Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Price of Social Nonconformity


He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Mark 8:34-37

Christians begin with the catastrophic.
Cornel West

The late systematic theologian and Fuller seminary professor James McClendon used to remind his students, "There should have been 13 crosses." Instead, of course, there was one. The 12 male disciples betrayed, denied or scattered (the women were at the foot of the cross witnessing the horrific event). When Jesus told his disciples to take up the cross, it only meant one thing in the 1st century. John Howard Yoder explained it well back in 1972 (The Politics Of Jesus):

The believer’s cross is no longer any and every kind of suffering, sickness, or tension, the bearing of which is demanded. The believer’s cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social nonconformity. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost…it is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come.

Yoder was confronting the popularity of a pietistic, apolitical Jesus that was far more American than representative of what is actually in the Gospels. Yoder was not injecting anything new into the understanding of the disciple's cross, but instead reclaiming the original vision of Christian discipleship: the confrontation with oppressive power.

Here's how Ched Myers explains the Mark 8 passage in his Binding The Strong Man (1988), his socio-political commentary on the Gospel of Mark:

The threat to punish by death is the bottom line of the power of the state; fear of this threat keeps the dominant order intact. By resisting this fear and pursuing kingdom practice even at the cost of death, the disciple contributes to shattering the powers' reign of death in history. To concede the state's sovereignty in death is to refuse its authority in life.

Jesus has revealed that his messiahship means political confrontation with, not rehabilitation of, the imperial state. Those who wish to "come after him" will have to identify themselves with his subversive program. The stated risk is that the disciple will face the test of loyalty under interrogation by state authorities. If "self" is denied, the cross will be taken up, a metaphor for capital punishment on grounds of insurgency. Through these definitive choices the disciple will "follow Jesus."


Following Yoder and the liberation theologians of the 70s and 80s, Myers posits that Christianity only finds its authenticity through a rugged willingness to die for what one believes. But this is different than the American soldier who "joins up" to fight for freedom. The gospel of Jesus is always marked by a humble (not self-interested) quest for truth and a ruthless commitment to nonviolent love.

Princeton professor of African American and religious studies Cornel West says it like this:

The cross signifies unarmed truth and unconditional love crushed by the Roman empire, embodied in the flesh of a first century Palestinian Jew named Jesus.

The robust truth of West's work hinges on the the parallels between the Roman Empire of Jesus' day and our own context of "American exceptionalism" today. How do we remain faithful to Jesus' original revolution to "take up the cross" and "deny" self in the midst of socio-econmic-political structure defined by 660 military bases in more than 30 countries, skyrocketing income inequality, addiction to consumption, narcissistic obsession and indifference to the suffering of others? West spells this out more specifically:

But for me as a Christian, it means I'm looking at those in the prison industrial complex. I'm looking for the children in our dilapidated school system, in the decrepit housing, those who don't have health care and child care. So that Tom Friedmans and others, they're looking at the world from the vantage point of the top.

Very much like brother Obama's economic team. They're not looking at the world through the lens of poor people and working people. They got Wall Street elites as their buddies, their cronies, intimate ties, so the vantage point through which they look at the world is very, very different. Christians begin with the catastrophic.


West proposes that the cross is more of a mentality (or consciousness) that saturates us with the suffering of the world. When we find ourselves in solidarity with the poor & marginalized we are inetivably forced to confront (a crucial corollary) the wealthy & powerful who pad this privileged position (through their lobbyists, lawyers and loads of capital) on the backs of the suffering.

When we, like the original male disciples, pledge allegiance to Jesus' "kingdom of God" (God's Big Picture), we are called to carry that vision all the way to the doorsteps of Power. That's where the cross awaits. Think Martin Luther King (berated, abused & jailed by white Christians). Think Gandhi (who loved the Jesus of the Gospels while questioning the "Christianity" of the West which oppressed his beloved India). Think Harvey Milk (who was detested & scorned by Evangelical Christians). These 3 lost their lives nonviolently confronting the oppressors.

And, like the original disciples, we fall short of the life and death of these heroes of the faith. And when we fall short of this radical mentality and lifestyle of the cross, we find ourselves resting in God's legendary grace and tender mercy. This is the fuel to get us back on our feet to try, try again.

1 comment:

  1. I shared this with my congregation today (and my FB page) ... powerful ... thank you ... Tony Vitale, Trinity Episcopal Church, Cranford NJ

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