D’etre and D’etat: The Difference Between Jesus and Church

I worked at a big fat church for a few years once.

For about five minutes of those few years, the staff was charged to “live in the republic of ideas.”  I wrote what follows earlier today, but it strikes me as the difference between the Kingdom of God’s raison d’etre and the raison d’etat so many churches live and ultimately die by:

It occurs to me that our use of terms like “industrial” or “industrialized” nation reveals rather efficiently the willingness of our power elites (political and economic) to sacrifice most of us for personal gain; to spiritually, emotionally, and economically destroy the creative, academic, merchant and truly small-business class (let’s call it the bourgeoisie) right along with the cynically styled “working class.” We bourgeoisie and/or proletarians freely mingle, and not-so-freely mimic the choices of the power elites (be they Clintons or Romneys) with what we’re told are consumer “choices” but are really the gasping acts of hanging-on desperately performed by human agents too exhausted from surviving to enact true human agency. This is purely diabolical; if there is a God in heaven, that God must not endorse this system. Surely, the central Christian image of God not in heaven but on a cross is in reaction to the system that enslaved Judea, that murdered John the Baptizer, that found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and sedition. That Christ’s message — God is for the margin and not for the power structures we worship — brought about his death at the hands of those power structures isn’t only a sort of proto-theological poetry, it is the essential Christian fact, the essential Christian witness, the essential Christian claim about the nature and person of God. That Jesus spoke of a kingdom different from those of the Sanhedrin and Rome and Washington and Wall Street and Seattle isn’t some spiritual-only conceit. What Christ called the Kingdom of God is not so-called Christendom, not the so-called Church; it is a physical network of willing rebellion.

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Some People (Don’t Judge): Karl Rahner, Jesus, and Luke Pearson

I don’t know Luke Pearson, but I love this piece.

This is basically what Karl Rahner called original sin.  This is why Jesus says not to judge.

It’s a fine predicament we’re in, isn’t it?

How to make sense of the Christian idea that Jesus somehow saves us from the aggregated brokenness of the universe and the aggregated brokenness in us?

I suppose it has something to do with getting broken himself. Something to do with the radically subversive idea that it’s God and not broken systems by which our hearts and stories are known. Something to do with his life as a displaced, marginalized Jew under the Roman Empire, and something to do with his life as God among us, God displaced and marginalized. Something to do with definitions of power and freedom and success that have nothing whatsoever to do with the secular sacraments of wealth and status.

Jesus, in his brokenness, and his elevation of brokenness, makes it okay to be broken. When we come to the end of our shame, when we lay aside the idols of image and facade, when we say, with Jesus, our shit just ain’t together in the world’s eyes, we can start to heal. And health, health does not equal invincibility. We’re no more impervious than Jesus on the Cross. In the Cross, we are called to be fully human, giving up the trappings of moth-bitten praise and rusted-out power. In the Cross we are free to be broken, and then, free to rise.

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Where I Come Out as An Atheist (cc: Ricky Gervais)

I came across this old piece from Ricky Gervais today by reading a feature about celebrity atheists.

English: Comedian and actor Ricky Gervais perf...

English: Comedian and actor Ricky Gervais performing at Borough of Manhattan Community College in 2007.

Gervais’ essay is a good read.  I’m not saying that as a Yale-minted MDiv interested in refuting anyone’s personal feelings about faith or a lack thereof.  What I do want to say, though, is that there are many, many Christians (like me) who are more in line with much of what he says here than with other professed Christians on all kinds of matters.  From the essay:

“This, is of course a spirituality issue, religion is a different matter. As an atheist, I see nothing “wrong” in believing in a god. I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me. It’s when belief starts infringing on other people’s rights when it worries me. I would never deny your right to believe in a god. I would just rather you didn’t kill people who believe in a different god, say. Or stone someone to death because your rulebook says their sexuality is immoral. It’s strange that anyone who believes that an all-powerful all-knowing, omniscient power responsible for everything that happens, would also want to judge and punish people for what they are.”

Exactly.  John Calvin had a lot to say to the contrary, but agreeing with John Calvin isn’t a prerequisite for knowing Jesus.

Speaking of Jesus, read this:

“I used to believe in God. The Christian one that is.

I loved Jesus. He was my hero. More than pop stars. More than footballers. More than God. God was by definition omnipotent and perfect. Jesus was a man. He had to work at it. He had temptation but defeated sin. He had integrity and courage. But He was my hero because He was kind. And He was kind to everyone. He didn’t bow to peer pressure or tyranny or cruelty. He didn’t care who you were. He loved you. What a guy. I wanted to be just like Him.

One day when I was about 8 years old, I was drawing the crucifixion as part of my Bible studies homework. I loved art too. And nature. I loved how God made all the animals. They were also perfect. Unconditionally beautiful. It was an amazing world.

