Thursday, May 28, 2009

What Would Jesus Have Us Do?

An intersection of concerns from two aspects of my life has caused me to reflect on “Christian activism” (for lack of a better term) in the world. This blog is all about the intersection of faith and our lives a public beings, so it’s only natural to think about this. But I confess that this hits me where I am most vulnerable in my theology (I don’t mean in an emotional sense):In the issue of how Christians play out their salvation in the world, I often find my intellectual theology in tension with my gut-level politics (evidence, I would argue that I am simul justus et peccator). And I seem to run in circles trying to cut the Gordian knot.

Background, the first event, I’m involved in a little email experiment. Some of us are carrying on an online discussion of N.T. Wright’s recent book, Surprised by Hope. It is a study (and lengthy sermon, I would argue – which what a good theology ought to be) in the meaning of resurrection: What does it mean that Jesus is raised? What does the Bible actually say about resurrection and about the implications for life now and in the future of Jesus’ being raised? It’s splendidly written (I think I’ve remarked before how lucky British Anglicans are to have some scholarly bishops – pastors who are terrifically well-taught in theology and who can articulate orthodox theology in clear and eloquent ways: witness Wright and Archbishop Rowan Williams, as only two examples.)

Anyway, in our discussion, we have been invited to comment on this paragraph from the book:

Despite a thousand Easter hymns and a million Easter sermons, the resurrection narratives in the gospels never, ever say anything like, 'Jesus is raised, therefore there is life after death,' let alone, 'Jesus is raised, therefore we will go to heaven when we die.' Nor even, in a more authentic first-century Christian way, do they say, 'Jesus is raised, therefore we shall be raised from the dead after the sleep ofdeath.' No. Insofar as the event is interpreted, Easter has a very this-worldly present-age meaning: Jesus is raised, so he is the Messiah, so God's new creation has begun--and we, his followers, have a job to do! Jesus is raised, so we must act as heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world, and making his kingdom come on earth as in heaven!

-- N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 96

The moderator (a Lutheran pastor who always impresses me with his insight, his felicity of expression, and his graciousness) of the group has posed this challenge:

So let's stop here for the moment and ponder particularly that last claim, and perhaps note that it touches a particular Lutheran neuralgia: however can we MAKE Christ's kingdom come? (and Wright will get at this in detail later in the book, so for now we need not get bogged down in politics (as significant as that might be) but only in the claim of our work of MAKING).

Background, the second event: As you know, in my congregation I have been leading or facilitating (a more apt description) a close-reading and discussion of the Gospel of Matthew (for going on two years now, and we’re still not done). We have just looked at the Lord’s counsels in Matthew 18 about how to deal with a “brother” (= member of the church) who sins (some manuscripts stop there and some add “against you”): It’s the familiar command first to confront the sinner, then to take witnesses, and finally, all other attempts’ having failed, to take it to the church.

Well, after Sunday’s discussion, which I think I pushed to consider that the process that Jesus commands is meant to apply to the Church, the congregation, and is not counsel for how to deal with things in the world, I was challenged by a friend to deal with the wider picture. Others and I had admitted that there are implications for our lives in the world. We are to follow that process in our civic dealings, for example, although it may be difficult to call an assailant to convert while dealing with him face-to-face. But the question remained open: Is this a model for how to structure the society? Are we to refuse police forces and armies? Say more about the “worldly” implications of this teaching, my friend said. And thus this post. What follows is an edited version of what I wrote for my online discussion.

The issue of "kingdom come" is particularly relevant to me personally as I lead discussion of the Gospel of Matthew. I have never been a biblical scholar, but I have undertaken seriously to work with the Greek text, some commentaries, and Stanley Hauerwas' quite wonderful "theological commentary" on the Gospel. And I have had to refine a lot of my theology as a result of this endeavor.

