Fishing with Superpowers

Fishing with Superpowers

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22 NRSV)

In his upcoming book Postcards from Babylon Brian Zahnd observes that the original Jesus movement was not a pietistic religion of private belief about how to go to heaven when we die—it was a countercultural way of public life. It threatened the religious and political establishment because it actively “challenged the dominant myth that Rome had a manifest destiny to rule the nations and a divine right to shape history” (Zahnd). There is no doubt that—as Roman contractors—Peter, Andrew, James, and John knew what was at stake if they followed Jesus.

Under Roman occupation fish were claimed as revenue for the empire.[i] By closely regulating fishing through licensing, quotas, and taxation, Rome maintained its control over vital food supplies.[ii] Rome established an economic and political monopoly[iii] that benefited the social elite at the expense of subjugated masses—people whose very survival depended on the natural resources seized by the empire.

Rather than resist, some chose to profit from the oppression of their own people. Peter, Andrew, James, and John appear to have shrewdly involved themselves in the Roman hegemony by purchasing a contract to operate a commercial fishing enterprise.[iv] They obtained the right to fish the sea in exchange for a quota of fish and taxes on their catch and transportation.[v] While collaborating in imperial injustice ensured they made a decent living, socially, “fishmongers” were considered on par with “moneylenders”—they were publicly despised as greedy thieves.[vi]

No doubt these Roman contractors were very aware of the subversive nature of Jesus’ preaching about the in-breaking kingdom of God. No doubt they realized they personally had a lot to lose—the imperial system was their bread and butter (providing them with economic security). Yet, in spite of the immense risks and sacrifices involved, Peter, Andrew, James, and John shifted their allegiance from Caesar to Christ. Together they formed an alternative community that challenged the status quo, resisted imperial abuse and oppression, and emancipated their neighbors[vii] by powerfully announcing and enacting the revolutionary news of God’s in-breaking kingdom.

Surely these first followers of Jesus would wholeheartedly agree with Zahnd when he argues, “If Christianity is not seen as countercultural and even subversive within a military-economic superpower, you can be sure it is a deeply compromised Christianity.” Stanley Hauerwas warns:

The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ. (Stanley Hauerwas, A Community Of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic)

So, is our Christianity merely a pietistic religion of private belief about how to go to heaven when we die or is it a countercultural way of public life? 

______________________

i Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York, 2005), 120-121.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

Out of Touch in La La Land

Out of Touch in La La Land

“… Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned…” (Matthew 4:12-17)

At 4:30am on January 17, 1994, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake rocked Los Angeles. Shaken citizens woke up in darkness—power had been knocked out citywide. In the minutes that followed 9-1-1 dispatchers received multiple calls from alarmed residents reporting a strange phenomenon. A sinister silvery cloud, which appeared to be glowing, streaked across the night sky over the city. That cloud turned out to be the Milky Way (the galaxy we live in). They had never seen it before because the city lights had always block it out (so much for “City of Stars”).

Ironic. At one time Angelinos went up to the Griffith Observatory to be in awe of the heavens. Today we mostly go up to admire ourselves, looking down rather than up. The light of our civilization blinds us to the light of the universe. It’s strange when you think about it. Maybe we’re more out-of-touch with reality than we think in “la la land.”

I wonder how those in Galilee of the Gentiles felt about being characterized as out of touch—“sitting in darkness.” How could that be? They had the “light” of their religious heritage and the “light” of the Roman civilization! Rome gave them the world—peace, stability, and seemingly endless economic opportunities. If anything, they had too much light! Yet, as good as things might have seemed to some, their “light” was blinding. Christ came as a great light, offering true enlightenment to humanity. 

Today, American Christians inhabit another enlightened civilization. We’re fond of our nation’s religious heritage and we raise the torch of liberty for the world. But could we actually be the ones sitting in darkness? Is it possible that the light of our culture is blinding us to the truth? Jesus warned his first followers to beware—this is a real possibility:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23)

Could Americanized Christianity be blinding us to Christ? Think about it—it wasn’t to pagans, but to Bible believing people, that Jesus came proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

In The Gospel after Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions, Ian Mobsby argues:

The problem with many contemporary expressions of church is that at their heart they are consumptive—conforming to the values of business and the global market. Many churches are unaware that this practice colludes with empire, division, privilege and an oppressive view of the world. This worldview is maintained by simple dualistic thinking that does violence to creation [including humanity] by demeaning it to the status of a commodity. (The Gospel After Christendom, 105)

Maybe American Christianity is more out-of-touch with reality than we realize.

