Faith & Culture

meditation: life is in the blood

In the last two years often conflicting lines have passed through me: my Christian faith, my American nationality, my black identity. I live thankfully free of direct affect of violence and racism, so these are psychological lines, but true and real nonetheless. As I consider the line of racial violence running from Trayvon to Charleston, and the lines of political rhetoric that cross through the Church, I find myself meditating on how God regards the spilling of innocent blood.

God is an avenger of the blood of innocents. The blood of Abel cried out to God for justice against his brother, Cain, in Genesis 4. The blood cries out because, as we find tucked away in Leviticus, life is in the blood, and because there is life in it, atonement is in the blood.

Where division has rent the social fabric, only blood can sew it back together. Where sin has bruised a soul, only the welling up of blood can be a balm. Where hatred, envy, lust, cowardice and other sins have separated souls from God and each other, only blood can make them one.

We see this most clearly, of course, in the spilling of Christ’s blood on the cross. The blood of this pure innocent forever cries out to God for vengeance, but also makes makes peace between God and us all, stranger and stranger, family and family. The very justice Christ’s blood cries out for, it also creates by its righteousness.

We are seeing more than ever that the spilling of innocent blood brings life. The blood of Pinckney, Hurd, Coleman-Singleton, Doctor, Lance, Sanders, Jackson, Simmons and Thompson is bringing life by drawing disparate people, separated by the sin of racism, together, and breathing life back into our nation by the taking down of its symbols to a satanic belief that people may be sold and enslaved as cattle. Innocent blood should never be spilled, yet we thank God, because He turns its spilling from death to the issuing forth of life.Yet among the hope, we must consider warning.

Innocent blood also cries out for vengeance. At the end, God’s martyrs will cry out, and their blood will be avenged, and what will become of their murderers in that day? The hidden, spiritual Powers that run the world have martyred God’s people and destroyed the lives of innocents – but we Christians have often submitted ourselves as the Powers’ willing instruments. When God closes history, will the blood on our hands condemn us? Do we suppose we also escape vengeance?

As I consider the political rhetoric of my Christian brothers and sisters, I hear the writer of Hebrews: you have not yet resisted to the shedding of your blood. I wonder if we American Christians have any concept of what this means, to resist sin, the Powers, and the god of this age, in a self-sacrificial way, laying our lives on the line for the truth?

We produce pulpit rhetoric against a few sins, yet ignore the blood on our hands – the sins so insidious they run deep through the heart of our communities: individualism, racism, imperialism, gluttony, capitalistic greed and in-hospitality – only to name the worst. Few if none of us are innocent – and none of us wants to be victims like Jesus was, for fear it denies our American, post-Enlightenment, rights-laden-with-few-responsibilities identity. Yet, if we were to pursue blamelessness, self-sacrifice, to resist sin to the shedding of our own blood, rather than continue to ally ourselves with the murderous sin structures created by the Powers, how much life would be unleashed on the earth? How might the kingdom of God flourish?

Christ, may we know. Let us know what it means to resist as you did, and, mimicking you, achieve to some extent a life of pure blamelessness. Avenge the blood of the innocent, we pray, and come in your justice. May you also have mercy on us, and on all those used by the Powers – they know not what they do. Purify us, we pray, that your gospel that we have tarnished may once against glitter as gold. Theotokos, Blessed Joseph, and all the angels and saints, please, pray for us.

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Seeing Christ Is All and In All

If this man went to your church, or Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin, how do you interpret Galatians 3:28 or Colossians 3:11 in light of their experience?

I have been troubled by this question for the past few months, as I live astride that blurred line between church and society. In conversation with other evangelicals, I have heard, echoing a popular commentary, social distinctions do not exist in the Body – we are all one in Christ. Often, discussion of racism and other structural sins is dismissed out of hand, based on the one in Christ idea, in order to maintain unity. I will not dispute that we need to focus on Christ, and our unity in him. My question is how do we do that? How can the Body of Christ truly recognize the Christ in all and also withstand the evil systems of oppression that intersect redeemed souls?