Having preached on Matthew very little, I previously have not understood that Matthew writes to a congregation of (probably mainly, if not exclusively) Jewish Christians who struggle to continue in the faith despite the charges by their Jewish neighbors that they are apostates to Judaism. (That's my set-up of the Gospel for the discussion group, in any event.) Matthew describes how Jesus first teaches his disciples and then mandates that they teach the Church how to live the "kingdom of heaven" which has drawn hear in Jesus himself. The counsel of Mt. 18 illustrates: Whether the sinner in question sins against the one addressed or simply sins (sort of in general), the sinner is a "brother" -- a fellow member of the Body of Christ. And the command to talk with the sinner, then take 2 or 3, then address the Church is counsel on how to live as a community. That flashes one back to the Beatitudes, then, to show them not as individual counsels of perfection, but as the "parameters" (sorry, mathematicians) of communal life in the reign of God. As Hauerwas repeatedly stresses, it takes a community to support, direct, and correct individual Christians in living the Christian life. A Christian life is one organized around the Gospel and its sure proclamation that Jesus is the Lord of all of life: The Holy Spirit has called us into community around this Lord in order by our community to manifest and proclaim that Lordship to the world.

Now the implication for that is, I admit, archetypally Hauerwasian: The Church manifests the "kingdom that has come" in its life together -- toward one another and toward those whom it meets outside the assembly. The mission of the Church is not to remake the world, any more than that is what Jesus did. But her mission is to follow her Lord in establishing a community of love, peace, mutuality -- all centered in the reconciliation between God and humanity effected and manifest in Jesus. There is little in the Gospel (or in the rest of the NT, as I see it) to justify (or denounce, I suppose) the kind of civic activism that is possible in our world, but was all but unimaginable in the Roman Empire. The prayer, "thy kingdom come ... ," has as its primary referent "in thy church," so that we may be whom you have made us to be by your Son and the Spirit.

But equally true is that there is no possible way that the world can't be changed if Christians behave as Christians, the people of God. By their modeling of godly life in their own lives, in their lives together, and in their dealings with "outsiders" (i.e., non-fellow-Christians), Christians bring the kingdom -- i.e., the reign -- of God into the world. And by the power of the Spirit (probably dealt with at length in another Wright tome) that seeding of the kingdom can only come to fruition. But that does not involve taking control of governments (a tough admission for this liberal progressive to make -- but one equally binding on so-called conservatives) or anything of the sort.

I have cited as an example that of Minnesota’s political mess: Because of a looming budget deficit and the inability of the governor to work with the legislature to reach reasonable accommodations in each party’s rhetorical stances, the state faces a situation in which the budget deficit will be made up by using accounting shifts (a dishonest, though apparently legal way to deal with things) and by the governor’s exercising what he calls his “unallotment” powers – i.e., his ability (also apparently legal) unilaterally and according to his own discretion to cut program funds wherever he wants. He has announced that most of his cutting will be to health and well-being programs (such as money for hospitals, nursing homes, and services for disabled people) and to GAMC, which is the state’s program of health insurance for the poorest people in Minnesota. In short, he is going to protect rich people from tax increases and balance the budget on the backs of poor and sick people.

Now the governor touts himself (he is quite open about) as a Christian. So I claim that by the counsels of Matthew 18, every Christian in Minnesota should be at his door or in his email in-box to rebuke him for a particularly cruel approach to public policy that ignores the warnings of Matthew 25. After that, we should go in two’s and three’s. Then we should address him through our bishops. If he fails to see the light, we should treat him as a “gentile and a tax collector” – most ironic, given his stance.But note that this doesn’t mean that we join the Democratic Party (heaven forfend, in my opinion) or pray for the success of a candidate who runs against him. Using the political-party system “as Christians” to work our will is not the way to go, any more than that it was Jesus’ way to become a Zealot in order to effect and manifest the reign of his Father. (In fact, I suspect that the current governor’s policy has nothing to do with Minnesota and everything to do with his running for President of the US. So any entreaties are likely to be met with resounding silence – which only further justifies treating him as anathema. I’m not sure, of course, whether that means that we quit praying for him: I just read that Werner Elert, the great German Lutheran theologian who was vocal supporter of the Nazi government, later re-thought Christian responsibility to support the state ala Romans and 1 Peter, was it?, after realizing the error of his ways.)

