Category: Christianity (Page 1 of 3)

the common good

Early in the book of Acts, we are given a glimpse of the Jesus movement in the city of Jerusalem in the weeks and months after his execution. Their life together reflected the contours of the ministry Jesus proclaimed among the peasants of Galilee: love one another, care for one another, support one another, and share generously with one another.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at one house after another and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.[1]

Later, we read this similar account:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the possessions belonging to him was his own, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.[2]

It appears from these texts that community members were not required to sell everything and become homeless. They met and ate in one another’s homes, indicating that they still maintained private home ownership and their furnishings, but sold other land and income property beyond what was needed for their own shelter. The message of Jesus was that the accumulation of personal wealth for one’s future was a spiritual problem. It can lead to self-concern and selfishness. Sufficiency for the day was the goal. Everything beyond that was dedicated to a common purse to help clothe, feed, and house the less fortunate in the community and those who fell on hard times.

He invited them to share their resources generously with others, even with strangers, trusting that this generosity would be shown to them in return. The followers of Jesus could do this because they were surrounded by a new family of brothers and sisters who would willingly support them in difficult times. The paradigm of Jesus only works within the context of a caring community.

For several hundred years after the death of Jesus, it was their distinctive behavior—the sharing of goods, the welfare of the destitute, a radical social equality, and a commitment to nonviolence—that set Christian communities apart from mainstream culture. From the first small peasant communities in rural Galilee and urban Jerusalem to the rapidly spreading house-churches of Paul in the trading towns of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, the early Christian movement consisted of countercultural groups existing on the margins of society. In the beginning, they were composed of marginalized people—tenant farmers, fishermen, day laborers, slaves, and social outcasts—although soon they attracted artisans, merchants, and a few wealthy elites to their ranks. They became communities of radical equality that cut across class differences, economic status, ethnic backgrounds, and gender roles. These communities developed a lifestyle outside of accepted Roman norms that offered their members security in an insecure world without social safety nets. Each tight-knit community of compassion provided its members with food, shelter, and material support when necessary.

Pope Clement I (birth date unknown) served as an early bishop of Rome from 88 CE until his death in 99 CE. He described the motivation of the early Christian movement in this way:

He [the Christian] impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.

A very early manual of Christian living, the Didaché (dee-dah-KAY), written sometime in the mid to late first century, stated that a Christian must never claim that anything is their own property, but must share all things communally with their brothers and sisters.

You shall not turn away from him that is in want, but you shall share all things with your brother, and shall not say that they are your own.[3]

These fictive families were simply kindred spirits who were to be as close as or closer than any biological family. The Didaché (Greek for “teaching”) was a brief overview of the lifestyle of the Way—just sixteen concise chapters (really no more than sixteen short paragraphs or lists)—that was most likely used as a catechism for those who sought membership in the fledgling communities. It did not include a set of beliefs, but instead a compilation of behaviors and actions that were the essence of the Jesus movement. Topics included humility, compassion for others, radical generosity, helping the poor, welcoming strangers, loving and praying for one’s enemies, control of anger and jealousy, and nonviolent resistance to oppression. It is reported that the adult catechumens often studied for two years before being admitted to the ritual mysteries of Christianity—baptism and Eucharist—indicating that becoming part of the movement was nothing to be taken lightly and that there would be significant expectations and demands once one entered fully into fellowship. The Way was not about accepting a set of beliefs, but about embracing a radical lifestyle. Completion of catechumenal study led to adult baptism and inclusion in the Eucharistic rite (commonly known as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion).

Justin Martyr (100–165), a second-century apologist (meaning he was a vocal advocate of the faith to Roman authorities), described the Christian lifestyle this way:

We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.

Irenaeus (130–202), a second-century bishop in what is now Lyon, France wrote:

Instead of the tithes which the [Hebrew] law commanded, the Lord [Jesus] said to divide everything we have with the poor. And he said to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and to be givers and sharers not only with the good but also to be liberal givers toward those who take away our possessions.

Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (240–320) was a third-century Christian thinker and writer who became an advisor to the Roman emperor Constantine and served as a tutor to his son. He described the Way of Jesus in this manner:

If we all derive our origin from one man [Adam], whom God created, we are plainly all of one family. Therefore it must be considered an abomination to hate another human, no matter how guilty he may be. For this reason, God has decreed that we should hate no one, but that we should eliminate hatred. So we can comfort our enemies by reminding them of our mutual relationship. For if we have all been given life from the same God, what else are we but brothers? . . .  Because we are all brothers, God teaches us to never do evil to one another, but only good—giving aid to those who are oppressed and experiencing hardship, and giving food to the hungry.

Basil of Caesarea (330–379), a fourth-century bishop of Cappadocia in what is now Turkey, spent his family inheritance to benefit the poor of his diocese. He bought grain from wealthy landowners and then organized a soup kitchen, hospital, and shelter, distributing food to the poor during a famine that followed a drought. He wrote passionately that:

The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.

The second-century Christian writer and theologian Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, known as Tertullian (160–220), writing from Carthage in North Africa about 170 years after the death of Jesus, explains that members of early Christian communities contributed to a common fund to aid their work with the poor in their town or city. It is in marked contrast to the radical economic sharing of the Jerusalem community as recounted in Acts a century earlier, yet it still shows a commitment to provide funds for the common good and care for the needy.

On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons . . . One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another.[4]

Throughout the first three centuries of the Jesus movement in its many forms, people were more attracted to the early church communities for how they lived than for what they preached. It was compassionate service to those in need, not a theology of personal salvation leading to a heavenly afterlife, that attracted people to the faith. Tertullian wrote:

What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our loving kindness. “Only look,” they say, “look how they love one another.”[5]

The very earliest communities were communalistic (even communistic in the truest sense), composed of persons who were willing to risk their economic future—income, wealth, and possessions—in a common venture. At first, they did not just make contributions at their comfortable discretion, but radically put everything they had into a pool to maintain the common welfare. That is a risky way of living, relying on the community to respond generously in turn when one’s own needs are on the line.

Throughout history, nearly every society has favored an elite group of individuals and families at the expense of the majority of less-fortunate inhabitants. For thousands of years, economic elites have rigged society in their favor by crafting systems that would benefit their prosperity and ensure their control over the nation’s political and economic affairs. Historically, they have used unjust economic systems to extract wealth from the sweat of slaves, peasants, serfs, laborers, and the working class while contributing little to the common welfare. Social control has been maintained with violence and military might, often supported by religious institutions. These societies have invariably been patriarchies where the authority and desires of men have dominated the lives of women and children. The system has frequently favored one race, tribe, or ethnic group over others.

Biblical scholar Walter Wink (1935–2012) has referred to these societies as manifestations of an enduring domination system that has been part of the human story since the rise of civilization in the ancient Near East. Wink describes the domination system in this way:

It is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all. No matter what shape the dominating system of the moment might take (from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana to feudal Europe to communist state capitalism to modern market capitalism), the basic structure has persisted now for at least five thousand years, since the rise of the great conquest states of Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE.[6]

We easily observe the domination system in the structure of kingdoms, empires, and dictatorships. It has been embodied in traditional customs and religious teachings throughout history. But when democratic systems in a largely secular culture are controlled by wealthy and powerful forces, the same results occur. Massive tax cuts for the wealthiest, bloated military budgets, welfare for giant corporations, vast prison systems, and cuts to social services for the poorest Americans are all signs of a domination system.

Walter Wink notes that the teachings of Jesus were a prescriptive remedy to the domination system of his time. The kingdom of God that he described is an antidote to the disease of the domination system. The vision of Jesus stands in direct opposition to the political and economic aims of these pervasively unjust social structures. It is a vision of the domination system turned upside-down. Therefore, every act of resistance to the domination system, every protest of its unjust laws and structures, every effort to transform it for the common good is a sign of the coming kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.

A radically loving, generous, sharing, and serving kinship became the hallmark of the early Christian communities. For over 300 years, these innovative small groups, based on the teachings of Jesus, remained as distinctive communities of generosity, justice, nonviolence, and hope in an oppressive world. Then, in the fourth century, the Roman emperor Constantine invited the church to participate in the power of global empire and everything changed.

