Christians believe different, often contrasting things about Jesus. Even so, there are fundamental points of reference across the traditions and theologies comprising what my friend John Franke calls this “manifold witness.” From perspectives of historical criticism, so-called irrenency, source criticism, literary theory (all having to do with what we may know about Jesus from the Bible) and personal experience (a primary encounter, somehow, with the living Christ), we’ve agreed in broad strokes with the writers of our scriptures about the importance of exploring the tensions of Jesus’ birth, life-setting, teachings, public ministry, passion (Last Supper, arrest, trials, and execution) and the claims about his resurrection.
Differing widely, sometimes wildly, in interpretation, we hold certain things in common. We may or may not believe the same things about the birth narratives in the books of Luke or Matthew, but we agree that the early Christian communities, formed during the life and within the living memory of Jesus, came to understand those stories as fundamental expressions of the nature of God, and of the kind of God who would send such a Christ to them and us. The book of John, sometimes derided for its spiritualized appeal to the Hellenistic cosmology of ancient Palestine, says nothing about the birth of Jesus but gets famously to the point of it: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whosoever believeth in him would not perish but have eternal life.” John also articulates, beautifully, the belief that in Jesus we encounter the full expression of God’s full self in historic time and human terms.
Church as we know it began because people who loved and followed Jesus found a need to gather together to tell stories about the things he said and did after he was gone. Any modern fandom does the same, but if the stories of the resurrection are true, and if the early gathered Christians included those who’d seen or somehow experienced the risen Christ, the impetus for fellowship was something else again. Picture dozens of Simons, Judes, and Marys all proclaiming Easter, wondering if they’d lost their minds, gut-checking about the hell just happened and what the hell was next. Picture Pentecost.
If the resurrection didn’t happen, or if didn’t happen the way most churches teach, the fact remains that the gathered followers of Jesus, even those many generations removed from his life and ministry, have claimed to feel his presence through the ages in community. This experienced presence was the likely impetus for Paul’s missionary work. “If churches in Jerusalem experience the living Christ when gathered in community, there should be churches, that is, communities of Jesus followers, everywhere where people are.” Eventually those settings became our beloved or bedeviled institutions. Seeking to preserve space for Christians and communities to encounter Christ together, church leaders lost the prophetic plot and surrendered immediacy and the lived-in kingdom of God for the longevity of spaces and institutions with increasing capital and clout. This process, incremental and well-intentioned here, schemed, contrived, and opportunistic there, was undertaken in the name of a Christ who ran from heaven into our midst, who forsook, as Milton said, “the courts of everlasting day.” In practice and in theory, it is so far removed from the early church’s doctrine of the Incarnation, of God’s giving of God’s self in Jesus (because, clearly, this Jesus who continued to encounter and embolden our communities long after his departure, was from God) it has rendered the radical notion of such a downwardly mobile God, and the wild-eyed claim that God somehow walked or walks among us, quaint, passe, and false.
If the core of Jesus’ ministry was the flesh-and-blood manifestation of his incarnation at the street level, that is, if the mission of God is radically mobile and radically toward the margin, the church of Jesus Christ should be the most compelling community on Earth. If we dared to preach in Jesus’ words and follow his example across every facet of our communal lives, if the church were truly a community in perpetual revolution against the mores of the scarcity model, we’d have a staggering abundance of money, food, and shelter, a blue ocean of agents for reconciliation, justice, and peace converting from the warring gods of social Darwinism.
Too often, our faith communities, begun by people unable to shake the radical call of the radical Jesus, have lost this vision and with it the Holy Spirit’s vigor. As they’ve institutionalized, they’ve expressed a preference for longevity over justice, a value unrecognizable to Jesus. They may do good things, but only within a sinning commitment to the lordship of the scarcity model. This is an insidious idolatry. Claiming to follow Jesus, the institutional church instead runs parallel, never intersecting with his justice message in ways that threaten ill-won power, especially its own. Doing good works within oppressive models is far easier than leaning into the realities of a life lived here and now within the visionary community Jesus called the kingdom of God.
