Friday, May 27, 2011

Exorcising False Assumptions

Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968)

When the capitalist discovers a brand of religion which has not the slightest interest in "the social gospel," but on the contrary intends to pass up all reforms to the Messiah who will return on the clouds of heaven, he is found just the thing he has been looking for.
Christian Century (1921)

Over the past 24 hours, I've heard a variety of misnomers that are fundamental to both understanding and unmasking so that we can move forward with a North American Christian project that is both more faithful to the biblical witness and more at home in our postmodern context. Here is a sampling:

1. IT is in NO F'N WAY in a teacher or pastors job description to pass along their political opinions onto others.

2. Nowhere in Bible does it instruct us to take from the rich and give to the poor.

3. The Kingdom of God is not political. I thought God reigned in peoples hearts and that he was not yet reigning over the governments of earth, and in fact in Gods administration there would only be one government and it would not be ruled by humans or even Christian people but by Jesus Christ himself

4. There are "biblical" issues and there are "political" issues. These biblical positions may coincide with a political movement but they will diverge again since man runs politics and will have his due.

5. Whites very well could be the most discriminated against ethnic group that we have.

These false assumptions are all interconnected. They can partially be blamed on Enlightenment philosophy (from 1650 until yesterday) which seeks to divide our life into "religion" and "politics" and "relationships" and "economics" and "entertainment"...etc. The Enlightenment was largely a reaction to grotesque European religious wars, attempting to unify diverse brands of Christianity through timeless truths and universal principles.

But these assumptions can also be greatly attributed to the Constintianian sell-out of the Chrsitian Church way back in the 4th century Roman Empire. In order to gain social, political and economic power for the first time ever, Christian leaders gave up prophetic witness. Christians were allowed, even encouraged, for the first time ever, to join the military and defend the "Christian" Roman Empire. Because Jesus called his followers to "love their enemies," 4th century Roman Christians, then, made this command (and the entire subversive Sermon on the Mount) important in interpersonal relationships (in marriage, with the neighbors and rival businesses), but not in the realm of government actions. So really, the European Enlightenment philosophy went hand-in-hand with what John Howard Yoder once called "the Constintinian concubinage." The Enlightenment repackaged Constantinianism when the Western Church violently split into competing Protestant and Catholic (and, of course, Anabaptist) brands.

The Constantinian-Enlightenment mentality hardened into an all-American fundamentalist Christianity about 100 years ago. The Fundamentalists (still very much alive in soft and hard forms today) took an increasingly "ambivalent" political stance to distance themselves from the liberal "social gospellers" who saught to deliver the poor and vulnerable masses taking residence in American cities. The Fundies placed virtually all of their energies on getting souls saved and transmitting sound doctrines (in the form of beliefs and principles) to their congregations. There was no time for feeding the hungry and healing the sick because Jesus was coming soon to rescue only those who had made "personal decisions" for Him (capital "H" mandatory). Certainly, many fundamentalist churches embrace charitable forms of generosity in regards to "the least of these," but very rarely do they confront the structures that produce injustice.

When we have just a basic understanding of how Constintinian-Enlightenment-Fundamentalist assumptions function, we can unmask the dominant biblical reading strategy of Western Christianity since that Great White Explorer Columbus sailed the ocean blue back in 1492. Christianity became largely an individual quest for personal piety and eternal salvation in heaven (something we consistently attempt to subvert on EasyYolk). What matters to an overwhelming majority of Western Christianity is that "Christians" join a church and start a family and treat the neighbors with respect and ultimately, make a "decision for Jesus" so that their individual sins are forgiven so that they can go to heaven when they die. All that "political" and "economic" stuff is secondary for their God.

The mindset for most of Western Christianity is that we are all autonomous individuals who have a responsibility to work hard and be good people. The overwhelming majority of white suburban Evangelicals that I know are absolutely convinced that they are not affected at all by the historic racism that has plagued American history. They either have never heard of, or adamantly reject, the concept of white privilege, which digs below the surface to unveil an advantage that white folks have had--and continue to have--over their fellow other-colored Americans.