Today in America, thanks to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, we have minimal government to help the poor, the elderly, and the infirm. But conservative Christians claim that Jesus would not have wanted us to support them this way. They point to the fact that Jesus never called upon the despotic governments of his time to play this role. But this fails to take into account that governments of his day never played a role in helping the poor. Rather, the rich took all the tax money and distributed it among themselves, spending on lavish palaces, public buildings, roads, and armies. The alternative communities of Jesus had no choice but to help themselves.

But things are very different today. We established a government to provide for the common welfare. And ask any Christian social service agency and they will tell you that without government aid, they could not meet the overwhelming needs of suffering people. Christians who think that they can do it on their own are simply dreaming. Christians these days are just not that radically generous anymore. We must all contribute out of our common purse, and that means using our tax dollars to benefit the common good.

We cannot eliminate the dark side of our human condition, but we can summon the better angels of our nature to make us a more humane, kind, and decent people. Even if persistent social selfishness cannot be eliminated, it can be mitigated and minimized by people of good will. The hope of the reign of God is that a transformation of the politics of selfishness is possible through the efforts of transformed individuals who are committed to nonviolent social change and motivated by love and compassion.

 

[1] Acts 2: 43–47

[2] Acts 4:32-37

[3] Didache, Chapter 4.

[4] Tertullian, Apologeticus, Chapter XXXIX.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Wink, Powers That Be, 39–40.

the judgment of Jesus

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

—Jesus, according to Matthew

 

I have recently received feedback from people who feel I am judging and shaming those who hold political views that harm marginalized people in our society. Many people believe that Jesus taught only spiritual truths and did not care about the politics and economics of his day, even though they had a great impact on the poor peasants and fishermen who followed him. A close reading of the gospels tells a different story. Jesus was very concerned about oppressive political regimes and an economy of commercialized agriculture that was impoverishing the peasants of Palestine at an alarming rate, and he offered a contrasting vision of society—the kingdom of God.

moral choices

Throughout our lives we are faced with moral choices, both personally and politically. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will someday judge between those individuals who choose to practice compassionate action (the righteous) versus those whose indifferent inattention does nothing to help the conditions of poor and marginalized people. His judgement was not meant solely for interpersonal interactions, but also for the corporate actions of social groups—the “nations.” Surely no follower of Jesus believes that their personal charity and service can be separated from their social and political actions. You cannot serve two masters.

The word righteous in this text may need some clarification because the common understanding of righteousness is 1) being morally right, or 2) being right with God. But a more holistic biblical understanding of righteousness is standing up for what is right—doing what is right and just. Righteousness means seeking justice in human society. A righteous person is one who seeks economic and social justice for poor and marginalized people.

The terms righteousness and justice are often linked in biblical texts. That is because they are synonymous, redundant terms. In the original languages of the Bible, the word for justice also means righteousness. The Greek word dikaios (DIK-ah-yos) in the New Testament and the word tzedakah (tze-dah-KAH) in the Hebrew Bible have this dual meaning. Righteousness implies a personal and individual dimension, while justice implies a social dimension, but they both have the same objectives—acting on behalf of those suffering from hunger, poverty, sickness, injustice, discrimination, and imprisonment.

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the complicity of moderates in Nazi Germany

This blog post is a follow-up to a previous post, “the complicity of moderates.” It apparently offended a small number of self-disclosed moderates on Facebook who felt that my intention was to shame them. That was not my intention. Some claimed that they actually took stands as needed, but then their stand would have been necessarily toward one extreme or another, to the right or to the left, because there is no clearly defined middle way to respond to evil.

As a response, I will use an example from my first book.[1] It has to do with the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany, a nation of about 60 million people. In the early 1930s, two-thirds of the population was Protestant (about 40 million members) and the remaining third was Roman Catholic (about 20 million). Less than 1 percent (600,000) were Jewish.

Because the modern state of Germany was created from of a number of small independent principalities and kingdoms in the late nineteenth century, the Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant churches of Germany remained separated as 28 independent regional bodies reflecting their origins as small state-sponsored churches (Landeskirchen) with the local ruler as head. In 1922, they formed a loose federation to participate jointly in mission activities, but they did not come together as one unified church until April 1933 when the German Evangelical Church (Deutsche Evangelische Kirche) was created under the direction of Adolf Hitler.

