Friday, August 25, 2006

At Ease in Zion

In an essay, “God’s Revelation and Proclamation in History,” Gustavo Gonzalez (a theologican of the "Liberation Theology" mold) writes, “It is time to open the Bible and read it from the perspective of ‘those who are persecuted in the cause of right’ (Matt. 5:10), from the perspective of the condemned human beings of this earth – for, after all, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. It is for them that the gospel is destined, it is to them that the gospel is preferentially addressed.”

I really like that thinking, and I’m inclined to agree with him. “God’s preferential option for the poor” is a controversial idea, one loudly condemned by the neo-cons (especially among Roman Catholics, but not unheard among Lutherans) , but one affirmed (if memory serves) by more than one recent Pope. I like that it seems to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously (an address that I find an awfully good summary of the Gospel), and it seems to comport with the witness and example of Jesus. It gives voice to my complaint that much of modern theology is either too academic, anemic, and bodiless or too touch-feely, hand-holding, chaplaincy-like.

I wonder whether it might be time for the well-off Church to recall the witness of the liberation theologians. (It's a crock that they were all Marxists -- though no one condemns most modern theologians for being capitalist.) I wonder whether it is time for the Church to realize that most of us (her members) are not among the lost, the oppressed, the poor, the powerless, the condemned. I wonder whether it might be time for some of us to be disquieted by a Gospel that changes lives and situations, rather than affirming, comfirming, and giving comfort to the status quo. (And when I say "I wonder," of course I don't wonder at all: I think it's way past time.)

I see evidence for an effort to avoid the Gospel in a lot of the church’s preaching. It seems to me that a lot of -- if not most -- preaching that gets done is a not-very-refined effort either to show those of us who, by a straightforward reading of God’s word, ought to be discombobulated that we have nothing to fear, that we are “OK,” that God loves us “just as we are,” no change necessary; or to so “spiritualize” the Gospel as to disincarnate the message, which then leaves us just as we are, but affirmed nonetheless. Most sermons I hear (and not just at my own church, but there too) seem to strive mightily to identify us, who sit in the pews, with those very humble and down-trodden ones to whom the Gospel is addressed. And I frankly find the attempt amusing – when it is not maddening in the extreme.

Of course, we are not poor in resources; we are among the richest civilization the world has known. And the gap between us and the poorest in the world is so vast that even science fiction writers can’t really describe it adequately. But, in order to make the Gospel "relevant" to our situation, if we are not poor in money or power, then we can be “poor in spirit.” Thus, we talk about our anxieties, our disappointments, our hopes-deferred – and see in them a moral equivalence with physical poverty and being "disappeared" by some political regime. “Charity begins at home” and so we must “love ourselves first, if we are to love others.” And it goes on.

Kathy, my wife, says that there are times when she wants to scream – that if she hears one more sermon anywhere that tries to portray all of us middle-class respectables as “suffering,” she will stand up and yell “Enough!” She has helped me to see (not for the first time, I readily acknowledge) just how far we have come from orthodox faith -- where genuine suffering is addressed and woe is addressed to those "who are at ease in Zion." When worship becomes an exercise in avoiding responsibility, in being enabled to forget that we sin and fall short of the glory of god, in ignoring that “repent” is the first word of Gospel preaching (not: “Don’t worry; be happy.”) – then it ceases to be worship.

I think the rationalism that has taken control of theology in the Western Church – probably feeding into “constantinianism” and nurtured by the incredible wealth of Christians – has worked an inversion in the Gospel’s effects. And we need to be recalled to the path of faith.

It may go without saying that, at least one function of preaching ought to be “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” But it has become clear that preachers also need re-education in what constitutes “affliction” and “comfort.” We need more preaching that tells most of us to “get a grip” and come to terms with reality – the reality of the Gospel, which may require that we give up our wealth and security in order to follow Jesus.

Hmmm: This is sounding sort of like Bonhoeffer, isn’t it? That’s not too surprising, given that Gonzalez expressed an appreciation for Bonhoeffer as one of the few theologians of the West who “got” what the Gospel was about.


Anonymous said...

Well said!!!
And I hope that the few turns some of us have taken in the pulpit have not caused the offenses you describe. If so, mea culpa. Nevertheless this post will serve as a reminder for future preaching opportunities to speak, as appropriate to the texts at hand, a message of "get a grip".


Chris Jones said...

I am stunned by what you have written in this post, to the point where I wonder whether we are reading the same Bible. In my Bible, there is no one group of people to whom the Gospel is "preferentially addressed"; instead, it is proclaimed that God desires all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the Truth.

To whom is the Gospel addressed? It is addressed to sinners of every description, be they rich or poor, black or white, Jew or Greek. If you are a sinner, then it is to you that God offers salvation through the blood of the Lamb. The good news of salvation is not about liberation from political and economic oppression in this world. The oppression and bondage of which the Bible speaks, from which the death of the Son of God sets us free, is the bondage to sin and death. The oppression suffered by the poor is a manifestation and a consequence of that deeper, primordial bondage.

Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Hb 2.14-15)

Preaching against the privilege and complacency of the affluent is all well and good; but it is not the Gospel. It does not lay the ax to the root of the tree, and it does not proclaim the truly radical liberation from sin and death which Jesus proclaimed (and accomplished). To preach the Gospel is to proclaim Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, not to inculcate political guilt.