Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Yolked Mailbag: Long Posts, Evangelicals & Socialists


I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Martin Luther King

Every so often, we answer imaginary questions from imaginary readers. We get into your head so you don't have to.

Q: Hey Easy, why are your posts so damn long? (Jared from Atlanta, GA)

EY: I've seriously tried to shorten them, but I just can't do it. I don't think it's because I'm an undisciplined writer (although I most certainly am), but I propose that the length of EY posts is largely due to the topics and ideas that we are so passionate about. We are dealing with complex and tangential concepts that relate and rely on other concepts in a soundbite culture always seeking certainty. This is truly a deadly blend when one is trying like hell to not be longwinded. If we were trying to market this site, we'd shorten our posts, but we're not...so we're not. One of our major goals at EY is to be "transformed by the renewing of our minds," reshaping any notion of what it means to be "spiritual" and "political." We want to be truly radical (Latin for "roots") getting to the very roots of spiritual activism: Jesus of Nazareth. This takes a lot of blog post space peeling back layers and layers of wayward approaches to Christian spirituality and politics so that we can reconstruct it more authentically.

There are a lot of false assumptions that we are desperately trying to reframe so that more and more of us can experience Reality. Theologically, consider the baggage of assumptions that come with the word "gospel." It is packed full of misinformation. I propose that when most people think of what "the gospel" is they are thinking of "the message that people need to hear and adhere to so that they can be forgiven of their sins so that they can go to heaven when they die" (see our last post). Great scholars like N.T. Wright (who consistently reminds us that "we have learned more about 1st century Judaism in the past 50 years than the previous 1950 years combined") and Richard Hays and John Howard Yoder and Ched Myers (each in their own special way) have recently exposed the counterfeit notion of "the gospel," contextualizing it within the Roman Empire and the inauguration of the 1st century Jewish expectation of the Kingdom of God.

Politically, think about concepts like "limited government" and "the war on terror" that have become so ingrained in the minds of Americans. We live in an era where so many Americans believe that government is always bad and that the best way to keep our country safe is to use massive violence in overseas wars. Most of us just take on the simplistic meaning of these default phrases handed to us by our politicians and their media outlets. The "establishment" has done a wonderful (in the worst sense of the word) job of selling these concepts. Reworking ideas takes a lot of time, effort and space. I could go on and on, but we'll keep this answer short (too late)...just for you.

Q: Why are you always hatin' on Evangelicals? (Dale from Rifle, CO)

EY: My Jewish brothers and sisters tell me that they have perfected the art of dialogue. They passionately argue, debate and cross-examine each other to get at the truth. Sometimes they scream and yell at each other. But at the end of the day, they embrace each other in deep love. Jewish dialogue may be just as intimate as marital sex because each dialogue partner offers the deepest kernel of their soul. There's no need to hold back when Truth is the real objective. The Jews, for millenia, have always sharpened themselves in these long, passionate intramural conversations. I firmly believe that we Christians need to learn this from our Jewish neighbors.

What does this have to do specifically with Evangelicals? They represent the largest and loudest group of Christians in North America and this is the brand of Christians that I am surrounded by in Orange County. Many of my closest friends are Evangelicals and, yes, I used to be an active participant in their churches and ministries. This community of believers has much of my heart. I love these Christians because of their passion and sincerity, their utter willingness to give themselves for the Cause. So many of them really want to follow Jesus, but there is so much holding them back, according to the two greatest Evangelical church historians Mark Noll and George Marsden: anti-intellectualism, hyper-individualism, an ambivalent political creed, etc. Here's what the Lebanese philosopher and diplomat Charles Malik observed in The Two Tasks:

The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind as to its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. This cannot take place apart from immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and spirit. People are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the Gospel. They have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, and thereby, ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking.

