Saturday, October 5, 2013

Always: When Faith Means Prophetic Practice

The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you. ‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
Luke 17:5-10

The gospels present a depiction of Jesus' ministry as sharply prophetic and part of a long line of such pointed prophetic challenges to concentrated wealth and power, and his death as deplorable and damnable and part of a long line of prophetic perishing at the hands of the well-to-do and rapacious.
Jim Perkinson

Those in power…are those for whom the status quo is working, so they always see civil disobedience as a bad thing…But the majority of the public is exploited by the status quo far more than they are benefited by it.
Tim DeChristopher

When the followers of Jesus beg him to increase their faith, we ought to be reminded of the champions of “faith” throughout the Lukan narrative: the paralytic, the centurion, the woman (a prostitute?) anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume, the woman hemorrhaging for more than a decade, the leper, the blind beggar. Indeed, the disciples are asking to be join a team of the scandalous faithful.

We ought also to be reminded that these disciples in Luke 17 are presently sitting at the feet of Jesus, who is teaching them about the demonic gulf between rich and poor and instructing them to forgive anyone who has hurt them and is willing to try again (Luke 16:1-17:4). End affluence! Pardon the criminals! These are hard teachings, relegated to the back burner of most Christian households and churches.

“Faith” for too many today centers on belief, a mental assent to the existence of God and His rules. Confess the right things in the head and heart and things will work out alright in this life and the one to come. Have simple trust in a Divine provider and forgiver and one will be favored for evermore.

In the ancient world, “faith” (pistis in the Greek) meant something akin to “allegiance,” a stance, or mentality, that led to both symbolic and practical actions from the faithful (which often led to animosity from others). Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that contemporary conditions are all upside down and inside-out: the very presence of the poor and prisoners is a sign that redemption is surely needed.

Sure enough, matters of income inequality and forgiveness of “offenders” continue to be vital matters of allegiance that result in tension and distrust amidst often slanderous debate. These are issues of safety and security for all of us on the upside of the American Dream (and the downside of The Kingdom of God). Fear keeps us “neutral” and legalistically rigid with our policies, both personal and political. If the prisoners are pardoned and the undocumented aren’t deported and the poor get equal access to healthcare and education, then there won’t be enough for “the rest of us.” Right?

Deep down, most of us are scared shitless and never even consider how, as Gandhi put it, there might actually be enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed. Our fear keeps us “neutral,” which always means that those “dressed in purple and fine linen and who feast sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19) will keep their privilege, possessions and prestige in place while millions rot in prison and poverty. The late Howard Zinn prophetically started calling for a “revolt of the guards” three decades ago:

In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbagemen and firemen. These people—the employed, the somewhat privileged—are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.
This civil disobedience is nothing less than “faith” in a Lord who prayed, preached and practiced a new System that privileged those sidelined by the strategies of the wealthy and powerful, just as Tim DeChristopher testified at his sentencing: the majority of the public is exploited by the status quo far more than they are benefited by it.


Yet faith-as-allegiance-to-a-new-Way doesn’t just mean breaking unjust laws and getting arrested. After all, we are called to be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves,” creatively and consistently practicing the upside-down kingdom. It means boycotting and divesting from companies producing goods & services by exploiting people, animals and the Earth. It means having gently awkward conversations with friends & family, connecting the dots with how we are all implicated in the painful plight (prisons & poverty!) of those who look different and believe differently than we do. It means planting tiny mustard seeds of communal practices and spiritual disciplines so that one day the mulberry tree of violence & injustice will be uprooted and planted in the deep blue sea.

If this isn’t what it means to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23) then what exactly does it mean?

In this parabolic preaching, Jesus scripts us away from the master mentality (“Who among you would say to your slave…?”) towards a downwardly mobile solidarity with the slave (“…we have done only what we are supposed to be doing!”). The coming revolt of the guards of the system will only happen when we refuse to identify with celebrities and corporate executives and find ourselves in the stories of those abused, expendable and left out of the system. Peace & justice does not trickle down. It rises up.

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