How to Follow Jesus and Love Our Neighbors Without Voting (Guest Post by Samantha E. Lioi)

(I am thankful to have a guest post by a new friend, Samantha Lioi. Things like Justice, Peace, and Community, are not just ideals to hold for her, but are integral parts of her life. I thought it would be helpful to have a countering perspective to the model I presented earlier, for which I have not completely sold myself on nonetheless. I’m thankful for my sister’s radical and anti-imperial witness in the midst of complacent and comfortable approach to politics. Enjoy! – Drew)

“Love does not enter into competition, and therefore it cannot be defeated.” Karl Barth[1]

 

The acts of love we must undertake as disciples of Jesus, the risen Christ, are much riskier than voting.  Using our voices—our real-time, audible voices—and standing with our bodies in the way of injustice (for ex., standing with someone at an immigration hearing, sitting with a family whose son was arrested on false charges, walking with a community whose right to exist is threatened by neighbors or armed corporations) is much different from thinking of voting as voice.  If we consider our vote to carry our voice, we must consider whether voting functions this way for members of society whose voices are routinely set aside or completely unheard.

 

I’m grateful for the written voice of my friend Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, whose family immigrated to New York City when she was in grade school and who is a naturalized citizen of the United States.  In explaining her choice as a black woman not to vote, she questions this idea of voting-as-voice, and points to what I find to be a compelling trend from the Civil Rights era.  “Between 1955 an 1977, acts of civil disobedience decreased, and the number of black registered voters and elected officials increased. In this period, legislation favorable to blacks also decreased, and economic positions of black people deteriorated.”[2]  It may be that direct action involving physical risk is much more effective in moving lawmakers toward justice than electing a representative we believe will enact justice or attempting to direct current lawmakers through our votes.

 

It is important for Christians to ask the practical question, “What actions and collaborations with God and others will contribute to increased well-being for the weakest, most at-risk members of our society?”  It is equally important for us to realize this is a question about how we use our power, and when Christians think of power, we should think of the upside-down, unreasonable power of the cross and resurrection.  We are easily seduced by our belief in our ability to make things happen.  I do not want to dismiss effectiveness; however, I do want to remind us that the cross did not appear anything close to effective as a way of bringing deliverance to the Jewish people.  It was, quite obviously to all onlookers at the time, a defeat—a shameful, final defeat, the kind from which people turn away their faces.  I know you know this.  But we are human and we forget.  This is the Gospel we proclaim; this shameful, strange, violent death and the equally shocking rising of Jesus is, for his followers, the undeniable picture of our God, the God who dies in human flesh and the God who breathes life in places of death.  And voting for President of the United States of America, a participation in choosing who will have the highest seat of power in our government, does not immediately appear relevant to the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  It is often a way of claiming power over those with whom we are at odds (including other Christians), and it is a turning over of our power to someone more influential, to someone higher up.  Jesus surrendered his power only to the One who sent him, and drew his healing power from this One, and we are to imitate this way of living.

 

I have heard some say they fear that if we don’t vote, we who are most privileged (and I include myself in that category—in terms of racialized identity, education and access to financial resources) will disengage, because more often than not, our lives are not significantly affected by changes in the Oval Office.  But apathy and complacency among those most comfortable is a constant problem in every society, and as I observe our behaviors, voting does not address this problem.  We privileged one’s vote and feel we have done our duty.  Having voted for a man we believe will best support the nation’s common good, we can then disengage from the day-to-day struggles and lives of people who lack the social, financial, and cultural padding we enjoy.  If we take time at all to struggle with the questions around voting, perhaps we will choose to act, showing up in the flesh to work for widespread well-being.

