Monday, November 23, 2009

Re-Claiming Faith, Part I: Prophetic Evangelism

When the Brain Demon and I were seniors at Capistrano Valley HS in south Orange County in the early 90s, we were part of the fundamentalist Christian movement just starting to gain steam in youth groups all over the US. As part of our dues, we awkwardly participated in 'evangelism,' or as we called it 'witnessing,' which basically started with a question: 'If you die today, do you know where you will go?' This question gave us leverage into 'sharing the gospel,' which was defined for us by our superiors as the good news about the guaranteed eternity with God in heaven. We believed what our leaders told us about the legacy of Jesus: he came to die for our sins so that we can go to heaven when we die...if, and only if, we invite Jesus into our hearts. This ideology led us to corner good friends like Brian Epp into conversations about what really matters, leaving some perplexed, some hopeful, some confused and some downright frightened.

Almost two decades since, through academic study and our own experiences in and out of church, we embrace a new kind of evangelism--one more true to Jesus' original proclamation. We invite all and sundry to participate in a coalition of peace and justice, reflecting the mission of the first-century Jew named Jesus who fulfilled the vision of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

This Jesus invited disciples to gather around himself, 12 of them symbolizing a renewed people of God, who would be a light to the nations by how they embodied this inaugurated reign of God. Jesus' motley crew of fishermen, zealots, tax collectors, women, lepers and prostitutes energized those held down in oppression and poverty and criticized those laws and leaders that led to these conditions. Jesus' confederacy was a continuation of the script of Hebrew prophets and John the Baptist who spoke truth to power...and then were killed by those very powers that threatened them. He called his disciples to live out the same socio-economic-political script: 'Take up your cross and follow me.' As James McClendon used to say, 'There should have been 13 crosses at the end of the gospel story.'

Today, a coalition of progressive Christians is forming, evangelizing anyone and everyone--from fundamentalist Christians to secular humanists--to repent and resist the dominance that pervades our society: consumerism, militarism, sexism, racism, homophobia, patriarchalism and materialism. We have been formed by these ugly forces, but transformation is possible as we we listen to the spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus whisper to us to take up his easy yolk [Matthew 11:28-30].

This alliance, however, does not have as its litmus test right beliefs or personal piety or a checklist of church activities. Instead, its platform beckons us to a life of mercy, not sacrifice, and a humble commitment to his script, not to an arrogant, simplistic quest for certainty. Jesus' confederacy is about what kind of human beings we yearn to become, re-enacting his unconditional love, compassion, service, wisdom and discernment.

For prophetic Christians, evangelism--instead of asking the question 'Do you want to know how you can go to heaven when you die?'--ponders 'Do you want to know how to bring heaven to earth while you live?' Of course, our Constintinian Christian brothers and sisters have been trained to resist this kind of 'social gospel' or 'works-righteousness,' but Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray 'May your kingdom come and may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven' (Matthew 6:10) and the Apostle Paul beckoned the small persecuted community in Phillippi to 'work out your salvation with fear and trembling' (2:12) immediately after calling them to live out the mentality of Jesus whose humility and rugged obedience led him to a death penalty at the hands of the powers-that-be. Even Jesus' half-brother James, in a work Martin Luther called 'an epistle of straw,' denounced faith without works (2:14-26) as dead on arrival.

So come, all you who are weary from the dominance that burdens us all, and take up Jesus' easy yolk...

--Theological Autopilot

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