Only months earlier, in January 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) had appointed Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) as Chancellor of Germany. When Hindenburg died the following year, Hitler combined the offices of chancellor and president and became the nation’s dictator. Many Christians in Germany openly welcomed Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party to power as a historic moment of Christ’s work on earth for and through the Aryan Volk (German for people).

As it rose to power in the 1930s, the Nazi message was that in spite of their God-given destiny, the nation was threatened from within by the insidious presence of Communists, Jews, and liberals in their midst. Hitler told the nation that their duty was to purify themselves of these influences to prepare for their divine vocation as God’s anointed nation. His message was that he would make Germany great again.

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Compassion in action: charity, service, and justice

Compassion is a feeling of empathy with the suffering of others, the capacity to feel how others feel. The Latin root of the word compassion is a compound of com (with) and passio (suffer), which gives us the meaning to suffer with. Compassion is entering into the pain of another. It is feeling the suffering of someone else—experiencing it, sharing it, tasting it. It is identifying with the sufferer, being in solidarity with the sufferer.

True compassion is being so moved at a gut level that we are moved to the point of action. Jesus was moved by compassion for the poor. We are told that, “He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36) And in the parable of the Good Samaritan he demonstrated that the one who loves the neighbor is the one who shows compassion on the one who suffers, even if that person is culturally defined as the enemy.

Marcus Borg (1942–2015) has said that, “For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God.” The Pharisees represented a theology of holiness, according to Borg, which was based on holiness as a defining characteristic of God: “Be holy for I, Yahweh, am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44) Jesus proclaimed a theology of compassion based on an alternative characterization of God’s essence: “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36) These differing theologies led them to different ways of living.

compassionate action

Compassionate action usually takes three forms: charity, service, and justice. Although some would include service under the first category, charity more specifically involves gifts of money, clothing, food, or other material goods, but does not necessarily involve an investment of our time and talents. Charity is important, but writing a check to a worthy does not really change us in a fundamental way. Although charitable giving demonstrates a generous nature, we often remain distant from those we seek to help. Service, however, involves us face-to-face with those in need. It can be an immensely transformative experience that can change us from our natural state of self-centeredness into increasingly selfless people. Perhaps it is the only thing that will. Although generosity sometimes leads to self-satisfaction, service often becomes a very humbling experience.

Charity and service are both personal forms of compassionate action. Their objective is to alleviate the effects of suffering in the world. Justice, on the other hand, seeks to eliminate the root causes of suffering. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) said:

We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.

Justice is focused on transforming the social structures and systems that produce poverty and suffering. Justice is the social form of compassionate action. It is the political means of caring for the least of these. The difference between charity and service on the one hand and justice on the other is this: charity and service seek to heal wounds, while justice seeks to end the social structures that create wounded people in the first place. William Sloane Coffin (1924–2006) has said: “The bible is less concerned with alleviating the effects of injustice, than in eliminating the causes of it.” Still, all three of these are necessary components of what German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) described as righteous action in the world. Together, righteous action and contemplative prayer would form the essence of a  “religionless Christianity” in our day.

Our being Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among [humanity]. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.

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the kingdom of God: an introduction

The time is fulfilled, the kingdom is at hand. (Mark 1:15)

The kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)

The kingdom of God is among you. (Luke 17:21)

The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it. (Gospel of Thomas 11)

At the heart of the gospel of Jesus is the kingdom of God. This one phrase sums up the entire ministry of Jesus and his whole life’s work. Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the New Testament was written in Greek. The expression kingdom of Godbasileia tou theou (bas-il-EH-ah too THEH-oo) in Greek and malkutha d’elaha (mal-KOOTH-ah dehl-ah-HAH) in Aramaic—points to the ruling activity of God over human social relationships.

As we read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see that every thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing: the realization of the reign of God’s love, compassion, justice, and peace within human society. Although Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God frequently, he never clearly defined it. Instead, he spoke of it in parables, comparing something familiar (mustard seed, leaven, lost coins, a man who sowed a field) with something unfamiliar.

Then he said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” (Luke 13:18)

Therefore, we must always test any proposed definition or meaning of the kingdom against the parables. Over the centuries, a variety of interpretations of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God have been put forth. We will briefly examine six of the most common explanations: the reign of God as 1) heaven, 2) an inner spiritual experience, 3) the church, 4) a separate society, 5) a new state, and 6) a new world. Continue reading

a eucharistic prayer

The bread of life for all who hunger.
The cup of compassion for a broken world.