 

Still, I admit it is sometimes true that getting certain people into office helps the immediate cause of vulnerable people.  And I have deep respect for those who choose to vote because their daily, direct work with vulnerable people makes it impossible for them to imagine not voting—especially when those vulnerable people—because of legal status or other barriers—have no possibility of voting themselves.  In cases like this, I understand that voting feels like the action with the most integrity, and there is a sense of acting on behalf of specific people, friends, with faces and stories one knows like one’s own.  At the same time, let us also admit that this situation and this amount of thoughtful deliberation is not descriptive of most U.S. Christians or their reasons for voting.

 

Whether we choose to vote or not, as the people of God we do not arrange our lives around the timetables of elections but around God’s year-round actions of reconciling love, remembered in the story of the Divine taking on flesh, growing up as an ordinary child, teaching, healing, dying, rising, and sending the Holy Spirit.  Nor do the decisions of elected officials limit the boundless plenty of the Creator, from whose open hand the desires of every living thing are satisfied.  Whenever and wherever the needs of God’s creatures are not filled, it is ours to partner with this ever-creating God to see that the plenty is justly shared.  This partnership is not dependent on voting or upon any other human institution, including church institutions.

 

The acts of love we must undertake are much more costly than voting.  Let us encourage one another in the risky, full-bodied love of the Risen One.


[1]              Quoted as an epigram in Lewis, Ted. Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting (Eugene, Ore: Cascade Books, 2008).

[2]              Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, “Freedom of Voice: Non-Voting and the Political Imagination,” in Lewis, Electing Not to Vote, 36, emphasis mine.

Book Review: the POWER of ALL: Building a Multivoiced Church

For the typical American Christian, Sunday morning is the time in which a faithful believer attends a church service, where they will be lead in worship and are hoping to hear an impactful sermon from their gifted and informed pastor. Directly following the program, it’s not uncommon for people to verbally acknowledge how good church was. At that point it is time to get home to eat or catch the afternoon football game. This is the image that the New Testament paints of the Christian community, right?

Well, for Sian and Stuart Murray Williams, they decisively must contest that portrayal of the Christian community, despite how overwhelmingly common such practice is. While they have addressed various issues concerning the nature and role of the Church in the past, what they are most concerned with in the POWER of ALL: Building a Multivoiced Church, is whether the Christian community ought to be passive or participatory in its ecclesiastical life.

To get at this issue, the primary term that is employed is “Multivoiced Church”, which is a description of the actively participative Church in its worship, learning and teaching, and even discernment processes.  The term may seem odd or confusing at first hearing, but rest assured, it has a very clear and concrete implication. “There is nothing mysterious about the meaning of the term “multivoiced worship.” It means simply that when God’s people gather, our corporate worship is expressed by many people and in many formats, tones, and accents.”

One of the books strongest arguments are in chapters two and three, in which they look at the New Testament account and Church History. Without getting into any specifics, I think it is more than fair to say that the book does an exemplary job at looking at various New Testament ecclesiologies, demonstrating pretty adequately that life was in one manner or another best described as multivoiced. Likewise, the book attempts to locate the turning point for Christian churches gradual transformation from multivoiced churches to monovoiced churches.

This book is not written for scholars, but it’s highly researched and well documented information is made extremely accessible. What I particularly found helpful was the way in which the authors share real stories from their own experience as well as others who have wrestled with these church implications. Just as helpful are the various questions and even warnings that are provided for anyone that might consider transitioning their church in a more participatory course.  Their care and concern for the life of the church are one of the most compelling aspects of the book.

I highly recommend this book for any Christian that is tired of the consumeristic, passive, mundane, and ultimately boring congregational life that is found in most churches today. If you would like to see the local congregations BE the Church as it gathers as well as when it goes out into society then this book is for you. This is for the pastor that wants to foster this type of community and this for the “member” that wants to participate in the life of the Church as I believe God intended. Definitely grab a copy of the Power of All.

 

(As full disclosure, I was given this pre-release copy of the Power of All for the sole purpose of reviewing it publicly on my blog. I am not receiving any funds and there is no expectation of necessarily receiving a positive review. These are my genuine thoughts.)