By design, the institutional church values things like economic and organizational security and respectability, functions of its imagined profile in the community, while the gospel values risk-taking, political and economic radicalism, and Spirit-led action in the patch-worked kingdom of God. In some Reformed mainline traditions, the institutional church’s addiction to its own status among powers not necessarily aligned with the values of Jesus is a vestige of a delicate parsing of the Protestant Reformation that, while perhaps valuable in the 16th century, is clung to now as a justification of the highly-paid professional pastorate, a gospel of genteel upward mobility, and political gamesmanship instead of prophetic witness when the opportunity to speak truth to power comes.
In the context of the Reformation, followers of Martin Luther and John Calvin in many parts of Europe (most notably in the principalities of the so-called Holy Roman Empire) aligned their reformed versions of institutional Christianity with the political interests and civil authority of electors, magistrates, princes and other heads of state. In lands held by rulers eager to escape the political influence of Rome and the authority of the Pope over princes, Lutheranism or Calvinism replaced Catholicism as state-mandated religion. Entire duchies, counties, and principalities and all the people in them could be officially converted to one or another Reformed tradition by the whim of a scheming ruler. This is what historians call the Magisterial Reformation. The teachings of the magisterial reformers, not surprisingly, were upheld by their civic allies as authoritative, and in Calvin’s Geneva and many other places, the penalty for conspicuous non-conformity was death.
By contrast, Anabaptist traditions in the same era stressed the illegitimacy of civic jurisdiction in the kingdom witness of the church and insisted that one of the calls Christ makes to his people was the bearing of prophetic witness to all other powers. At a time when the separation of church and state was almost nonexistent, and the role of the each was to uphold and legitimize the other, the Anabaptist position was called radical. Believing in the right to religious self-determination and the application of the prophetic tradition to the powers of their time, Anabaptists were among the most persecuted groups of the Reformation, hunted down and executed by Catholic and Reformed authorities alike. Luther and Calvin were the forebears of the Magisterial Reformation, an ethos that persists today in some quarters of the various churches fashioned in their likeness (Lutheranism and Presbyterianism most prominent among them). Anabaptists were the mothers and fathers of the Radical Reformation. While their followers no longer burn at stakes, we’re said to burn bridges, shun the still-available status afforded by the waning professional pastorate, and otherwise engage in the kind of prophetic activity that must be our specific call. While church and state are separate in the United States, and church membership continues its downward trend, there can be no doubt that both mainline and nondenominational churches of considerable wealth continue to afford their leaders something of a princely status by way of salary and benefits and reverence. This status doesn’t just parallel but fully embraces the realities of the corporate boardrooms inhabited by elite lay leaders in such churches, who are almost always their biggest economic patrons. We are not so far removed from the inconsistencies of the Magisterial Reformation as we like to think.
The modern rationale for the persistence of this tradition is, of course, that it gives our pastors access to people with the kind of money and influence required to make real change happen. They are said to catch more flies with honey. And yet, the economic situation of our crumbling cities doesn’t change. The plight of the working poor worsens. The fundamental underpinnings of our economic systems aren’t questioned or challenged, and our elite pastors are doing absolutely nothing to put themselves or their positions at political risk. They’re so far from burning at the figurative stake, so far from crucifixion, they ought not make us sing “Jesus, keep me near the cross,” or read most letters of Paul.
In the institutional church, economic stability is the fountainhead of ministry. It’s what makes all programs and payrolls possible. It’s what maintains many buildings increasingly removed from the viscera of their communities. Like a nerve wrapped around a muscle, the American institutional church has grown up not only with the baggage of the Magisterial Reformation, but with its own paternal native twin, American capitalism. Operating by design from a scarcity model with zero-sum presuppositions, capitalism assumes that the pursuit of economic stability will end up forcing most people to be good. It’s a market-based morality drawing power from the deepest fears and darkest possibilities of what can happen when human beings are required to order lives together. Institutional churches of all shapes and sizes function in this way.