I lived in a very poor, working-class estate in an urban sprawl called Reading, about 40 miles west of London. My father was a laborer and my mother was a housewife. I was never ashamed of poverty. It was almost noble. Also, everyone I knew was in the same situation, and I had everything I needed. School was free. My clothes were cheap and always clean and ironed. And mum was always cooking. She was cooking the day I was drawing on the cross.

I was sitting at the kitchen table when my brother came home. He was 11 years older than me, so he would have been 19. He was as smart as anyone I knew, but he was too cheeky. He would answer back and get into trouble. I was a good boy. I went to church and believed in God -– what a relief for a working-class mother. You see, growing up where I did, mums didn’t hope as high as their kids growing up to be doctors; they just hoped their kids didn’t go to jail. So bring them up believing in God and they’ll be good and law abiding. It’s a perfect system. Well, nearly. 75 percent of Americans are God-­‐fearing Christians; 75 percent of prisoners are God-­‐fearing Christians. 10 percent of Americans are atheists; 0.2 percent of prisoners are atheists.

But anyway, there I was happily drawing my hero when my big brother Bob asked, “Why do you believe in God?” Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. “Bob,” she said in a tone that I knew meant, “Shut up.” Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong it didn’t matter what people said.

Oh…hang on. There is no God. He knows it, and she knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.”

Guess what?  If we’re defining God as the God of a very narrow kind of way of being Christian, or a God who is smaller than even our own capacities for love and grace and so on, if we’re talking about the out-to-lunch God of so much that passes for religion in the West, then I’m an atheist, too.  It’s only when you lose this God that you find yourself again in a place where the confounding message of Christ feels so true that it must also be holy.

My friend John calls me a converted doubter.  I thank God for all the faith I’ve lost over the years, and for the way I see God now…in Christ the servant, Christ the underminer of systems, Christ the prophet, Christ the Kind, Christ the Just, Christ the Poor, Christ the Margin, Christ the Savior, Christ the Lord.

Now, more than ever, Jesus is my God.  But that doesn’t make me hate or distrust or dislike or not feel connections to those for whom this makes absolutely no sense.  I hope they, too, reject false Gods.  I’d love for them to see Jesus as I do, because I find his life life-giving, even now.  I find strength in him.  I can get behind a God who’s not above straw poverty, who’s not above giving every last vestige of power away, who says blessed are the trampled.  Give me that God, always.

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Wherein I Tweet the US Bishops and Ask Them to Give Away the Church

@OnFaith asks “Can America fix the Catholic Church?

I admit this was a bit of a knee-jerk:

But it comes in the context of many conversations I’ve had with Catholic friends about the disconnect between the US Bishops and American nuns. The sisters seem to many of them (and to many non-Catholic observers like me) to be more in line with Christ’s radical message than are their contemporary patriarchs and primates.

But asking the USCCB to hand over control to the sisters doesn’t really go far enough. Every denomination in this country and abroad should be in the business of giving away their churches. Give away your riches, give away the exalted places in your hierarchy, give voice and access to people dying all around you. Jesus said so. That’s why I hang around him.

Baffled by Resistance, the Greedy and the Blessed, and That Time Jesus Said “You Tell Me.”

Most of you know that I wrote a piece last week about how the global Church could abolish extreme poverty to the ash bins of cosmic history if we only had the will.

Lots of people tweeted or liked or talked about or emailed me about that article, and I’ve been talking back to some of you on some rather personal levels.

In all of this, I think I’ll always be baffled by the Christians I know, rich by all global accounts, who refuse to do something as paltry as send a goat to Africa via WorldVision because they’re already giving to their local church and/or denomination. That’s like saying “I gave at the office,” isn’t it? Yes, yes it is.

If you had the means to buy one goat for one needy family or community for 70 dollars and you knew it could be done through a reputable, well-respected, transparent, Christian organization, why wouldn’t you do it, know matter how much you already gave at the office this week? Seriously. What’s the honest-to-God, good-enough-to-God answer?  There are none. And as long as we’re being honest, lets get real about some more numbers:  we all know a lot of people who could afford the $70 once or twice.  But if you’ve got the money, God has the crises.  Brings a new meaning to the old concept of  70 x 7, doesn’t it?

“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’

Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

“Then Rich Christians came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how much shall I give in your name to feed and clothe and heal your children? Ten percent of of my income?’

Jesus pointed to the 17,000 children who die of hunger every day, to the billion without ready access to clean water, to the homeless, sick, and destitute. Then Jesus said ‘You tell me.’

Lord, help us.

Below is a follow-up post that should be going live on Huffington soon.

Rich, Greedy, and Blessed: God Wants to Save Us, Too
Christopher Cocca

Last week, I published a piece in this space called “Ending Poverty With Global Christianity’s Phantom Trillion,” in which I noted that the global annual income of Christians and Christian institutions worldwide exceeds $10 trillion and that a mere 10 percent of that, if given to the right kinds of direct action organizations (Christian or otherwise), could eradicate the most dangerous and preventable forms of poverty on the planet.