Resurrection and 1 Corinthians 15: Beyond Tupac Holograms

Not sure if you have heard or seen about Tupac’s recent performance with Snoop. Nope, you didn’t misread anything, and yes I meant to say Tupac. Tupac, the one in whom there has always been urban myths surrounding his death, which has led some to believe he is still alive. Yup, that Tupac! In a somewhat creepy manner, Snoop and Dre paid a premium to have their old friend perform once again with them live, by hologram. I can’t lie, it was pretty impressive. It was also very eerie to see someone we all (or most of us) know is dead on stage performing, with life like movement, traversing across the stage, and getting the crowd hype. Regardless of whether you agree with this action or not, certainly we can all understand the desire to bring back such a legendary and almost mythic hip hop artist. Tupac, in many ways, has become a larger figure after his death than when he was still living. He is considered to be hip hop’s pinnacle cultural prophet of the 90’s in the mind of most hip hoppers with any collective memory that reaches back before the turn of the 21st century. However, the reality is that Tupac is gone, and in many ways, there continues to be a hole and vacuum in the hip hop world that has not been filled by most of our contemporary mainstream hip hop artists. The hologram is impressive, but if anything it ultimately brings our attention to the reality that he is truly gone and that he is missed, rather than that some measure has speciously fooled us into believing he has come back to life.

I’ve been reading 1 Corinthians 15 a lot recently. It has been consuming my mental faculties for various reasons recently. If 1 Corinthians 13 is the Love chapter, then chapter 15 should likewise be deemed the Resurrection chapter.

Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. (1 Cor. 15:1-8)

What is important to note, as Paul rehearses the gospel which was passed down to him, is that the emphasis and launching point is the resurrection rather than Jesus’ death. The whole chapter is the outflow of Jesus’ resurrection. Notice also that Paul is initially interested in Jesus’ appearance to his disciples, the crowds, and ultimately even to him after his resurrection. However, Jesus’ resurrection, unlike Tupac’s hologram, is one that offers hope not despair. Tupac’ hologram is a reminder of our fleeting mortality, our brief visitation in these decaying bodies. Jesus’ resurrection, in contrast, points us towards hope beyond death.

For Christ’s resurrection is the first fruit of the resurrection that we will join him in (15:20). Jesus’ resurrection, was a physical and tangible reality, despite what some liberals have argued from within the confines of modernity’s limited theological vision and faith-killing enlightenment approaches to logic and reasoning. It was in the firm conviction of Jesus’ resurrection that people were able to risk everything and to be fashioned after Jesus, the prototype of a new humanity (15:49). Similarly, the oppressive threat of death, a favorite weapon of imperial and oppressive powers and forces in our world, no longer has any teeth in its bite (15:54-56). Disciples subversively rejected the Roman Empire has having rule over their life, because only the Messiah and his Kingdom were granted that. Likewise, we can also live with radical postures, as we reject false claims to the reigns over our lives, because nothing that can be done to us will pass through death to the other side. So we can speak boldly and say “No” to “God and Country” and simultaneously say “Yes” to “God and His Kingdom”. And if we say we reject the reign of America over us and accept the reign of God’s Kingdom over us, then we also embody those eternal realities right now as we begin to participate in the Kingdom of justice, peace, and righteousness that has centralized the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed at the Lord’s table.

Our new found resurrection boldness allows us to defy the social order, the status quo, and the dominant culture’s power plays. We should no longer be bamboozled into the belied lies of the ephemeral mainstream. Tupac’s hologram was neat, but nonetheless impermanent and death-dealing. Jesus’ resurrection offers us a game-changing imperishability and a life-giving hope the world needs.