What we are humbly-yet-adamantly advocating at EasyYolk is not a rejection of "traditional Christianity," but instead a reclamation of what it originally meant to follow the risen Christ. After all, Jesus was executed by a coalition of Jewish and Roman political leaders who were threatened by Jesus' subversive platform to be carried out in "churches" (Greek ekklesia: a political townhall meeting). When Jesus told the rich young man to sell his possessions (Greek ktemata: properties) he was speaking into that brutal socio-political Palestinian situation where wealthy land owners foreclosed upon farmers, thus gaining more and more land and more and more wealth. Jesus was critiquing the system of injustice. In short, Jesus was doing precisely what most Western Christians tell their pastors not to do: adamantly articulating his political and economic convictions, quoting Scripture all the way to the cross.

When Jesus stormed into the Temple in Jerusalem and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, it was a staged political protest, drawing attention to the unjust practices of those currency exchangers who made low-income pilgrims from other parts of the Empire pay high interest rates in order to worship God. Jesus "cleansed" the Temple which legitimized the status quo, blessing the platforms of those in positions of power and privilege, earning their advantage at the dire plight of the poor and marginalized. The Temple elite instituted a system that substituted worship for justice.

When Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was "not of this world," it was a declaration of a different kind of life than what Hellenistic culture sponsored. Where the Roman and Jewish leaders (the Reign of Caesar) advocated a life of climbing one's way to the top, Jesus pleaded with his fellow citizens of the Reign of God to humbly serve each other ("the greatest of these will be the servant of all"). And when Jesus told his Jewish audience to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar and God what is God's," he was prodding them to make a radical choice about everything in their lives: either choose the way of Caesar or the way of God. One or the other.

When Jesus ate meals with lepers, prostitutes and tax collectors, he violated deeply ingrained social mores and laws that made it inappropriate and/or illegal to associate with these "sinners" (and who decides who "the sinners" are in any society: a combination of faith communities and governments). Jesus was extending the table of God's Reign to the outcasts (and this extended far beyond matters of the heart). No wonder he was crucified.

What is so difficult about the current situation of North American Christianity is that so many "Bible-believing Christians" are convinced that Jesus was never political and that people of color should stop complaining about racism. A good friend of mine and EasyYolk conversation partner told me yesterday:

The wildest thing is that these are extremely intelligent people, who are aspiring to powerful positions, but with deep rooted fidelity to their beliefs, and strong animosity to oppositional points of view.

And in conclusion, this is precisely the point I want to make. Western Christian convictions about the autonomous nature of the individual and the internal confinement of the Reign of God to the heart (instead of a spiritual-socio-political MOVEMENT) are extremely convenient ways of construing Christianity for most of those who espouse them. These require very little sacrifice and simply support their already established (and mostly unacknowledged) socio-political-economic privilege. As Upton Sinclair once wrote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it."

Today, the great justice issues of our time are swept under the rug of the Church because, if confronted, they would require too much uncomfortable and complex dialogue and lifestyle change. Inconvenient truths (like the immoral War on Terror, the moral quest for marriage equality, the embarrassing gap between rich and poor, the suffering of our Palestinian brothers and sisters, the hidden epidemic of addiction in response to chronic anxiety throughout North America, overconsumption and the resulting change of climate and the exponential growth of cancer due to our increasingly toxic environment) are all "political," not to be talked about in a church setting which prioritizes eternal salvation and "spiritual" disclipines like prayer and Bible reading (practices in the comforts of one's home). You can predictably hear these strategies when larger, more complex issues (like the inconvenient truths above) are addressed: pray more or de-prioritize them by emphasizing how the world will be filled with sin until Jesus returns (so there's no use even trying to eradicate them).
Epilogue: Ched Myers calls this "political ambivalence" and gives 4 tangible reasons for its dominance within North American Christianity

o We experience enough worldly comfort and privilege and we are insulated from those for whom ‘the system’ does not work.

o We assume that our socio-political structures are the lesser of evils and we cannot think of a better alternative.

o We figure the contemporary political issues are too complicated for the church to deal with

o At the root though is an ideological bargain Christian theology has struck with secular capitalism: It has conceded authority over the public sphere to the State in hopes of retaining a modicum of authority over the private sphere.

--> Above Image: Props to the Antiguan Catholic Laura James for her beautiful artwork on the Gospels

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