The Eucharistic prayer

L:         For the gentle power of love
in human life and history,
we give thanks and praise.

Long ago our ancestors knew love’s power
and they became the tellers of love’s tale.
Love bound them in covenant,
gathering them in community
with compassion and concern
for the poorest among them.

Yet centuries of domination and violence
shaped a different kind of community
based on selfishness and inequality,
and the lust for wealth and power.

In the struggle against oppression,
Jesus became the face of love,
showing us the way to abundant life.
In word and deed, he announced
love’s new reign of justice, reconciliation, and peace.
Filled with the courage and passion of love’s spirit,
he gave his life to challenge the unjust systems of this world.

On the night of his arrest,
as he shared a meal with his friends,
Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it,
and gave it to his followers, saying:
“Share this bread among you; this is my body, broken for justice.
Do this to remember me.” 

When supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks,
and gave it to his disciples, saying:
“Share this wine among you; this is my blood, shed for a better world.
Do this to remember me.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they shall be nourished.”

God of love, spirit of compassion,
bless us and this bread and wine.
May this meal be food and drink for our journey—
renewing, strengthening, and sustaining us.

When we eat this bread and drink from this cup
we remember the life of Jesus
and dedicate our lives to his vision of a world
where all are fed with dignity and hope.

The table is ready. All are welcome. Come, for the feast is spread.

As the bread and wine are shared, these words are said:

The bread of life for all who hunger.
The cup of compassion for a broken world.

The blessing after the meal:

L:         May this meal nourish us and refresh us,
may it strengthen us and renew us,
may it unite us and keep us in God’s gracious love,
now and forever. Amen

L:         Let us pray.
God of love, we give you thanks for satisfying our hungry hearts with this meal.
Send us from here to reveal your love in the world.
Inspire in us the resolve and the courage, the compassion and the passion,
to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you. Amen

Dismissal:

L:         Go forth in service, remembering to fight, work, and pray
for those who suffer unjustly in our world.

 


Note:  Martin Luther wrote in 1519—

When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship . . . all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, pray and—if you cannot do more—have heartfelt sympathy.


 

© 2016 Kurt Struckmeyer

no longer male and female

I recently heard of a wedding ceremony in which the pastor charged the couple with two tasks—for the bride: to be submissive to her husband, and for the groom: to lead as the head of the family. These are not unusual expectations for couples in conservative Evangelical churches. In fact, they have been considered normal marital obligations for men and women for the past two thousand years.

We find biblical texts supporting this hierarchical relationship in early church letters attributed to both the New Testament figures of Paul and Peter.

First, there is this in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3:18–4:1):

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord.

Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord . . .

Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Second, there is a more elaborate version is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:21–6:9):

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . .  In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right . . .

And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ . . .

And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

Finally, a third version is represented in the first letter of Peter (2:13–3:7):

For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution . . .

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives . . .

Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex.

In these instructions, the expected ethical behavior is listed in pairs reflecting typical social relationships of the first century, addressing first the person who plays  a subordinate role and then the person of superior standing .  These injunctions maintain the traditional social hierarchy. Those in the inferior position are always urged to be obedient to the one whom society gives the upper hand.

In the nineteenth century, German biblical scholars labeled these parallel moral injunctions as the Haustafeln (household tablets), which are New Testament laws for everyday domestic relations. They were intended to imitate the typical social behaviors of the Roman and Jewish traditions in which the early church developed. Some scholars contend that they reflect similar admonitions by Greek Stoic philosophers who shaped the predominant Roman culture. In the past, many traditional scholars have argued that although these hierarchical relationships seem inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, they were simply an attempt to accommodate the radical new faith to the cultural norms of the empire of Rome in the first and second centuries, so that Christians could blend in with their neighbors. But the followers of Jesus were never meant to blend in. Rather, they were to present an alternative lifestyle to the world. Continue reading

a modest proposal for peace

Christians make up over half of the world’s population. But all too many Christians support the use of violence and the idea of violent retribution. Many Christians cheered as the U.S. invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq. According to pollsters, the majority of people in pews on Sunday morning support the use of torture in the name of security. They support capital punishment. And far too many of them own firearms. Christians are just like everybody else, accommodated to the prevailing culture in which we live. And we all know we live in a culture that supports violence as national policy, celebrates violence in entertainment, and worships their guns.