Trayvon Martin and the White Christian Leader’s Response

To My White Christian Leader Friends:

For those who are not familiar with who Trayvon Martin is, he is another young black male (a teenager in this case) who has fell victim to a racialized lethal attack while unarmed, by a man who has about 10 years and 100 p0unds on the boy, and who also happened to be carrying a gun during the attack.  The racialized gaze which interprets black male bodies as suspicious and dangerous bodies, played out once more. This time, Trayvon was not armed with a wallet or cell phone (other apparently dangerous looking accessories when  being held by black bodies) but a pack of skittles and a can of soda. Apparently, the man who shot him had called 911 because Trayvon looked “suspicious” and that something was wrong with him. Deciding to ignore the advice of authorities, this vigilante decided to follow the young boy and then proceeded to fatally shoot him. Several witnesses have claimed to have heard the young boy screaming for help right before the gun went off. However, no arrests have been made, and the vigilante is claiming self defense, because this young boy armed with skittles and a soda obviously is a threat to a grown man armed with a gun, who himself decides to follow this child. At the minimum, does not the loss of this child’s life deserve an arrest and a hearing in court?

Black life continues to carry little value within America’s dominant culture. I wish that this was an isolated event, but in reality, with unfathomable regularity, there are these events that remind me over and over again that black bodies and black life are not valued in our country if they are not entertaining America. Simultaneously, I hear directly from many white Christian leaders, who claim that they want to break the pattern of racial division in the Church, not making the same mistakes of their ancestors, and wanting to have a more racially diverse and representative group. While I think all of those things are great, I sometimes wonder if people actually value black bodies and back life, or if it is merely just trendy and cool to have (or at least claim to want) a racially diverse group.

One thing I have noticed, since the few years I have been blogging and using twitter, is that when these racialized tragedies occur, my less pigmented brothers and sisters in Christ tend to often be ridiculously quiet. While many black and brown Christian leaders speak up and out about the senseless violence, (internal and external) very few white Christian leaders have anything to say on the subject matter. In fact, it at least appears as though many are so disconnected from black life, that they are business as usual throughout the tragedy and protest.  The question must be asked, can my brothers and sisters from within the dominant culture expect racial diversity in their communities while they enact no type of solidarity with those who are vulnerable under an unjust system? Restated, how can a person want to be racially inclusive and yet not care about the livelihood of those same people they want to attract? At quick glance, one could see this happen and assume that the outward expression of desiring a multicultural community is really masking the same old racially apathy that has been passed on for generations.

My challenge is for White Christian leaders (particularly those who have stated verbally their desire for racial diversity) to make solidarity with their systemically vulnerable black and brown brothers and sisters, standing with us as we expose and shame these atrocious acts.  Please, research it yourself, then talk about it within your own sphere of influence, deciding how you can best make a stand in solidarity for love, justice, peace, and reconciliation in your communities and nationwide. And for those who have shared their concern, ignore this, this was not meant for you, your solidarity is appreciated.

Tribal Talk: Exorcism and White Supremacy (Guest Post By Kevin Sweeney)

(I am thankful for the opportunity to have a guest post from Kevin Sweeney. He is a true follower of Jesus, intellect, theologian, and friend of  marginalized people.   I have been personally encouraged by his transparency as he discusses, exposes, and confronts white privilege and systemic racism as a white male himself. His honesty, courage and knowledge on the subject are deeply needed within the Christian Church. Enjoy! – Drew Hart)

What Should We Do?

In the last section of his book, Tribal Talk: Black Theology, Hermeneutics, and African/American Ways of “Telling the Story” Will Coleman describes what some of the main characteristics of Tribal Talk are. The two that are most vital for understanding the nature of tribal talk are tribal talk’s commitment to liberation and exorcism. Coleman states “It is committed to the liberation of persons of African descent from the legacy of white supremacy—and of persons of European descent from the same.” Anticipating the question of why from his readers, Coleman goes on to say, “It (white supremacy) is a stubborn demon, but it can and will be exorcised. Constant exposure (the naming and sending away) of its false powers is the key to its exorcism.”[1] Although white people may have a visceral reaction to Coleman’s referring to white supremacy as a demon that must be exorcised due to its violent nature, it does not require much historical research—especially in our own country, the United States–to end up confronting the unspeakable violence that is the result of white supremacy and racism. Examples of this white supremacy include, but are not limited to the enslavement and dehumanization of Africans, the burning and lynching of black bodies, and the systematic discrimination against blacks in housing, healthcare, and employment. And if “constant exposure” is key to exorcising this demon, then we must develop the vision to see the ways in which this demon still operates, name it as the demon of racism and white supremacy that it is, and enact the courage to confront it and send it away. But the question remains, who is this we that I am referring to as I write?