Similarly, we don’t vet or run candidates as “Christian candidates,” but neither do we withhold our Christian witness to presidents, congresses, and legislatures. While I disagreed with most of what he said in later years, I think Richard John Neuhaus was absolutely right that in this society, the “public square” should not be “naked” of the Christian-qua-Christian witness. So, contrary to the views of many of those who have taught me, I don’t feel particularly annoyed when the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA writes or speaks on behalf of some political issue or bill. It is our “brief” as the Church to feed, clothe, house, reconcile, and all the rest – and given the nature of modern economies, that often means trying to bend the will of the State to the will of God.

In personal dealings, we Christians are similarly encouraged to treat others as brothers or sisters in Christ, whether they are “members” of the Church or not. That’s at least one implication of the Good Samaritan story. So we try to avoid litigation; in our dealings with those who do us dirt, we seek reconciliation, not retribution; in our economics, we seek to share rather than to hoard. And we bring those same approaches to life to the organizations of which we are members, seeking to influence the directions the organizations go.

The resurrection of Jesus, thus, has very much of a this-worldly character: It is proclaimed and -- what is often overlooked -- made visible in the lives of those who live in its power today. Jesus is Lord! The resurrection validates the claims of disciples and evangelists. The world needs to know that any attempt it makes to fight off that Lordship will be defeated -- as was death in its attempt to finish Jesus off. We counsel leaders that violence ultimately fails as a violation of the will of God. And so the Church both models and advocates peaceful living, non-violence, reconciliation. We remind corporate leaders that the amassing of wealth, whether in their own pockets or those of their stockholders, ultimately puts them under the judgment of Christ that "it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter heaven." And so we share with each other in the Church (Acts says that the early Christians “held all things in common.” And at the least we give offerings to assist those of company who are in need.) Do we outlaw profits? Well, as a socialist, I could answer that. But until we can get that under control in our congregations, I think we have little basis for trying to institute changes economy-wide.

The upshot is that we in our time have as part of our identities involvement with the civic structures unparalleled in the lives of those who have come before. That may require a re-examination of the Lutheran "two kingdoms." At least, it requires what we lawyers call a "restatement" of the teaching so that it is clear what it means.

New Vatican Ambassador

President Obama seems to have made a pretty interesting choice for the next Ambassador to the Vatican, theology professor Migues Diaz. He teaches up the road here in Minnesota at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University. Apparently one of his specialties is the Trinity!

He is a lay theologian, married with four children. Born in Cuba, he was raised in Spain and then trained in Minnesota at the University of St. Thomas and in Indiana at Notre Dame (master's and doctor's degrees). He was an Obama adviser during the campaign (I wear a wry smile at the thought of a theological adviser to a presidential candidate -- talk about a court theologian!), and has apparently been rewarded for his advice.

By the accounts at the schools, he is a fine man, a good teacher, a faithful Catholic -- so he should do a good job (despite a lack of diplomatic experience -- assuming that we don't count walking through the minefields of modern academic Catholic theology an experience in diplomacy!). He stands in start contrast to the outgoing ambassador, law professor Mary Ann Glendon, who has demonstrated an uncanny ability to identify Roman Catholic teachings with the Republican Party (witness her recent lamentable display of poor judgment and poor theology in her refusal of an honorary doctorate from Notre Dame -- because President Obama was speaking to the graduates).

This issue cuts about as closely to the raison d'etre for this blog as any -- viz., the intersection of faith and public life. I'm sorry to say that I don't know Prof. Dr. Diaz, but I think we should all wish him well and offer prayers for his service to the United States in the Vatican city-state.