Category: Reign of God (page 1 of 2)

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 politics of Jesus

Part 1: the politics of the domination system

The word ‘politics’ comes from the Greek word politikos, meaning “of, for, or relating to the polis.” Polis literally means ‘city’ in Greek. It can also mean ‘citizenship’ and ‘body of citizens.’ Pete Seeger once said that politics happens whenever we bring people together.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote an eight-volume book called Politika, a dissertation on governing and governments. In his case, he was concerned with the Greek city-state. He saw politics as our “social relations involving authority or power.” Aristotle classified a number of real and theoretical states according to their constitutions. On one side stand the true (or good) constitutions, which aim for the common good, and on the other side the perverted (or deviant) ones, considered such because they aim for the well-being of only a part of the city.

Here are his opening lines: “Since we see that every city-state is a sort of community (koinônia) and that every community (koinônia) is established for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what they believe to be good), it is clear that every community (koinônia) aims at some good, and the community (koinônia) which has the most authority of all and includes all the others aims highest, that is, at the good with the most authority.”

Politics has to do with how we structure our life together as a society—either for the sake of the common good or for the sake of a privileged few. This includes our overarching economic system, taxation policies, governing budgets, the rights of citizens, social justice, and human equality.

When we discuss the politics of Jesus, we must first understand the political structures of first-century Roman Palestine, which was an occupied province of the Roman Empire. Rather than Aristotle’s city-state organized for the common good, Jesus experienced three despotic structures of government organized for a privileged few at the expense of the vast majority. Galilee was a monarchy ruled by Herod Antipas. After the removal of his brother Herod Archelaus by Rome in 6 CE, Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator who reported to the governor of Syria. However, the day-to-day operations were entrusted to a wealthy oligarchy (meaning ‘the ruling few’) of the Sadducees, sometimes referred to in the gospels as “the leaders of the people,” or “the chief priests and the elders.” In conquered territories, it was always Rome’s practice to find indigenous collaborators to rule on their behalf. And they always chose people from the wealthy class who saw it in their personal interest to support power when it advantaged them. On top of these structures was an emperor in Rome who was essentially a self-appointed dictator. So Jesus was confronted by a monarchy in Galilee, an oligarchy in Jerusalem, and a dictatorship in Rome. Continue reading

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

Jesus, Justice, and the Law

 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.
Deuteronomy 16:20 (the Law)

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?
— Micah 6:8 (the Prophets)

Strive first for the reign of God and God’s justice.
— Matthew 6:33 (the Gospels)

Was Jesus a law-abiding citizen? Or did he teach us to step outside the law when needed in the name of compassion and justice? Traditional orthodox Christianity claims that Jesus was perfect and sinless, fulfilling the Law of Moses and the Prophets of ancient Israel. Therefore, he obeyed the Hebrew Law completely. But the truth is more complex, illustrating the tension between written and oral laws and the biblical call to justice.

During his life, Jesus experienced three despotic structures of government organized for a privileged few at the expense of the common good of the majority. Upon the death of Herod the Great (73–4 BCE), his kingdom was divided among his three sons. Galilee was a monarchy ruled by his son Herod Antipas (born before 20 BCE – 39 CE). After the removal of his brother Herod Archelaus (23 BCE – 18 CE) by Rome in 6 CE, Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator who reported to the governor of Syria. However, the day-to-day operations were entrusted to a wealthy oligarchy (meaning the ruling few) of the Sadducees, sometimes referred to in the gospels as “the leaders of the people,” or “the chief priests and the elders.” In conquered territories, it was always Rome’s practice to find indigenous collaborators to rule on their behalf. And they always chose people from the wealthy class who saw it in their personal interest to support power when it advantaged them. On top of these structures was an emperor in Rome—first Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE), and then Tiberius (42 BCE – 37 CE)—who was essentially a self-appointed dictator. So Jesus was confronted by a monarchy in Galilee, an oligarchy in Jerusalem, and a dictatorship in Rome.

There were obviously overlapping legal systems in place in this conquered nation, but the one that is usually discussed in regards to Jesus is the Hebrew Law found in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. At the time of Jesus, there were three levels of Hebrew Law. At the core were the Ten Commandments, which we are told were given on stone tablets to Moses by Yahweh.[1] Surrounding these were 316 laws (mitzvot) found in the Covenant Code[2] of Exodus, the Holiness Code[3] of Leviticus, and the Deuteronomic Code[4] of Deuteronomy that were written over hundreds of years. The three codes are significantly different in the range of social and religious issues they cover, the style in which they are written, and the fundamental rules they establish. They can broadly be conceived of as the law of the tribes, the law of the Temple, and the law of the royal court. They show a progression from a primitive tribal confederacy to a sophisticated temple-state ruled by a king. Debating specific interpretations of the Law was an ongoing activity, resulting in an oral law developed by the Rabbis and Pharisees. They viewed it as creating a ‘fence’ around the Law to keep its precepts from being violated.

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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 kingdom is at hand

Music: “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” by Johann Sebastian Bach / “American Tune” by Paul Simon

 

A young man roams the city
With anger in his eyes.
His rage glows like an ember,
His soul is cold as ice.
And he knows he’s going nowhere,
And he knows he cannot win.
But still he cries at the darkened skies,
While the kingdom is at hand.

The widow makes her daily meal
Of stale toast and tea.
Her money gone, her days grow long,
And fill with memories.
She dreams of friends and family
Of the life that they had planned;
Shadows loom in the empty room
While the kingdom is at hand.