The “we” that is being referred to in this response is the white church in the United States of America. And for the intent of this post, the white church refers to any individual white person who professes Jesus as Lord, any local, white homogenous church, and any institutions of higher education that are still harboring this demon of white supremacy—my school, Fuller Theological Seminary included. The critical response is not focusing on the white church in the United States because it is the only instantiation of the body of Christ that has racist sensibilities; rather because it constitutes the geographical, religious and socio-political context that I inhabit. Our brothers and sisters in the African Diaspora have invited us to participate in this tribal talk, and in order to be faithful to this legacy we have a responsibility to exorcise this demon of white supremacy wherever we see it, including the depths of ourselves. In the early 20th century, Ida B. Wells said, “American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hell-fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.” Since another element of tribal talk is listening deeply to our ancestors, we—the white church—must listen deeply to our sister Ida B. Wells and allow her to challenge us so we do not continue to embody the same demon of white supremacy that our predecessors did.


[1] Coleman, Tribal Talk, 194.

Kevin Sweeney studied sociology and world Religion at the University of Hawaii, holds a BA in biblical studies from Life Pacific College, and is currently pursuing masters degrees in both theology and intercultural studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a mystic, a poet, a student of black theology, and an unmasker of institutional racism, white supremacy, and white privilege. His greatest joy is being married to (and surfing with) his wife Christine.

Follow Kevin Sweeney on Twitter @kevinsweeney1

Prophetic Priorities for the Poor and Democratic Duty Dichotomies: A Spin Off

One area for me that makes the discussion concerning Christian responsibility for the poor more of a complex one, is the reality that we do not live under Caesar and the Roman Empire, but rather in imperial America we have a democracy, which means we (everyone not just politicians) in some form take the place of Caesar (as the government). This means that we are accountable for the policies and laws of the land as individuals, in as much as our small voice, vote, and communal activity has influence. And it is clear that laws and policies can systemically have favorable or adverse consequences on the lives of poor people (and everyone else).  How does this play into the discussion of Christian responsibility for the poor? As Christians, as has already been stated, we are responsible to sacrifice, serve, and find solidarity with the poor as a part of our faithful witness. This responsibility is not to be a dichotomy in our lives where aspects of us are concerned for the poor and other aspects are not, rather it is a holistic totality of our being. By this I mean that we must consider our spending habits, our social circles, our speech/deed enactments, our exposure, and the various means that we have accessible to us as Christians to impact the lives of those who are socio-economically disenfranchised. One of the means available to us, as I began to discuss, is that of democratic influence. Certainly none of us are Caesar, and therefore we cannot snap and get whatever we want to be manifested. However, that does not remove the responsibility for us to do what we can faithfully. That is where the prophetic tradition and the Anabaptist tradition have been extremely helpful for me, given the reality that most Christians traditions have not been holistic in their response to those most marginalized, and likewise most Christian individuals politically are puppets for our imperial political parties, having nothing else to add other than their particular political parties ideology (of course with their Christianity-ism slant).

The prophetic tradition, evident in the likes of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King understood (even without democratic opportunity) that as Christians they have a responsibility to impact the fallen broken social order that they are a part of through a violent clash of ethics, values, and theological vision. It was their faith that shaped and motivated them to seek political change inspired by God’s revolutionary Kingdom.