I’ve been very grateful for the responses I’ve received here, on Twitter and elsewhere. By and large, people in my age group (I was born in 1980) and younger are saying “amen” to idea that the time to fundamentally change the way Christians think about giving is long overdue. Folks from some of the amazing organizations I mentioned last week have tweeted or emailed their encouragement and the shared belief that we, the Church, could actually eradicate extreme global poverty if we simply had the will.

And the agreement doesn’t end with young Gen-Xers and our Gen-Y friends. Across generations, traditions, doctrinal and political differences, and other bogus barriers we so often use to keep ourselves from having to do the hard work of justice and reconciliation, many Christians understand that the time has simply come to get serious about curing the curable disease of gross inequity.

The time has simply come to say that clean water for everyone matters to us because everyone matters to God, that no child should die from mosquito bites that could have been prevented for the kind of money we don’t even bother pulling from our couches. The time has come to say that no matter what you tithe to your church or denomination, $60 to plant 10 fruit trees in a community that gravely needs them is a bargain, or that charity: water‘s $12 economic impact for every dollar given is the stuff of loaves and fishes here and now.

“But Jesus said the poor will always be with us.” I’ve heard this more than once this week. It’s one of the archetypical responses from people very much concerned with the “more spiritual” ends of the church and one of our classically tragic adventures in missing the point. I don’t believe for a second that Jesus wants anything less from us than a real commitment of our time, talent and treasure toward ending the immense human suffering and accompanying evil that gross inequality and extreme poverty breed. Do you? Is this not the same Jesus who told the rich young ruler to sell everything and give his proceeds to the poor? When will comfortable Christians realize that we’re all rich young rulers? Visit Compassion International’s Who Are The Joneses project if you don’t believe me when I say that if you can afford the device and the data plan you’re using to read this, you’re probably wealthier than at least 90 percent of the world.

“But I give through my church.” I gave at the office, too. But how good is your church or your denomination at getting money to where it’s needed most? How much of your church tithe goes to administrative expenses? How much of your special offerings for specific anti-poverty projects goes to administrative expenses? How efficient are the organs of your denomination? How much do they spend to raise every dollar? Find this information. Charity Navigator provides it for groups like World Vision (it costs them 7 cents to raise a dollar), Save The Children, Compassion International, charity: water, Children International and so on. Are your churches and your denominations more transparent and efficient than these organizations? Maybe they are, but my hunch is that they aren’t. Find out.

And look, I’m not saying stop giving money to your church. That’s important. I work in a church. I get all of that. But if you’re choosing between buying a dairy goat that might mean the difference between hunger and sustainable nourishment for a family in the Horn of Africa or the Parking Lot Fund at All Saints Mainline Evangelical Tabernacle House of God, well, the choice is clear, isn’t it? Is it? (Yes.)

The truth is that many Western Christians could give a full tithe to their churches and a full second tithe toward the eradication of extreme poverty in efficient, responsible ways without losing much of our lifestyle. Isn’t it something of a scandal that so many of us can even talk about lifestyle when so many more are barely clinging to life? (Yes.) If your tithe or double tithe knock you down a peg or two in the social strata, thank your Father in heaven for the opportunity to clothe and feed and save the lives of people you will never meet in places you will never visit with names you can’t pronounce. If bringing the Kingdom of God to earth in tangible ways isn’t a priority for wealthy Christians, what the hell is?

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” That’s Jesus, not Karl Marx or Nancy Pelosi. In the larger context of this quote from from the Gospel of Matthew, these things aren’t options or good ideas or lofty works. They are the brick and mortar pieces of God’s Kingdom, here and now. They are what God requires, and it’s only when I begin to think about how little we do in response that the concept of hell makes any sense to me. And it’s then I also realize the real profundity of grace, that God, in God’s stubborn Godness, wants to save us, too.

And so we have an opportunity to change the world, and an obligation. Not just we the wealthy Church, but we the mingled body of marginalized and marginalizer, we the sinners and saints, we the poor and we the poor in spirit. In the sharing of our global wealth in a global context, we find a chance for our own healing, a test of our own faithfulness, and the promise of abounding grace in the lives we touch and the lives that touch us back.

It’s almost too much, isn’t it, this concept that we will be blessed by our giving? We should do the work we’re called to because we’re called to do it, yes, but on a more basic level, we should do it because it’s right. I’m almost ashamed to say that we the wealthy can find our own strains of redemption in the sharing of our wealth when our relative greed has rendered us so basically undeserving.

But powerful as we may be, we’re thankfully not the masters of God’s economy. In God’s stubborn system, God calls us from the brink with faithful service to the people God is most concerned with serving. It’s almost absurd, isn’t it, that this grace is there for we the wealthy, too? Absurd and foolish? Yes, the Gospel in a nutshell: radical grace, radical service, radical absurdity from the vantage of political, social and economic systems that keep failing. And a radical dependence on the terms of God’s radical provision.

Lord, help us.