up. No one deserves to be called 'all wise and knowing' except God. I will not be added to your portfolio by flattery. Now, I assume you used to attend Sunday School before you became a hard man on the make, so you know the score: "Do not commit adultery,' "Do not murder,' "Do not steal,' "Do not bear false witness,' "Do not defraud,' "Honor your father and your mother."'

The young man beamed with pride and said to Him, "Teacher, I still go to Sunday School and all these things I have kept since I was a little fellow. I have always avoided the 'sinful' parts of this world."

The Master raised his eyebrow at this."You mean you have never connected the dots between the mileage on your Land Rover and the trenchs cut deep into the seedier parts of the town?"

The young man looked truly baffled.

The Master said, "Do you not know how many lives have been maimed and crippled on the other side of the world to boost your bottom line?" The young executive squirmed and said,
"Oh Noooo, what goes on down the supply chain is beyond my control. Did I mention that I helped fund a drive to send Bibles to those poor parts of the world."
"Yes, I know." replied the Teacher. "Those people sure appreciate the insulation you provided for their walls of their huts, but they have found all of that thin paper to be a poor source of dietary fiber." The executive was beginning to get that look on his face that his employees had learned to fear.

"As for this not bearing false witness and not defrauding stuff...What about that report buried in your desk that says your product causes ovarian cancer? And how about that entry level sales staff of yours that has to meet the quotas of a used car lot to pay the mortgage and keep health insurance for their families? You have climbed the corporate ladder on the rungs of their lies." The rich young executive did not like this at all and it showed in the way he said, "The government does not require me to publish those findings. How did you know about an internal memo in my desk? I have never personally told the sales team to lie."

The Teacher winced at the sharp distinctions in his ethics and then he heard the young man blurt out, "Well, I have never cheated on my wife! Nope. No adultery here." The Master shook his head and spoke in a sad tone, "You are married to your job. Son, you have traded intimacy with your wife for a career and a few sneaked glimpses of porn. You do not even remember your wife's favorite color. Strangers are practically raising your children. You have never understood that being faithful to your marriage vows means more than not taking a mistress."

The young man could not stand it any longer. "Look hereI I go to church every Sunday. My leather study Bible is marked with devotional notes that I wrote in it. I play golf with the Bible study leader once a month and give him financial advice. I steer the building fund campaign for our parish youth center. If not for my faithful tithe we would not have new weight equipment in the church gymnasium. I voted for all of the right candidates just like the church voter guide said to. I listen to religious broadcasting at work. I even invited the caddie at the country club to a Christian music concert." By now he was yelling, "What MORE can you expect of me?"

The Master, looking at him, truly loved him, and said to him, "One thing you lack: Go your way, sell all of your stock options and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; I want you to buy less and live more. Stop driving your SUV up and down the road in search of the lowest prices for more fossil fuel. Start caring about this planet and all of those "invisible" people in it. You are really connected to it all. Everything is connected in God's world and everything has to go somewhere.
I want you take up my burden, grab your family and join me on this great adventure. You will discover that eternal life is not a investment dividend that one inherits one day, but a life you experience along the way. Follow me to God's domain on yon horizon and find out what it really means to be rich in life.

The young man was sad at this word and very annoyed that he was going to be late for his board meeting. He went away sorrowful, for he had great stock options. The Master shook his head as he said out loud to his motley band of followers who had witnessed the exchange, " It is easier for a rusted, 1978 Pinto, bounciing with rap music, to enter the security gates of a gated community than it is for the rich to enter into the real life God offers." The followers were shocked and moaned, "Oh, Lord, who then can be saved?"

Monday, March 14, 2005

Living theology as if people mattered

"The tongue is a fire...with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brother and sisters this ought not to be so." This stinging indictment from the New Testament letter of James links reverence for God with tangible actions of respect for people. The theological assumption is drawn from the Hebrew Scripture's assertion that all humans possess the image of God and it is inconsistent to worship God and disrespect that which is made in the likeness of God. James states that as brothers and sisters in the 'called out' community of the Church we must not be guilty of this mixed signal. The New Testament asserts that the people of God are called to be a light of God in contrast to the values of whatever culture surrounds them. Creating classes of 'somebodies' and 'nobodies' is part of human nature. That is precisely the point. The living "body of Christ" on earth is supposed to show a radical, supernatural difference in interpersonal relationships. The community of Life--resurrection life-- is to be a living alternative to death, dysfunction and the cheapening of life and relationships. Making one's self out to be more deserving of respect and others as less is at the core of the theological crisis known as "sin". The result has been a human history of racism, sexism, rankism, slavery, tyranny, ethnic hatred, domestic violence, rape, child abuse, corporate corruption and the economic exploitation and war and the toxic drug of violence. Systemic exploitation, institutional violation of others and individual acts of manipulation all come from the same source: the uninhibited ego that says everyone and everything exists for me. The grand "I" or self at the heart of "sin" views a vast universe as revolving around me. The measure of someone or something's value becomes how well it serves my desires. People begin to relate to the environment and to other people as an "it" without any sacred dignity. The burdens we pass on to future generations become unimportant in comparison with the present benefits to "me". The Nazi Holocaust and the ethnic genocides of Rwanda and Bosnia and now Darfur show that the easiest way to justify the torture and slaughter of others is to first label others and dehumanize them. Even in our personal relationships we often give in to ranking some as more deserving of dignity than others. The sin of "rankism" not only looks down on some, but looks up to others and often extends protection to one's own social rank while seeing others as not legitimate to the same protections from abuse. The abuse of the weak by the powerful and the strong cuts across national, gender and racial lines. We render whole groups of people "invisible" and unimportant and ignore the mechanisms that make them less valuable and held to the margins. I humbly submit that as long as any group of people does not matter in our thinking, then our theologies are worthless in the eyes of God. Unless our interpretations of Scripture nuture God's concern for the excluded and powerless then we are not really engaged in any ministry of reconciliation nor are we allied with God's cause. Once again the letter of James puts it with all the bluntness of a raving, Hebrew prophet: " My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, 'Have a seat here, please' while to the one who is poor you say, 'Stand there,' or ' Sit at my feet' have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor...You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors." Rankism and the denial of human dignity to all is immoral according to the moral vision of the New Testament. Breaking the bonds of rank, class and discrimination is according to Scripture the difference between being church and playing church. God's vision is that each person is worthy of honor and respect regardless of the status or station their contemporary society accords them.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Hail Caesar?