On the other hand, the Anabaptist community is one of the few Christian communities in America that have continually been holistic in its understanding of our responsibility to the poor. They give generously, serve continually, and they even teach to sacrifice luxuries and comforts so they are able to give as a basic tenet of Christian faith and identity. Sacrifice and service (for the poor rather than one’s own church’s institution) is rarely one of the ABC’s of most church’s teachings.

In America, the closest thing to modeling the life and teachings of Jesus, as it relates to ministry to, for, and with the poor is seen clearest in my opinion when we do not get excited about which tradition has the best doctrine and systemic theology, but rather when we are ecstatic about traditions that have faithful theological vision and are obedient in embodying this divine narrative concretely in their communities and contexts.

The thing that is great about the gospel is that it is comprehensive. It is about Newness; New life, New Humanity, New Jerusalem, and New Creation.   The gospel is that Jesus came and ushered in a new social order in the midst of our old, decaying, and fallen social order. And in Christ, we can be a part of and experience this divine renewal of all things right now. So yes, as the Church it is our responsibility to be salt and light and our responsibility to care for the poor, which means we must be faithfully bearing witness and making a difference in all spheres of our influence, including our democratic system through prophetic  stance.  So sacrifice, give, share, vote, speak out, and stand alongside the poor as the active implementation of God’s gospel is rehearsed in your lives.

Politics of Poor Plight and Prophetic Priorities: A Brief Response to Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney recently made an interesting comment about his lack of concern for poor people. According to him, we need not care about poor people because America has a safety net. Rather, he is concerned with America’s middle class because they are the ones who are struggling. Yes, that’s right, the people with more resources than poor people are the ones who are hurting most in this economy, according to Mitt’s logic.

While I am thankful that we do have a safety net in America, considering the thousands who have died from the famine in the Horn of Africa in the past year, I can not fathom how one could argue that poor people are doing well in America and the middle class is the group suffering most. This is so ridiculous that I won’t spend any more on that point.

However, as a Black Anabaptist Christian shaped by the Israelite scriptures and it’s fulfillment in the person of Jesus, I have particular priorities that shape my own ethics/politics. My Jubilee-Shalom-Kingdom of God politics must always prioritize “the least of these” among us, to not do so would be to disregard God’s  intervention and revelation in the world, particularly the Bible. The Bible clearly keeps watch of, defends, and centralizes the concerns of poor people throughout the entire narrative. To be in continuity with the God of scripture, and specifically Jesus the Crucified One, we must embrace the same ethics concerning poverty that is consistently woven throughout scripture. It compels us to embody Jesus’ story now in our own contexts. A faithful reading of scripture demands from us particular prophetic priorities to enact if we are to claim to be Christian (Christ-like), and they are not really optional. One of those ethical priorities is our care, sacrifice, and provision for the poor. To state that you do not care for poor people is to reject the Israelite narrative and ultimately to reject Jesus, that is assuming we can not slice him up and then choose which parts we like and which we do not like as if Jesus were a buffet line.

Sorry Mitt, but you have absolutely no credibility with me. (Neither do any of the other candidates, so please don’t take this as an endorsement for anyone). Finally, let me make myself clear by stating that as far as I am concerned, both major political parties in America are off the mark when it comes to the issue of poverty. One party (in my eyes) is aggressively against poor people, and the other (again from my perspective) pays lip service and offers a few minimal government programs, however each fall drastically short of the Jubilee paradigm from the Old Testament that Jesus continues to echo in his own ministry. As Christians, our ethics and political priorities ought not be confined to the arguments of the day between two imperial political parties, but ought to begin and end with theological vision rooted deeply in scripture and particularly in Jesus the Christ, as they are manifested in love for God and others.

Here is a tiny fraction of the biblical passages that remind us that we ought to prioritize the poor as a part of our Christian ethics and witness.

Psalms 82:3 “Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless! Vindicate the oppressed and suffering!”

James 2:5-8 “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to? But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.”

Dueteronomy 15:11 “There will never cease to be some poor people in the land; therefore, I am commanding you to make sure you open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are needy and poor in your land.”