Just When I Thought I Was Out…

Just When I Thought I Was Out…

But when [John the Baptist] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. (Matthew 3:7-8)

In Godfather III Don Michael Corleone had become a rich and powerful figure in both the underworld as well as the legitimate business world. The film opens with Don Corleone being disguised with public respectability by the Church in exchange for a huge sum of money. Later, Michael travels to the Vatican to finalize a business deal with corrupt Church officials. If successful, it would make him one of the richest men in the world. While in Rome, he meets Cardinal Lamberto—a true priest. In one of my favorite scenes Cardinal Lamberto retrieves a stone from an ancient fountain and smashes it to reveal that, even though the stone had been lying in water a very long time, the water had not penetrated—the stone was perfectly dry on the inside. He then explains to Michael:

The same thing has happened to men in Europe. For centuries they have been surrounded by Christianity, but Christ has not penetrated. Christ doesn’t live within them.

We find a similar situation in Matthew 3:1-17. Just like the corrupted government officials of Judea, the Pharisees and Sadducees were involved in a great hypocrisy. Disguised by religious respectability and pious confessions of faith, they preyed on the masses to enrich themselves. Those responsible for liberating people with the Word of God, instead used holy words to extort and enslave their brothers and sisters. A “Holy Land” had become a vast criminal enterprise—a sanctified protection racket—with holy men acting as a religious mafia hidden in plain sight.

Enter John, known as The Baptist. He’s as mad as hades and he’s not gonna take this any more! It had become clear where the true loyalties of the religious elite lie. The interests of a corrupt ruling class had become the interests of a corrupted religious elite. The two were deeply entangled. But God was not fooled! Justice was coming. And religious vipers would not be able to slither away fast enough to escape the flames.

While Pharisees and Sadducees may be a thing of the past, this does make me wonder. Shouldn’t American Evangelicals at least be uncomfortable when seeing a preacher—who makes nearly a million dollars a year as a front-man for two “non-profit” organizations— publicly pronounce rain as a sign that God has blessed a ruthless billionaire? Think about it. No, wait, seriously, think about it.

According to Philip Yancey, “C. S. Lewis observed that almost all crimes of Christian history have come about when religion is confused with politics.” Politics entice us to trade love for power (the ability to bend others to our will against their own). Yancey observes that this is “a temptation the church has often been unable to resist.”

 

Dios con Nosotros: A Threat to National Security?

Dios con Nosotros: A Threat to National Security?

A child, considered a threat to national security, narrowly escapes a mass execution by being smuggled across the border to live as a refugee. No, this isn’t “fake news,” this is the picture of God-with-us (Emmanuel) painted in Matthew 2:1-15.

Matthew 2:1-15 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born…

At a time when so many families in South East Los Angeles have been demonized and are living in a constant state of panic, Matthew 2:1-15 challenges me to check my privilege and love my neighbors. The message couldn’t get any clearer—God identifies with the vulnerable.

God identifies with the vulnerable even when the political elite plot against him. His reaction to the arrival of Christ exposed King Herod for what he really was—a cold, calculating, deceptive, and violent opportunist. While Herod may have provided some with the illusion of traditional values, civic righteousness, national sovereignty, and economic prosperity, in reality he was an agent of imperialism (Rome). His faith was in an alternative gospel—peace through militarism and materialism. His allegiance was to an alternative son of god—Caesar Augustus. 

God identifies with the vulnerable even when the religious elite betray him. They weren’t actively plotting against Jesus like Herod, they were resisting him indirectly. Maintaining plausible deniability, they camouflaged Herod with the appearance of religious legitimacy. Appearing pious, they were deeply embedded in the same hypocrisy as their government—so wrapped up in the idolatry of empire and self-preservation they could not afford to discern the truth. Privately they may have looked down on Herod, but they were more than willing to allow him to do their sinning for them.

Pondering this familiar story I find myself asking, are things really that different today?  I can’t get that image out of my head—a child, labeled a threat to national security, smuggled across the border, surviving as a refugee. This is God-with-us. Dios con Nosotros. 

 

She Just Called Me a Nazi!

She Just Called Me a Nazi!

She snapped to attention, executed a salute, and exclaimed “Heil Hitler!” That’s how my professor responded in 2003 after I observed that George W. Bush had been re-elected and she hadn’t moved to Canada yet. How did I react? Stunned! Like, What the heck just happened? She just called me a Nazi! Fast forward a decade and I was in graduate school studying the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer–a German theologian and pastor who was executed by the Nazis–when things started to dawn on me.

In 1943 Bonhoeffer wrote After Ten Years attempting to take stock of the lessons he had learned living under Nazi rule for a decade. In this paper he asks the question “Who stands fast?” Who was it that recognized the evil of the Nazis and did something about it? The tragic fact is that the vast majority of Germans did not. Even more tragic was the fact that the majority of German churches had not. Religion, as it had been practiced by the German Christians, had failed to produce the kind of people who could discern evil masquerading as good and take responsible action against it. But how could this be?