I do not want to be like the goats before Christ and he find me wanting, asking me, “Didn’t you see me bound? Didn’t you see me oppressed? Didn’t you see me hurting? When you saw them bound, oppressed and hurt, you saw me. Why didn’t you help me?

Let us approach the question another way – Paul also said that whoever is born again in Christ is a new creation, the old is dead and gone, the new has come. To use an old convention, I don’t know about you but… I don’t feel like a new creation. I fall short of the glory bestowed on me by Christ. Yet, Paul did not lie. To call my lived reality simply a lie and continue to speak or affirm what I do not know in my experience is willful blindness. No, something else is at work here.

The spiritual reality of the new creation is true, even if scarcely experienced. The dominating earthly reality is also true. We experience the gap between the two as, what I call, a “dissonance of realities”. But God is bringing a new experience, what I call “creative tension”: the bridging of the gap between our dissonant existence by the power of Christ. Faith is the strong force that pulls these two realities together, a concrete trust in action working creatively with God to remake earth into heaven. To apply it, my faith works with God to make the me that lives with Christ in heaven manifest on the earth.

Christ’s judgment of the sheep and goats reflects this idea. The material reality is that some are American and illegal aliens, white and black, male and female, rich and poor. The spiritual reality is that Christ is in and loves every single one of “them”, just as they are, in the condition that they are in.

But to follow Howard Thurman, if a Roman soldier kicked Christ into a ditch, how can we acknowledge the moral wrong of the kick, yet be willfully blind to the fact Jesus was kicked also because he was a poor minority living under the oppression of an unjust authority? The question should come back to us, “When you saw them bound, oppressed and hurt, you saw me. Why didn’t you help me?” Unity in Christ means peace, but not a negative peace. As MLK taught us, peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice. If Jesus is the prince of peace, he is also the prince of justice. As Jesus reigns over us, what he wants is not the veneer of unity, but the deep, powerful, abiding force of justice.

We can withstand evil when we realize and act upon the understanding that within the Mystical Body of Christ our brothers and sisters are not white-washed Christians untouched by the systems of oppression the adversary has constructed in the world he (for now) rules. No – our brothers and sisters are touched, hurt, violated by these systems – these demonic principalities and powers. To simply say there are no social distinctions and deny the lived experience is itself an oppression and a violation of the gospel. We can withstand evil when we leverage our faith in active confrontation with the systems of oppression, both struggling against the evil in our own souls, and with the systems outside ourselves.

This is hardly the end of the matter for me. Questions are better than answers, so I challenge you to ask some of the same question I’m asking myself:

  • Which parts of the Body of Christ hurt under the pains of injustice? Am I willfully blind to their pain? Am I complicit in their pain by my actions or inaction?
  • Do my politics – all of them, across every issue – truly accord with who Christ is? Do I support policies by my vote or donations that may oppress others?
  • Are there any people whom I view as the enemy? Do I love them as Christ commanded me?
  • Would Christ think I see him in all people?

What Did Jesus Teach About Wealth?

A recent HuffPo article entitled “Sorry Republicans But Jesus was a Marxist” provoked my interest. I encourage you to read it because I am convinced you can learn much from those with whom you disagree. I hope you agree with that, because out of what follows, 20% of you will love it, 10% will misunderstand it, 30% will cherry-pick and miss the point, and the majority will hate it.

One commenter (yes, to my chagrin, I read the comments) rightly pointed out it is anachronistic to call Jesus a Marxist, and yes, it is prima facie. In a draft of this post, I briefly explained Marxist philosophy, but you will thank me for deleting it. I will help you with the gist: for various historical reasons, Communism doesn’t equate with Marxism, and the latter has a lot to recommend for a philosophy of government and public policy. Let’s debate that one another time. What I rather explore with you is Jesus’ teachings on socioeconomics.