Proverbs 14:31 “The one who oppresses the poor insults his Creator, but whoever shows favor to the needy honors him.”

Luke 6:20 “Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you.”

Ezekiel 16:49  “‘See here – this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had majesty, abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy.”

Galatians 2:10 “They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do.”

1 John 3:17 “But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow brother in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person?”

Woke Up This Mornin’ With My Mind Stayed On Jesus

I have never been one to tip toe around my opinion of mainstream american religiosity. I have trouble labeling what passes for Christianity in America as such. This is not a statement on whether or not folks are among God’s family (which isn’t really for me to decide), but rather it is an ecclesiological and theological concern which aims to critically consider what qualifies a group of people to be the Church, as well as what is the heart and substance of Christianity.

Unfortunately, American christianity-ism, has inundated itself with very elaborate abstract and systematized theology. The lack of theology being done rooted in specific 21st contexts as well as understood through situating Jesus in the biblical narrative, history, and his Palestinian socio-political context is at the core of our contemporary theological plight. In doing theology with the attempts of building universal systematic principles, we have in essence landed upon vague theological musings that can and often are manipulated regularly.

An example may prove helpful. Jesus challenged his followers to take up their cross and follow him. In America these verses are loved by so-called Christians. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear people talk about the various ways in which they daily take up their own cross and follow Jesus.  The only problem is that they have an abstract understanding of what that means. Taking up the cross of Jesus and following him hardly means to literally consider the actual life, deeds, and teachings of Jesus as they broke into the realities of 1st century life while reflecting and then living out its implications for 21st century American life.  No, instead we get to decide what that means based off of our own personal preferences. (Yes I am critiquing the way Americans read and apply scripture).  It is not strange to hear someone talk about getting up and throwing on a christian tee, listening to their favorite christian artist in the car on the way to work, and reading their bible at the work place as succesfully taking up their cross and following Jesus throughout the day.  While those things are not inherently wrong, they have little to do with taking up one’s cross and follow Jesus’ as was originally intended.  Our abstract and vague theology allows us to creatively reimagine the Christian life in light of our own comforts and unwillingness to have our lives disrupted by the Jesus way.

We have lost sight of Jesus, having replaced him for systematic theology. With our abstract and vague theology, we are able to justify and convince ourselves of just about anything we want. But when we consider Jesus, the Crucified One, who is situated and concrete in real human existence, it will disturb and disrupt our agenda. The realities of Jesus’ sermon on the mount subverts our american ethic, forcing us to wrestle with whether we are serious about following Jesus or not. It is only as we turn our eyes to the Revealed One that our religious justifications are undermined. This can not be done through our tainted imaginations of a nice western Jesus. This demands that we read the Gospels anew, examining the life and teachings of our Lord with utmost seriousness. May we all turn in our clean and pretty systematic theology for Jesus and the cross, which are often not so comfortable and nice, yet open our eyes to seeing the world in truly fresh ways.

Evangelical Split, Piper Imperialism, & a Search for Postcolonial Christian Expression

Many evangelical bloggers have just finished chiming in on Rob Bell’s new book.  While there have been a couple nuanced positions, overall most have fallen into two camps; conservative modernist evangelicals (especially reformed conservatives) and postmodern missional  evangelicals (especially emerging church leaders).  What I and others realized was that this internet and blogosphere battle that was unfolding really was not about theological and doctrinal difference (even while those tensions do exist), but rather the real underlying issue was a matter of control, influence, and power.

Younger, fresher expressions of church are “emerging” and are winning over many from white America. Simultaneously, the old guard is losing relevance, and feels threatened. Rather than working together as as the Church, imperial and colonial instincts have kicked in as folks gaze upon all the religious authority that could be attained. Domination over American Christian theological direction has quietly been the real story & narrative when you stop and read between the lines.