"Not since Rome has one nation loomed so large above the others. Indeed, the word 'empire' has come out of the closet." That is not the rantings of some left wing quack. Those words were written recently in The Washington Post by Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. William Kristol, editor of the influential Weekly Standard, admits the aspiration to empire. "If people want to say we're an imperial power, fine." Kristol also bluntly asked, "Well, what is wrong with dominance, in the service of sound principles and high ideals?"

Michael Ignatieff commented in an article in the New York Times Magazine: "A historian once remarked that Britain acquired its empire in 'a fit of absence of mind.' If Americans have an empire, they have acquired it in a state of deep denial. But Sept. 11 was an awakening, a moment of reckoning with the extent of American power and the avenging hatreds it arouses. Americans may not have thought of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon as the symbolic headquarters of a world empire, but the men with the box cutters certainly did, and so do numberless millions who cheered their terrifying exercise in the propaganda of the deed."

9/11 provided a justification to release the raw, imperial vision that has been simmering in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. This desire to assert American global domination "in the cause of good" has been one of the only true sustained bipartisan efforts in Washington D.C.

The formula is deliberately based on Neoclassical imperial blueprints:
1. Pursue growth at all costs, or the economy will die.
2. Grab more oil, forest and mineral products or the economy will die.
3. Spend $300 billion a year on military power to maintain access to these resources worldwide or the economy will die.
4. Make sure these goals are religiously legitimized by imperial theology or 'noble values' will die.
Someone surely must have discovered Caesar's playbook!
By turning imperial conquests of distant lands and installing vassal powers into a pitched battle between pure good and pure evil and then publicizing it through median and parochial outlets the deal is sealed.
Jim Wallis , a progrssive, evangelical leader writes,"To this aggressive extension of American power in the world" our government "adds God—and that changes the picture dramatically. It's one thing for a nation to assert its raw dominance in the world; it's quite another to suggest...that the success of American military and foreign policy is connected to a religiously inspired 'mission,' and even that" it
"may be a divine appointment for a time such as this."

When God is taken hostage to our cause then all of our ways suddenly become immune to prophetic criticism. When all of our foreign policy decisions are given the blank check of the moral high ground then even God's messengers dare not utter a dissenting word. Statements that might have seemed mildy unpatriotic in an earlier generation become "sin" in today's landscape.

Ironically, modern Christians forget the imperial ravenous beast of the book of Revelation is also called an alluring whore. It is easier to resist a beast. One Christian writer, Eugene Peterson,wrote, "The moment a person (or government or religion or organization) is convinced that God is either ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, anything goes. The history, worldwide, of religion-fueled hate, killing, and oppression is staggering."

The early Christians, the original underground Jesus insurgents, so troubled Rome that they were branded capital criminals in many provinces for refusing to bow to Casaer while humming the national anthem. They opposed Caesar's title, "Divi Filius" or "Son of God" with Christ, the true "Divi Filius". They refused the imperial theology of peace through violent victory and embraced Jesus' kingdom of God and its peace through nonviolent justice.

N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England recently wrote: "I want to say to George W. Bush and those who help him run the world: OK, fine, you have a world empire. We had one of those and we have spent a century counting the cost of it. You have a world empire with a strongly Christian flavour in the vote that sustained it. We had one of those (though not always the same type of Christianity that many in America now embrace, but never mind); and we learned, painfully enough, the deep ambiguities of thinking that in bringing Christ to the world we could ignore the things that were being done in his name. More to the point, the idea of a Christian empire came to first embodiment under Constantine, whom most Americans (if they’ve heard of him) learn early in life to reject, partly because it reminds them of George III sending bishops to the colonies. For generations now people have criticized Constantine and his empire. If you now have a Christian Empire, could you perhaps begin to think about how to avoid the mistakes both of Constantine and of Victorian England, and about how to get it right this time?"

Bishop Wright, is there any way to "get it right" given the human tendency to become intoxicated on the power of domination? Jesus calls us out of the kingdom of the world and into God's new creation community. Jesus followers will always be loyal the values of God's kingdom with the result that they are disloyal to the values of the surrounding political climate. Labels such as seditious, subversive malcontents puts them in ggod company with the likes of Jesus and Paul. Often what is a "zero" in the imperial accounting is a "hero" by God's reckoning.