At its core, the gospel of Jesus Christ is about how people in the kingdom of God should relate to power in all its forms, thereby calling all economic and political systems into fundamental question. The kingdom of God is decidedly not confined to religious or political institutionalism for Jesus, but is for all people, everywhere. His persecution by religious and secular powers operating in scarcity models toward the accumulation of power shows us this. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is not a transnational arrangement mediated by human institutions, but a hopscotching patchwork of political and economic freedom arranged by human persons responding to his teachings and empowered by his spirit.
Sherwood Anderson, writing in 1920 about effects of industrial capitalism on the American psyche, said this:
“And all over the country, in the towns, the farm houses, and the growing cities of the new country, people stirred and awakened. Thought and poetry died or passed as a heritage to feeble fawning men who also became servants of the new order. Serious young men in Bidwell and in other American towns, whose fathers had walked together on moonlight nights along Turner’s Pike to talk of God, went away to technical schools. Their fathers had walked and talked and thoughts had grown up in them. The impulse had reached back to their father’s fathers on moonlit roads of England, Germany, Ireland, France, and Italy, and back of these to the moonlit hills of Judea where shepherds talked and serious young men, John and Matthew and Jesus, caught the drift of the talk and made poetry of it; but the serious-minded sons of these men in the new land were swept away from thinking and dreaming. From all sides the voice of the new age that was to do definite things shouted at them. Eagerly they took up the cry and ran with it. Millions of voices arose. The clamor became terrible, and confused the minds of all men. In making way for the newer, broader brotherhood into which men are some day to emerge, in extending the invisible roofs of the towns and cities to cover the world, men cut and crushed their way through the bodies of men.”
In the Gospels and in the extant histories of the early followers of Jesus, the economic and political question is never one of legitimizing the accumulation of wealth or power for the sake of the community’s security. The question is always one of providing for the poor, proclaiming justice to the margin, elucidating the possibility of freedom in the kingdom network, and trusting that if the community, the network, the kingdom of God, is to be secure, it is God who will do the securing. Jesus himself flees from security; this is the economic and political message of the cross. We are to order our lives in such a way that the powers we establish do not crucify the margin, period, let alone for doing things as human and good and freeing as threatening political, religious, and economic structures that stratify and oppress. The ordering of our lives and our systems is a spiritual, political, and economic operation. For Jesus, the fundamental worth of every person as a child of God is given. Our political and economic arrangements here and now must flow forth from our status as the children of a God who leaves heaven for a manger and leaves religious fame for crucifixion.
That the political and economic are inseparable from the spiritual is no advocation of theocracy, no apology for the Magisterial Reformation or its modern incarnations. On the contrary, fidelity to the teachings of Jesus require an indictment of the private religious sector for not being a better and more radical witness to a secular order whose recognition and stability it craves. Speaking truth to power in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Anabaptists, and of Jesus presupposes the formation of political realities in concert with ideas we might call religious. But if true religion is caring for the widowed and orphaned, then religion is primarily social and necessarily political. The responsibility of the City Council member and the street preacher, regardless of religious affiliation, is the same. We are, indeed, our sisters’ and our brothers’ keepers, even as they’re ours. The role of the prophet is to remind the politician of the radical message of Jesus: that the political, economic, and spiritual question are one in the same. Put another way, the Radical Reformation has its own magisterium: everything. The kingdom of God is no Holy Roman Empire, no holy Roman or American church. The kingdom of God is a society stitched together outpost by outpost, an underground economy that doesn’t need to hide. It’s the longed-for destination the teacher Jesus had for all of us, an economic, political, and spiritual reality unhindered by other powers, inviting those powers in. It does not force; it does not quit.
This history of the early church as recorded by the writer Luke in the book called Acts says the early Christians sold all their possessions and held all things in common. None were cursed with too much, none suffered with too little. I think this is what Tim Coons has in mind when he says that in the kingdom of God, everything thing is free. As a network of outposts each ordered on the life and teachings of Jesus, the kingdom of God should be such that I can walk from kingdom place to kingdom place in Allentown and never want for anything, even in the poorest neighborhoods or in the poorest churches. In many ways, that patchworked experience exists, albeit with gaps in affordable housing, one of the areas I’ve worked on at ground level. Often, it’s the poorest churches who give the most, the bi-vocational pastors drawing no salary from their communities. Often, it’s the richest churches, those with buildings and big budgets, those that give many dollars to kingdom work, but, from within the scarcity model, refuse to order their own internal systems or external relations as if the kingdom were real, that perpetuate the fundamental injustices Jesus came to tear apart.