A war is unfolding and the victor of the war will take over (or continue) as the theological overlords of American mainstream Christian thought. They will be the de facto referees, deciding whether any given theology is in or out of bounds. Therefore these two streams of American evangelical Christian tradition fight over which white male dominated group will inherit the reigns of 21st century Christendom.  At the heart of all this hype is a thirst to reign over the Church, it is not primarily about Rob Bell and his views on heaven and hell.

John Piper jump started everything.  He personally took on the role of theological referee, wanting everyone to know Rob Bell stepped out of bounds. That’s where his “farewell Rob Bell” comes in. To be able to pull off such a ballsy move like that, John Piper must convince American Christendom that he knows the fine line between theological curiosity and theological heresy.  Repeatedly he and many of his conservative reformed entourage have basically claimed that their understanding of God, scripture, and overall theology is indeed truth. They have grasped the universal, neutral, objective, biblical, and fully truthful realities of God and the Bible. In essence, the conservative Christian tradition has arrived and know all there is to be known about truth and God (my assertion and words not theirs). 

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Piper does not only use his comprehensive understanding of (his) god to deem people as heretics, but he also uses his knowledge of his apparently small god (one that can be fully explained by finite humanity), to assert divine will over the horrific earthquake in Japan that killed thousands. He offers 5 reasons why God kills thousands of people. Yes in the midst of tragic human suffering, confusion, and pain, Piper decides to boldly assert that God caused the earthquake killing tens of thousands as a warning to repent and to show off his magnificence.  This is a disturbing, ugly, and untimely depiction of God that vandalizes his Image in this world. Whatever happened to “good news” for those struggling?

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I can understand why younger white evangelicals would want to break away from this brand of American Evangelicalism. While I can appreciate many of the theological nuances expressed by this zealous group of white 20 and 30 somethings, they have their own set of problems. Before we get too excited about this coming shift in influence over American religious life, we must acknowledge that the practice of hegemony and domination will still continue through these “emerging leaders”. Overall, I have been pleased with the theological shifts being expressed, because they express desire for racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the Church… wanting the Church to be ONE church, which we were called to be.  However, it did not take very long for me to realize that the proclamations and the practices of this group were not lining up. Everything that is done is done to cater to white middle class suburbia. They cater to the priviliged despite affirming Jesus’ call to serve the least of these. As far as hegemony goes, Black and Latino pastors and theologians still continue to be uninvited to the infamous “table” Even these newly formed tables under banners of emergent or missional are starting off on the wrong foot, being almost completely homogeneous. Of course these Evangelical 3.0’s have learned from their predecessors that you must at least grab a token black for your entourage or program (however the 2.0’s actually did a better job at pulling in tokens), often this GED effort of token representation is not even being done at many of their gatherings and events. Unfortunately the white control and supremacy over religious life in America is not going anywhere if left on track.

This leaves many black leaders who are open to partnership feeling skeptic about the actual intentions of these young leaders who have all good stuff to say, but no follow through.  Many black christian leaders (fully missional minded) have told me that they have quit trying to join the white dominated table, and instead have determined to create their own table where all people groups are truly welcome.  A table that finds solidarity with the oppressed before it does with Starbucks. A table made up of people that are tired of the colonial and imperial practices of Western European Christian Empire. Such anti-racist, post-colonial Christian communities will not be endorsed by Zondervan or the billion dollar Christian industry. Nope, this movement is taking place on the corners, porches, courts, homes, and church basements of America.
In the end, neither Piper and his peeps, nor Bell and the boys represent me, and billions of other Christians globally.  We have absolutely no stake in this growing feud (that is just heating up in my opinion). No stake, because for many it still leaves us in the same place (except with fewer tokens) of not being heard or taken seriously, and not being treated with dignity as though we lacked the Imago Dei in us.  It is now more than ever that we need to take our attention off of superstars like Rob Bell and John Piper… and begin learning from those who have been crying out from the margins with a very different gospel.  A gospel that is good news to the poor and oppressed.