The young girl on the corner
Makes her living on the street.
In motels and bars she bears the scars
Of lovers and defeat.
Then getting stoned, she goes back home
With another faceless man.
Two empty lives drift through the night
While the kingdom is at hand.

The children cry from hunger
As their listless bodies lie
In rooms they share with vacant stares
And silent weeping eyes.
Their stunted minds and shunted lives
Are a curse upon the land.
The children’s tears fill up their years
While the kingdom is at hand.

To those who have no future,
To those who have no hope;
To those who know no kindness,
To those who grasp and grope;
To those whose lives are empty,
To those who need a friend;
The Word of Life has come to you
For the kingdom is at hand.

The Holy Spirit gathers
The lost and lonely ones.
She takes them from their darkness
And bathes them in the sun.
She sends her church into the world
To those whose lives are damned,
To live and die with the joyful cry
That the kingdom is at hand.

To every generation,
To every race and land;
In city or in country,
The kingdom is at hand.
The Lord is here among us,
His promises are true.
The kingdom lives forever,
The kingdom is in you!

Yes, the kingdom is in you.

 

© September 1976, Kurt Struckmeyer

prayer for discipleship

God of love,
source of mercy and compassion,
weave your dream for the world
into the fabric of our lives. 

Remove the scales from our eyes
and lift the indifference from our hearts,
so that we may see your vision –
a new reign of justice and compassion
that will renew the earth.

Transform our lives,
so that we may accomplish your purpose.

Anoint us with your spirit of love
that we might bring good news to the oppressed,
bind up the brokenhearted,
and proclaim release to the captive.

Give us a new urgency
and a new commitment
to feed the hungry,
clothe the naked,
shelter the homeless,
and visit those who live in isolation.

Help us to reach out to those
whom no one else will touch,
to accept the unacceptable,
and to embrace the enemy.

Surround us with your love,
fill us with your grace,
and strengthen us for your service.

Empower us to respond to the call of Jesus –
to deny ourselves,
to take up our crosses,
and to follow.

Make us your disciples.

Amen

 

© 2010 Kurt Struckmeyer

a creed of love

I believe in the hidden God of love:
the spirit of love and compassion
found at the breadth and depth
of every human life.

I believe in the vision of Jesus:
the reigning of God on earth,
found where people and societies
are governed by the rule of love.

I believe in the way of Jesus:
a love for God and neighbor,
a love for stranger and enemy,
a love for outcast and alien.

I believe in the abundant life of Jesus:
a life of acceptance, inclusion, and forgiveness,
a life of equality, generosity, and sharing,
a life of compassion, service, and nonviolence.

I believe that Jesus modeled the godly life:
healing the sick and serving the poor,
seeking dignity and equality for all people,
and calling for shared wealth and economic justice.
For this he was condemned and crucified
by those who serve the forces of domination
in every time and place.

I believe that though he died,
the spirit of Jesus lives on
among those who strive for peace and justice
and who work to create a better world.

In the name of Jesus,
and in the name of love,
I commit myself to care for others,
to break down the barriers that separate us,
and to seek justice and peace in the world.

Amen.

 

 

© 2014 Kurt Struckmeyer

nevertheless, she persisted

In a certain city there was a certain judge who did not fear God and who did not care about people. In that same city, there was a widow who kept coming to him and demanding, “Give me a ruling of vindication against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care about people, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I’m going to give her a favorable ruling, or else she’ll keep coIming back until she wears me down!” ― Jesus (Luke 18: 1-8)
You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation. — Marian Wright Edelman (b. 1939)

In a late night session on February 7, 2017, during Jeff Session’s confirmation hearing for U.S. Attorney General, just weeks after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, the United States Senate voted to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren after she read comments made decades earlier by Edward Kennedy and Coretta Scott King that criticized the civil rights record of Senator Sessions. Warren was censured because Senate Rule XIX prohibits ascribing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” To silence her, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led a party-line vote that forced Senator Warren to take her seat and refrain from speaking. McConnell later said “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

That phrase, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” became a rallying cry for the women’s movement that had been ignited by the election of Donald Trump. Writer Valerie Schultz wrote in America: the Jesuit Review of Faith & Culture, “It is a phrase we women embrace because persistence is what we do.”

We women persist. Isn’t that our job? Throughout history, we have persisted in our quest for respect, for justice, for equal rights, for suffrage, for education, for enfranchisement, for recognition, for making our voices heard. In the face of violence, of opposition, of ridicule, of belittlement, even of jail time, nevertheless, we have persisted.

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the rich fool and the bigger barn economy

And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ (Luke 12:15–21, NRSV)

In the Cotton Patch translation of verse 15, Clarence Jordan (1912–1969) brings out its original earthiness: “You all be careful and stay on your guard against all kinds of greediness. For a person’s life is not for the piling up of possessions.”

Jordan develops this parable in an interesting way in The Substance of Faith, a collection of his sermons. He elevates the parable to a broad social and political level.

“Jesus said, ‘There was a certain rich farmer.’ Now, he didn’t say what the man’s name was. Jesus left him rather impersonal. To make it a little bit more personal, let’s give the man a name. We’ll call him Sam. ‘Sam’s fields brought forth abundantly.’ Now, we might even want to call him uncle. That would be all right, too. ‘Uncle Sam’s fields brought forth abundantly.’” (Cotton Patch Sermons, pp 81–82)

And what did Uncle Sam do with his rich yield? He kept it all to himself and ignored the hungry of the world. So, although the parable may have been intended to be understood on a purely individual basis, we could legitimately expand the reading to include the entire nation and thereby entertain a new lesson. In either reading, the problem is greediness and self-interest, an unwillingness to share with those in need.

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