Raised between the fall of Eastern Bloc statism in the early 90s and the fall of American impenetrability a decade later, millennials intuit the the basic goodness of freedom and the right of all people to it more inherently than any generation in history . Between the death of the Soviet system and 9/11, attitudes about individuals rights, pluralism, tolerance, and environmental stewardship evolved in what was, on the surface, something of a domestic perestroika. With the turn of the century came the War on Terror, predicted by Samuel P. Huntington as the 90s closed, the war in Iraq, renewed calls for environmental sustainability, a potent movement toward eradicating discrimination based on gender identification or sexuality and, with the economic collapse of 2008, an emerging reconsideration of the basic good of American-style capitalism in a globalized, industrialized, and technologized context. With the radical teachings of Jesus at its core, the church should have been well-positioned to lead in these areas in compelling ways. Ironically, the Christian sub-cultures and churches that flourished most in the Bush-Clinton-Bush years were typically evangelical and typically suspicious, to say the least, of maturing 90s progressivism. The census of mainline churches, many of whom had led the calls for economic justice, peace, and equality (often from far-off denominational offices) continued their decades-long downward trend, especially among young people. If young people are more aligned with the the social witness of the mainline churches, why haven’t the mainline churches caught their social imagination with the radical vision and message of Jesus? Two reasons widely lamented in the mainline itself: 1) its own inability (in some cases, unwillingness) to take Jesus as seriously as he demands to be taken, and 2) the relative zeal of the more conservative churches in doing just that, albeit with a socially anemic, spiritualized focus. With some notable exceptions, the mainline has ceded the public discussion about the possibility of an intensely real relationship with God through the example of Jesus to the evangelical wing of the church. To be sure, the most popular lights of the so-called Religious Left, people like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, don’t come from Lutheran or Presbyterian settings but from places of fully realized evangelical conviction. While the Religious Right has been very loud about the need for personal regeneration through a specific devotion to Jesus (and a specific interpretation of the catechisms of Paul), the mainline has struggled to express their radical social witness in compelling terms centered precisely on the life and work of Christ. Conservative evangelical churches have drawn in people ready to admit their spiritual need for Jesus; mainline churches should be teeming with people who have found, in Jesus, the focus of what the world outside the church has raised them to intuit as good and true. Instead, we find ourselves with a small (but growing) Religious Left of evangelicals and mainline Christians personally committed to Jesus in the fullness of his teachings, faithfully subverting the expectations of our media, our politics, and, of course, our churches. If evangelicals embraced the subversion and reordering Jesus demands his followers apply to all power dynamics, even American ones, in pursuit of the kingdom network, and more mainline churches acted as if the kingdom were real, we’d have a robust witness for the margin and for rising generations. That’s nothing more or less than the gospel Jesus gave us.
Even bloated, revenue-hungry industries and corporations have found ways in recent years to model aspects of what’s so compelling about the social prerogatives Jesus announces as the hallmarks of the kingdom network, the default realities of our condition. They do it for, and usually only if it doesn’t hinder, their pursuit of a higher bottom line by appealing to emotional connections to values we already hold as self-evident and true: it’s better to be green, production lines should meet high standards of worker justice, healthier food should be more readily available across distribution networks and so on. While many corporations enact some social good from within the scarcity model because a growing segment of the market holds the values of the kingdom network closely, others do so from the guiding values and principles of their leaders. Apologists for theories of market-based moralities will point to organizations in the former model, arguing that, over time, the market corrects our social interactions and the way we treat the planet. The degree to which we get excited about such incremental change has everything to do with timelines. The moral arc of the universe is, indeed, long, bending toward justice, but the market won’t hurry what we the people won’t. Even then, the market demands shortcuts, obfuscations. Jesus demands we operate in the light of day in the best interests of everyone. The market commodifies people. Jesus frees them.
