Saturday, January 29, 2011

With Their Backs Against The Wall


...to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8b

Blessed are
the poor in spirit, for theirs is the heavenly reign of God.
...those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
...the meek, for they will inherit the land.
...those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.
...the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
...the pure in heart, for they will see God.
...the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
...those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the heavenly reign of God.
...you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:3-12

...but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
I Corinthians 1:23-25

Consider the cultural context of Jesus' great Sermon on the Mount in 1st century Palestinian Judaism: dark, despair, mourning, waiting for their God to rescue them from Imperial games and massive income inequality. It was actually Judaism(s) plural--all sorts of different parties with competing platforms: Essenes, Zealots, Herodians, Sadduccees, Pharisees, Zealots & the no-clout Anawim. The messianic tribe called Christians, drawing mostly from the lowly Anawim (Hebrew word for "the poor ones," or even better, those left out and cast aside by the Powers-that-Be), transcended these counterfeit strategies (flight, fight, caretake, accomodate, scapegoat) of combatting Empire with a political campaign of their own: The Inauguration of The Heavenley Reign of God.

As this Dream invaded the world, it would bring hope to those longing for real peace and justice in a society characterized by corruption, power-mongering, status-seeking & greed with a ritualized institutional religious system that legitimized it all. Jesus the Messiah was restoring Israel to its original mission on earth: to be light and salt through word and deed. And he was throwing the doors open to everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, family heritage and sexual orientation. They were a model, a conscience and a servant to a confused and despairing world.

Jesus' mission was to gather a faithful network of communities (churches) that would re-imagine for the Jews what it meant to be God's Prophetic People and that would re-configure for the Gentiles what it would look like to honor and serve the rightful Lord of the World. Yet the Jews-&-Gentiles-For-Jesus-Movement was "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" because their leader was crucified as an imperial rebel and blasphemous religious cult leader. And his original disciples remembered Jesus teaching them that the only Real Way to live was to "become a servant of all" and that they, too, must be willing to suffer the death penalty reserved for holy rebels courageous enough to confront corrupt powers while they intentionally associated with those with the lowest possible status in society. This was a bad marketing plan from the start. But it worked. Eventually.

No doubt, these Christians were social misfits, worshipping a crucified Lord on Sunday mornings, leading some to call them "atheists" because they refused to bow to all the other gods in the Roman pantheon (this parallels how some contemporary Christians refuse to pledge allegiance the flag or sing the national anthem). Basically, every Christian in the first three centuries was a pacifist, refusing to take up arms to fight for the cause of empire, because, after all, their Lord loved his enemies and forgave them on the very cross he was dying on.

However, in his book The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark explains that the earliest Christian movement grew because they were set apart from the rest of society as those who were willing to risk several devastating epidemics by caring for the sick and dying. Their faithful presence was a stark contrast to the ruling elites and pagan priests who fled the cities for their own safety. These Christians were known as those who risked their lives to love non-Christians “as if they were our own family.”

But things changed in the 4th century when Christians became everyone. The Emperor Constantine set into motion for Christianity to become the official religion of Caesar and eventually it became mandatory for all Romans to be baptized. This made the church invisible and equated God's Will with those in power, with status and popularity. This has been the context that all radical discipleship movements have worked to subvert ever since, attempting to reclaim the original vision of Jesus and his disciples. African-American scholar Howard Thurman goes for the jugular in Jesus And The Disinherited (1976):

The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus...Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.

The gospels were written by and for those who Thurman described "stand with their backs against the wall." When "we proclaim Christ crucified" we are lavishing hope on to everyone who is included in the Preamble to Jesus' Constitution (Mt 5:3-12): all those who are poor in spirit, meek, peacemakers, merciful, pure in heart, yearning for justice & persecuted for it. God's Heavenly Reign is an Alternative Empire that gives them privilege. Every prophetic movement within Judaism for the centuries leading up to Jesus was considered by most Jews as "foolishness," perhaps because it tirelessly prodded God's People to more inconvenient justice, mercy and humility in the midst of a plethora of temptations to abandon that rugged, unpopular mission.

Jesus' Preamble identifies how we know whether God is on our side or not. God dwells with those who desperately yearn for their world to be flipped upside down. And unless we pledge solidarity to the Crucified One by laboring with all our energy, time and resources to make this happen, then we are not really citizens of God's Heavenly Reign. This, however, is not a call to perfection nor is it a call to "salvation by works." God's forgiveness is poured out on those who are whole-heartedly committed (pure in heart) to repenting and resisting, albeit imperfectly.

As the 20th century prophet Martin Luther King would say time and time again: "There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice…" We Christians call this enduring and persevering mission for justice "proclaiming Christ crucified." Since the Anawim will inherit the land called God's Heavenly Reign (see Psalm 37:11 for the Hebrew anawim usually translated as "meek" in English Bibles), then we ought to make it our first priority in life to find the Anawim and join them in their ever-present struggle for justice. And Anawim are always present in this world (Mark 14:7) primarily because those calling themselves "religious" and "spiritual" are far more concerned with their own status than with their mission to attack political, economic and social policies that knock the Anawim on their ass.
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Epilogue: As we meditate on the lectionary Script for this weekend, may we be in prayer and solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters halfway across the globe as they grope and groan for peace and justice in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Lebanon. We should be reminded that just a few weeks ago many of these same Egyptians courageously protected (with their own bodies) Christians who were threatened and persecuted by violent Islamic cults. As they struggle non-violently (mostly) for justice, our prayer is that the words of the Psalmist and Isa become a a historical fact for millions caught in poverty, inflation, unemployment: "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the land."

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