Today, the United States has military bases in 150 countries around the world. U.S. military spending represents 40 percent of the world’s total outlay on arms and armies, more than the next thirteen highest-spending countries in the world combined, including potential international enemies Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.  (China and Russia combined spend less than one-third of our military expenditures.) Fifty-four percent of our federal income tax dollars are spent on the military: present, past, and future. The military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned the nation about requires the constant identification of an enemy to justify increased levels of spending. Yet, while we spend enormous sums to prepare for military action abroad, we are clearly not safe from violence at home.

Apart from those places on the planet actively engaged in civil war or armed conflict, America may be one of the most violent places on earth to live, especially among highly industrialized nations. In the United States, above-average levels of violent crime and particularly high levels of gun violence and homicide define our nation and set us apart from other prosperous developed nations in North America, Europe, and Asia. Way apart.

We live in a “male warrior culture” that is aided and abetted by a deep and abiding love affair with guns. Firearms at Bunker Hill and on the American frontier play a mythic role in our national history. The individual right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and is often treated as a sacred right above all others, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Day in and day out, the violent armed male is glorified and celebrated in our media and entertainment. Is there any wonder why a person with mental issues may want to go out in a hail of bullets like one of the fictional heroes of television, film, and video games? Mix a little male testosterone with a touch of depression and anger fueled by alcohol, and you have a gun death in the making. Anger, depression, and guns. It is a perfect storm. The result: the slaughter of coworkers, college students, moviegoers, shoppers, and young children. Mentally ill people exist in every nation. But emotionally disturbed people with easy access to automatic weapons with great destructive capability is a uniquely American problem.

In 2010—a typical year—the United States experienced 31,513 deaths from firearms, ten times the number of people who perished in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The firearm deaths include 19,308 suicides, 11,015 homicides, and 600 accidents. Beyond this, the number of non-fatal injuries from firearms is truly significant—from 75,000 to 100,000 every year, including about 20,000 injuries in children aged 0 to 19 years.

According to the Small Arms Survey, roughly 650 million of the 875 million weapons in the world are in the hands of civilians, and one-third of the world’s guns (280 million) are in the hands of American civilians. Imagine the scope of this: the U.S. which has 5 percent of the world’s population owns 33 percent of its guns. Gun ownership in the United States is unparalleled in the world—nine guns for every ten Americans. (Yemen comes in a distant second.)

At the root of militarism abroad and gun violence at home is a global myth that is as ancient as civilization itself. People in nearly every society are enculturated from an early age to believe that violence is a necessary and inevitable part of human life. Evil and violence often go hand in hand. These two forces have always been a part of human history since the rise of the earliest civilizations, and we believe that they will remain a part of human life forever. We are taught to believe that we can never eliminate the presence of evil and violence, but can temporarily hold their powers at bay. But the only way to do that—the only really effective tool, we believe—is more violence, stronger violence, staggering violence.

Biblical scholar Walter Wink (1935–2012) called this belief “the myth of redemptive violence.” At the heart of the myth is a basic story which is retold ad infinitum: A hero (usually male) is overcome by evil forces. They take his possessions, kill his family, beat him savagely, and leave him for dead. The hero regains his strength and seeks out the evildoers. He takes revenge in a bloodbath of violence. It is a story told in terms of black and white. The hero, whom we identify with, is always good, while the evil forces are always completely evil. There is no hope for their transformation. The only effective solution to the conflict is their inevitable violent defeat. And yet, in the end, we know that even more evildoers still lurk in the shadows, awaiting their next opportunity to terrorize good and decent people.

We’ve all seen, read, or heard a multitude of stories based on the myth of redemptive violence. It is found repeatedly in novels, films, children’s cartoons, and television programs. Moreover, it is a fundamental belief across all civilizations and religions. It is far more compelling than any religious teaching or belief in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As a result, most of us trust violence—not love—to save us. We trust violence—not God—to deliver us from evil. Wink believed that the myth of redemptive violence was more deeply held in America than anything Christianity teaches. And it is probably a more deeply held belief among Christians than anything Jesus said to the contrary.