In recent years, Tom Brady and Payton Manning, two of the most gifted professional football players of their generation, optioned for reductions in total compensation so room could be made on their rosters for valued teammates under the National Football League’s salary cap regulations. The NFL is a multi-billion-dollar industry thinly skating on the full-speed-ahead side of anti-trust legislation. From a corporate standpoint, it is driven entirely by revenue. Even recent public overtures in light of the concussion scandals feel more like best practices than commitments to justice. Even so, Brady and Manning, operating within the scarcity model, have done something our scarcity-driven churches never consider. Yes, Brady and Manning are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and their pay cuts aren’t like pay cuts taken by people in real occupations. That said, show me a church that pays a highly-educated pastor less to pay a secretary or sexton more, and I’ll show you a practice a jaded, justice-starved rising generation can respect, perhaps engage in. More to the point: if the early Christians held all things in common, why can’t large Protestant churches or the Catholic Church as a whole do the same? Why can’t all the respective wealth going into salaries be summed and divided by the number of workers in the vineyard? Why can’t the institution called church to a better job of mimicking the organism, church, from Acts? Wouldn’t news of a rich church where a pastor got paid the same as a custodian go viral? Wouldn’t that be compelling? Look at the way Pope Francis’ radical economic message and personal interactions have sparked renewed interest in the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church and of that church in general. Imagine if American churches of means raised the ante and said “not only are we unafraid to speak out against a world system that crushes the poor, but we’re also going to mimic the communitarianism of the early church in response.”
Instead, from a place of fear, American churches have hoarded their wealth in the interest of longevity, acting as if a communitarian model wouldn’t provide a compelling witness to the wider community, wouldn’t bolster the faith of the wider community in the intentions of the church, and wouldn’t, by the way, provide enough for everyone. Too often, church leaders at the highest levels buy into American capitalism at the ground floor because they have profited from it. As a result, their churches function accordingly, even when their wider mainline denominational settings have been more willing to challenge unjust status quos. When churches, as potential nodes on the kingdom network, settle for the giving of charitable gifts in place of pursuing gospel justice, so much is lost. Christians clinging to the radical teachings and examples of Jesus are viewed by their church institutions as too radical, an irony that is both tragic and true.. Jesus was too radical for the rulers of his day, not because he was too radical in contrast to some objective good, but because he threatened their systems and status by rejecting the scarcity model as a basic presumption. When the radical message of Jesus is proclaimed but not undertaken within our churches, no fruit comes. We get sermons about love and justice and donations for the poor but do nothing about the fundamental causes of hatred, injustice, or poverty, not even among ourselves. Worship becomes self-serving, following Jesus becomes about going to church on Sunday, and the world moves on without our prophetic witness or example. We move on, too. Our children graduate from our programs, possibly without ever engaging the radical charism of the gospel and of the Jesus that transforms ordinary people into agents for good, freed from the narrative of economic success or relative power as the narrow roads unto salvation, saved from the thousand ways those lies can kill us here and now. When churches relate to the world through the scarcity model, charity is cheap. The prospect of giving life and blessing to our wider communities through the proclamation and example of relationships of justice in the kingdom model is lost, a guiding light smothered, a salt without taste offered to people looking for full lives of vigor and consequence.
When the institutional church gives to the work of the kingdom network without imbibing the kingdom ethos at the most basic of organizational levels, it may parallel the gospel in ways that help people in need, but as long as the institution church stops there, it will always be running in place. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said unless we consume his blood and body, we have no part in him or in his kingdom. Shed and broken at the hands of system that rewards oppression with status, his blood and body are as precious as the Taize hymns proclaim. They teach us what is real, they prove what is wrong, and they force us to remember. Called to make this reality the cornerstone of our public witness, called to eat and drink and share this Bread of Life, the institutional church too often settles for sacraments of bland reenactment, for tiny cups and wafers, trickles of juice and small crumbs of bread, in spiritual and physical spaces where all are meant to feast.
About this essay:
Following an introductory chapter, this document excerpts the first substantive chapter of a book project called insubordination: called to scandalize our institutions from within. Queries about this project can be made via email at email@example.com