Sunday, January 24, 2010

Status or Vocation?


One of EasyYolk's consistent themes is the contested nature of Christian faith in the United States today (and throughout her history). In my last post, I utilized Cornel West's Christian categories to decipher 2 ways-of-being in the context of American Empire: Constantinian or Prophetic? A quick summary:

The Constantinians equate power and success with the American empire and overwhelmingly embrace "free-market fundamentalism" as their ideology. Government is the bad guy who taxes Americans' money earned through hard work and creativity. Everyone, Constantinians believe, has an equal opportunity to succeed and accomplish the American Dream: an education, a job, a house, a pension, etc. Constantinians view the world through the eyes of the "successful" and "powerful" and "accomplished" in our society who have (apparently) pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. They fail to see the safety net that is taken for granted in the suburbs.

Prophetic Christians view the world through the eyes of those disadvantaged and oppressed--all those left-behind by militarist, imperialist, corporate-capitalist and authoritarian policies. When these policies disregard the widening income inequality and continue the long-legacy of structural discrimination along the lines of race, sex, and gender, then government must act to regulate corporate greed and social inequality.


An aspect of the Constantinian-Prophetic split is whether faith is primarily construed as a "status" or "vocation." For the socially and politically strong Evangelical wing of American Christianity, faith is primarily a "status." Exhibit A is how they understand the gospel as a message about how someone can be saved from their sins so that they can have a relationship with God and enjoy the benefits of heaven when they die. For Evangelicals and many other Protestants, Jesus died in order to give them a status of "not guilty" before the perfectly just God who cannot bear to be in the presence of sin.

We would make the argument, however, that Christianity is a vocation, as evidenced in a critical reading of the New Testament and in a "minority report" of various radical groups since Constantine's 4th century: medieval monasticism, the Waldensians, the Anabaptists, the Jesuits, liberation theologians and much of the African-American baptist tradition. This follows the Jewish notion of halakah: that God chose the Israelites to be a conscience, model, and servant to the wider world.

Martin Luther, in the context of medieval Catholic Church corruption, interpreted Paul's use of the Greek pistis as "belief" or "faith" (see Eph 2:7,8 for one example of many) and the Greek dikaiosune as "personal justification" or "acquittal" (throughout Romans and Galatians) of the sin and guilt that keeps us from a perfectly just God. The unintended consequences of Luther's vital reformation work has been the equating of Christian faith as a status. In this paradigm, one is either saved or damned based on belief or non-belief. Luther, in fact, called the New Testament book of James an "epistle of straw" because of the blunt proclamation: "faith without works is dead" (James 2:16). Due mostly to Luther's influence, most American Evangelicals are extremely sensitive to a Christianity that puts too much focus on good works because, after all, one cannot work their way to heaven. Faith, then, they argue, is a personal matter between an individual and God and is supposedly not meant to be political or social or economic.

Yet ironically, this brand of pietism says "No" (though in effect it is a "Yes" to government intervention) to personal liberties like abortion and same-sex marriage and "Yes" (effectively a "No" to government intervention) to laissez-faire economics, because it's thought, that each and every American should have the freedom to do whatever they want with their own money. This is exemplified in the posture of Richard Land (president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention) who, according to an LA Times article, claims that biblical exhortations to care for the poor apply to people of faith, not to governments, and should inspire private charitable efforts but not taxpayer-funded plans for illegal immigrants. He said:

It’s noble and commendable to be charitable with your own money, but it’s something different to be charitable with other people’s money.

Constantinian Christian Sarah Palin had very similar sentiments in her Wall Street Journal piece on health care, claiming that the US can best care for "the weakest among us" through market forces.

In stark contrast, a less powerful and less known brand of Christian faith in the US defines faith in the crucified and risen Jesus as working to bring heaven to earth. This reflects the Lord's Prayer (or "Our Father")--"on earth as it is in heaven"--and a proclamation (and embodiment) of the "gospel of the kingdom of God" which Jesus taught and modeled and passed on for future generations to teach and model. A deeper understanding of the Greek language, in its Jewish conceptual framework, reveals that pistis is better understood as "faithfulness" to the kingdom inaugurated in Christ and that dikaiosune is better understood, in light of Jesus the Jewish Messiah, as how non-Jews are "justified to be a part of the people of God": "in Christ," instead of by being circumcised or in purity regulations or in kosher food laws.

For the prophetic Christian committed to faith as a rugged vocation, evangelism is inviting others to participate in a way-of-life characterized by justice, compassion, and peace. It is ironic because it is not one's "status" that is important, but rather, their lifestyle. I would postulate that this is why, in my own experience, Evangelicals have such a difficult time with inter-religious dialogue and work without feeling they need to evangelize the other. The telos (the point or goal of life) for them is to get as many people as possible in the "saved" column during their Time on earth.

Since my conversion to prophetic Christian faith, working with other faith traditions has become much more organic and fulfilling. The experience of the past 1/2 decade has revealed to me that folks can only really get "saved" when they are participating in an adventure that emphasizes advocating for the marginalized & oppressed and that relieves us of the ego-centeredness of our own self-intoxicating dramas. Or as the Apostle Paul wrote to the community of Christ followers in Phillippi after urging them to sacrificial humility just like Jesus who obeyed God's will even to the point of death: "accomplish your salvation with fear and trembling" (2:12).

Christian life is a vocation, not a status.


--Theological Autopilot

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