So, the first reason for my consistent critique of Evangelicalism is out of a heart full of hope and love (on most days). The other reason is because of the inherent need for every religious tradition to critically engage with their own wider tradition. The best way for Christians to understand this is to reflect back on the days right after 9/11 in the United States. What most Christians expected (demanded) from Muslims was for them to condemn the terrorists in no uncertain terms. Most Muslims, in fact, felt a deep burden to explain the differences between how they worshipped Allah and how the hijackers did (not). We believe that a vital aspect of what it means to be salt and light in this world is to point out where the Body of Christ, in word and deed, promotes darkness and dryness. The number of my friends who can easily point out these dark and dry aspects of American Christianity is Legion. We should beat them to the punch and always identify where in the Script our brothers and sisters are wayward. Of course, we are always open to being wayward ourselves and we need others to point out where we are failing in our Christian vocation and prod us to more love and good deeds (and that's why we value honest dialogue with EY readers). And sometimes (probably more often than you think), we side with unpopular stances that Evangelicals take...like when they have a genuine and legitimate concern about teenagers gettin' freaky with each other on MTV.

Q: Would you guys consider yourselves "socialists?" (Justin from Durham, NC)

EY: As always, it depends on who gets to define "socialism." Many of our Christian brothers and sisters claim that socialism is anti-Christian because it is taking the job of the church (care for the poor, needy, disadvantaged) and schleping it off on the government which "has never done this job efficiently anyway." They also claim, experiencing a post-Cold War hangover, that socialism leads to the "government takeover" of everything and, before you know it, Obama will be taking away all of our guns and sending all of his political opponents to Siberia (just like they did back in the old Soviet days). All of this fear-mongering doesn't stand up to the real history of progressivism or democratic socialist policy in American history though. Key American progressive ideas like the 40-hour work week, weekends, health care for seniors, free K-12 education for all, subsidized university education and Civil Rights legislation have all greatly benefited those in the middle and the bottom of America's class-based society.

EasyYolk is more at home with socialist tendencies because we are compelled with a systemic understanding of wealth and poverty. Jesus himself spent a lot of time confronting the evils of the economic and political system (the way that 1st century Jewish and Roman rulers made the rules) and it got him killed. All of these current American media pundits and political leaders (and pastors) who hate on socialism proudly call themselves "capitalists." Jesus would never go for a hands-off approach to wealth and poverty, pretending that every American has an equal chance to make it in our world. As Cornel West says, "There's a lot of people in America today who were born on third base and claim that they hit a triple."

Laissez-faire capitalists who shun all forms of government regulation/intervention and still claim to actually care about the very real plight of the poor and disadvantaged and people of color have a real problem because all of their well-intentioned charitable giving and church ministries cannot alleviate the suffering that economic systems produce by how the rules of the game have been written. As Martin Luther King said, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." Real church ministry for the poor and people of color must embrace both charity (soup kitchens, etc) and advocacy in order to make real change. Our structures need to change so that those at the bottom can not only survive, but also have the opportunity to succeed.

Free market fundamentalism, by its very nature, necessitates cheap labor and inevitably creates poverty, homelessness, mental illness, greed and chronic anxiety. As Robert Reich pointed out in a recent interview, the government always shapes the market no matter what. It incentivizes some things and not others. It creates winners and losers. We believe that it is time that government give more privilege to those at the bottom after 30 years of failed Reaganomic policies that have increased the share of the top 1% of wealth earners from 9% to 23.5% of the total income in the United States. Our economic system simply works better for those at the middle and bottom (as well as the top) when the government is more active in key arenas like housing, health care and education. Remember, it was largely the deregulation of the banking industry that led to the recent financial crisis and the US health care system, built on the foundation of private insurance and care providers, ranks #37 in the world.

But one of the key indicators of why the United States is becoming more and more "emotionally regressive" is its either-or thinking. In the minds of millions of Americans, someone is either a capitalist or a socialist. There is no in between. Yet, in reality, all our diverse convictions can best be compared on a spectrum:

<-A-----------B-----------------C-------------------------------D-----------E-->

When the good folks at Fox News call Obama a "marxist" or "socialist," it resembles a native of San Diego calling someone who lives in Los Angeles as "someone from Northern California." If A is hard-core revolutionary communist and E is one of those gun-toting tea partiers with a protest sign that has a picture of Obama with a Hitler moustache and C is Obama and D is Fox News/GOP, then we would place ourselves at position B. If you need a better visual of the kind of political engagement we seek to model, watch this.

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