It was to people such as us—who are shaped by a pervasive cultural conformity—that Jesus proclaimed a new way of thinking and living. The process of transformation that Jesus proposed requires a questioning of all of our deeply held assumptions and inherited beliefs—political, economic, and religious.

Writer and activist Jim Wallis (b. 1948)—founder of the Sojourners publication and organization—has said, “The call to discipleship, the call to follow Jesus Christ, demands a fundamental break with the dominant values and conformist patterns of the majority culture.”

Our most persistent problem is that we try to make the claims of Christ negotiable with the claims and demands of the world . . . The principal way the world system seeks to overcome the church is by trying to squeeze the church into its own mold, to reduce the church to conformity. Therefore, the church must resist the constant temptation to reduce the claims of Christ, soften the demands of the gospel, ease the tension between the church and the world, and allow the ever radical message to be squeezed into more comfortable and congenial forms and styles . . . The community of believers must expect to find themselves at variance with the social consensus, the political conformity, and the popular wisdom of their society, for they are witnesses to a whole new order. (Agenda for Biblical People)

Jesus called people to transfer their allegiance from the self-serving values of empire to the servanthood values of the kingdom of God. Turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, give up your shirt as well as your coat, forgive seventy times seven, love your neighbor, love your enemy, do to others as you would have done to yourself. These are the words of a non-conformist. And the ethic of love that he modeled is sure to pit us against our culture, our governing authorities, and even our churches.

Some years ago I saw a poster that said “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let Christians Stop Killing Christians.”

So what if Christians simply stopped killing other Christians and then possibly stopped killing other people as well? What if Christians called for a reduction in our bloated military spending? What if Christians stopped participating in war and sending their sons and daughters into the service of the endless war machine? What if Christians disarmed their homes and removed all firearms? What if Christian churches preached creative nonviolence and the disarmed life? What if Christians actually started following the way Jesus?

What if?

the wisdom of God

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and God was the logos. He was with God in the beginning. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not grasp it.

—John 1:1–5 (NRSV translation)

When time began, the wisdom of God was there. In this wisdom was life and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness of the world, and the darkness cannot grasp it, nor extinguish it. . . Then the wisdom of God became a flesh-and-blood human being. And he parked his trailer in our neighborhood. We looked him in the face and that face reflected the light of God. . .  He gave us endless knowing and understanding of love and kindness and generosity. . . No one has actually seen God, but Jesus who is close to the heart of God has revealed God to us.

—A creative paraphrase of John 1:1, 5–6, 14, 16–18

Greek philosophers introduced the concept of logos (LOG-os) to the early Christian movement, familiarized to us by the prelude to John’s gospel. Although usually translated by Christians as “word,” logos is more accurately translated as “thought” or “reason.” Clarence Jordan translated it as “idea” in his “Cottonpatch” gospels. Perhaps “wisdom” is a better understanding.

Three centuries before Jesus, Stoic philosophers proposed that the logos symbolized the divine reason or creative intelligence that is implied in the order of the universe, giving it form and meaning. For them, humans possess a small portion of the divine logos that sets us apart from lower forms of life.

For the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE–50 CE)—a contemporary of Jesus and Paul—the logos was seen as the approachable aspect of an inapproachable and incomprehensible God. Philo believed that one cannot communicate directly with God, but can come to know and understand God through the logos, a kind of intermediary being or spirit that provides insight into the mind of God and reveals God’s governing plan for the world.  For Paul, the logos of God replaced the Torah of God as the benchmark of religious understanding.
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all are welcome

The sign outside the church
said “all are welcome.”

Perhaps they meant to say
all who look like us are welcome,
all who think like us are welcome,
all who believe like us are welcome,
all who wear masks like us are welcome,
all who don’t make a ruckus are welcome,
all who don’t shine the light of truth on us are welcome.

Come on in,
make yourself at home.

This is such a warm and friendly place,
such a nice community.

And we mean to keep it that way.

 

 

© 2014 Kurt Struckmeyer

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