As it turns out, Hitler had his own theologians. Influential men like Emanuel Hirsch, Paul Althaus, and Gerhard Kittel were engaged in ecclesiastical infowars against Bonhoeffer and his Confessing Church movement. Here’s an example I came across in my course notes from 2013:

In 1933 Paul Althaus spoke of Hitler’s rise as “a gift and miracle of God,” and of 1933 as “the year of Grace…the Easter moment.” He wrote “The German Hour of the Churches,” and ideologically united theology, nationalism and the Church resulting in a nationalistic deification of the State. Hitler was equivalent to Martin Luther and even Christ himself. German Christians were to become “Nationalistic Christians” and this movement brought about the “Reich Church” and its “Deutsche Christen theology.” Germany was the new Israel. The churches gloried in their patriotism, displayed national flags and honored the war heroes. The Nazi Stormtroopers often married in the Deutsche Church with the symbols of both Church and State. Althaus believed the Christian church had become too feminine and wanted instead a “muscular Christianity.” Those attracted to this movement were strongly anti-intellectual and anti-theological.

Creepy, right? Dr. Gene, if you’re out there, I think I finally get your 2003 Nazi salute (she must have literally exploded when Trump got elected). So then, which German Christians were able to recognize and stand against the evil of the Third Reich? Bonhoeffer answers:

Only the [person] whose final standard is not [their] reason, [their] principles, [their] conscience, [their] freedom, or [their] virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when [they are] called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible [person], who tries to make [their] whole life an answer to the question and call of God.

This is definitely worth thinking about.

A Culture of Resistance (Matt 1:1-17)

A Culture of Resistance (Matt 1:1-17)

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham… 17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. (Matthew 1:1-17, NRSV)

A genealogy? You’ve got to be kidding!

Why would Matthew begin his Gospel in the most boring way imaginable? The answer is, he isn’t! There is something else—something powerful—going on here. At a time when Evangelicals have enough influence to get a presidential candidate elected, we might find it surprising that Matthew was originally written by and for marginalized Christians to help them resist the political and religious establishment of the first century.

These opening seventeen verses ground the struggles of God’s people in the grand story of God’s mission to liberate humanity. These verses offer perspective and hope. They exclaim what Martin Luther King Jr observed in the 20th century—that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He, too, learned a lot about struggling by faith.

On March 8, 1971, while the world was watching the world heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a group of seven men and one woman (including two professors, a day-care provider, and a taxi driver) broke into an FBI field office and stole all their files. What they found exposed COINTELPRO—a massive top-secret FBI counterintelligence program used to monitor, manipulate, disrupt, and neutralize social and political movements in the United States. Among those targeted by the FBI was Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I first learned that Dr. King and civil rights organizations were being spied on, harassed, infiltrated, sabotaged, blackmailed, and publicly maligned by the federal government, I was shocked. Nobody taught me that in school! Why hadn’t I learned about that?

Concerned with the resurgence of American nativism, nationalism, and white supremacy during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I went looking for role models of resistance within the Evangelical Church. Surely white Evangelicals did not stand by silently while their black brothers and sisters were mercilessly deprived of justice in the 1960s. Right?

Wanting to learn from the experiences of those who have gone before, I posted a question in an online forum of nearly 2000 Evangelical ministers. I asked, “Does anyone here know the names of white ministers who publicly stood with Martin Luther King during the civil rights era?” The response I received was shocking—dead silence. For two more days I asked the same question before I finally received a reply I was not prepared for. No one in this online forum, not even a reputable church historian, personally knew a single white minister who stood for justice with Dr. King. Not one.

I went on to discover that, not only had many white Evangelicals abandoned their oppressed brothers and sisters of color, many were actually the oppressors. Call me naïve, but I was utterly disappointed and heartbroken.

In A Letter from a Birmingham Jail dated April 16, 1963 Dr. King laments:

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

Lord, have mercy.

How did these African-American Christians endure so much without losing faith? The political establishment was against them. The religious establishment was against them. Their movement was discredited and demonized—labeled illegitimate and illegal. They were marginalized, abused, and betrayed. It was in these seemingly hopeless times that they persisted by faith in peaceful resistance singing “We shall overcome…”

The first century Christian readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have had a lot in common with the twentieth century Christian leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, we are already overcoming but have not yet fully overcome. The struggle continues. Will we refuse to understand? Will we remain so distracted by our individual stories that we fail to recognize the grand story? Will we be more cautious than courageous? Will we remain silent behind the security of stained glass? How will we respond when enemies are powerful? When allies betray? When friends are silent? When evil is called good? When good is called evil? The author of Hebrews urges us onward:

… since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2, NRSV)

Welcome to the resistance. We shall overcome.