A thick book digging into the cultural, historical and religious context of Jesus’ various teachings on socioeconomics would be the most effective, but I likely only have your attention for a few hundred more words, so let me use it more wisely and focus on one of his teachings, as cited by Reza Aslan:

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Put yourself in the scene. You are a Jew in 1st century Palestine: a poor minority living in an occupied territory under brutal religio-political oppression. Think Blacks in Klan-territory of the Jim Crow South after Reconstruction. You have no legal standing. No rights. Violence can be lawfully inflicted upon you without recourse. Dreams of liberty are dashed when anyone who fights back is crucified.

The religion of Jesus taught reversal, and he was crucified for it as an enemy of the state.

Now Jesus tells you that you’re blessed for being meek, that you will inherit the earth. I imagine some will sharply intake their breaths and get a new steely gaze in their eyes, others will look at him quizzically. Everyone though will desperately want to believe him, despite how fantastic his words are. How can the meek inherit the earth? The powerful inherit it, that’s just the way of things, what Jesus suggests is not new it’s a reversal of what is.

And there it is: Jesus taught and believed in socioeconomic reversal.

Jesus believed and taught that when the Kingdom of God came, everything would be turned on its head: the meek would inherit the earth; the hungry filled; the merciful wouldn’t be taken advantage of, nor the peacemakers mocked. Summing up his ministry at a synagogue in his hometown, Jesus said prisoners would be liberated, the blind would see, the oppressed free.

The reversal theme is captured nowhere better than when Mary, the Mother of God, sang this prophecy about her Son:

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
But has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
But has sent the rich away empty.

The religion of Jesus taught reversal, and he was crucified for it as an enemy of the state. Today, the religion of Jesus is still barred in autocracies, believers killed, because they knew what American slave owners knew: if they hear the Gospel, they will want to turn the world upside down.

In our country, the spirit of the antichrist, which John said is even now in the world, perverts the Gospel in our churches to have us bless social inequality as God’s will that we always have the poor with us, or to focus on giving to get or giving to build. Our attempts to silence teachers who say otherwise reflects our rebellious attitude to our soothsayers, and our willful blindness to Jesus’ own words on reversal demonstrates we disagree vigorously with our Lord when he says “You cannot serve both God and money.”

Now is the time for argument. If Jesus taught socioeconomic reversal, we’re all wrong in our politics, our foreign policy, our individual lives. Nothing can shake loose, however, until we fully acknowledge what Jesus actually taught – and continues to teach today.

If Jesus taught socioeconomic reversal, then it is with this fact we as Christians must deal.

More Thoughts on Movement: Framing

Last week in my series On the Lord’s Prayer, I discussed how following God is involvement in his will, demanding both informed and intuitive but decisive movement. I broke down, briefly, what those parts meant, but wanted to explore some further thoughts on the trope of movement we are using to understand what it means to follow God.

FRAMING REDEMPTIVE MOVEMENT

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. ~ Jesus to Nicodemus

Bear with me; I believe this verse can help us frame movement, because it hints at where we came from, where we are going, and life in the middle, but retains the metaphorical quality that opens our mind to deep consideration. One on hand, Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that, to him, those born of the Spirit are a mystery, because he lacks understanding. On the other hand, we could say that the wind knows where it came from, and where it is going — so it ought to be with us. Moving in God’s will requires we realize we are born of God, we are returning to God, and we are made to impact our world.  (more…)

Learning to Listen

Is the art of listening dying in our modern culture? Most would say “No.”, since we have access to a plethora of books to read, iPods to listen to, 500+ cable stations and a cacophony of voices vying for our attention. We can even tailor the voices to fit our beliefs and desires, or to fit a locale and culture. We filter our Twitter timeline and our Facebook feed. We add to the noise with our own tweets, posts and, like me, blogs.

The world has become quite the noisy place, and with these increased opportunities have come diminishing returns: we have so much to listen to that we do not listen at all.

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  ~ Paul to Timothy

We cope in a few ways, either avoiding, filtering, or drowning it out. None of these will work, and I have tried them all. I want to humbly present to you 4 trouble areas in which we as Christians are terrible listeners, and 4 ways to learn to listen better. (more…)