The Church, Politics, and the Future

Amos 2.11-12
“I also raised up prophets from among your children
and Nazirites from among your youths.
Is this not true, people of Israel?”
declares the Lord.
“But you made the Nazirites drink wine
and commanded the prophets not to prophesy.

From John:
Christians living faithfully will always suffer under governments—regardless of political promises, regardless of party affiliation, regardless of political alignment. If our political goals are to ease our own suffering, they have nothing to do with living out the gospel.

Reflection: The Church, Politics, and the Future
The Park Forum

“Christians in the first-century were a minority in a hostile world,” observed John Howard Yoder. A theologian and ethicist, Yoder believed that ancient Christianity’s minority status was radically different than the posture every Western Christian after Constantine would embrace. This historic standard is part of why the rapidly diminishing power of cultural Christianity in the U.S. has been so traumatic.

The Church, prior to Constantine, was defined by outward character and practice. Constantine effectively conscripted the West into Christianity—demanding they appear as Christian, or face brutal consequences for defiance. Because everyone essentially held the same external practices, the identity of a true Christian shifted inward, to the transformation of the heart and soul.

Over time the external signs of faith became less and less valued—until even the efficacy of an external sign was questioned. Yoder follows the logic of a modern Christian debating giving away all of his wealth:

What would happen if everyone did it? If everyone gave their wealth away what would we do for capital? If everyone loved their enemies who would ward off the Communists?

This argument could be met on other levels, but here our only point is to observe that such reasoning would have been preposterous in the early church and remains ludicrous wherever committed Christians accept realistically their minority status. Far more fitting than “What if everybody did it” would be its inverse, “What if nobody else acted like a Christian, but we did?”

In many ways, the faithful Christians celebrated throughout history are the ones who defied Yoder’s calculated control of external works of faith. “Anyone who has read Eberhard Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography knows it is impossible to distinguish between Bonhoeffer’s life and work,” writes theologian Stanley Hauerwas:

Bonhoeffer’s work from beginning to end was the attempt to reclaim the visibility of the church as the necessary condition for the proclamation of the gospel in a world that no longer privileged Christianity.

Hauerwas notes that, not only was Bonhoeffer’s faith deeply integrated into his life, but, “Bonhoeffer’s life that was at once theological and political.” Quoting from The Cost of Discipleship, Hauerwas continues:

According to Bonhoeffer sanctification, properly understood, is the church’s politics. For sanctification is only possible within the visible church community. “That is the ‘political’ character of the church community. A merely personal sanctification which seeks to bypass this openly visible separation of the church-community from the world confuses the pious desires of the religious flesh with the sanctification of the church-community, which has been accomplished in Christ’s death and is being actualized by the seal of God.”

Bonhoeffer saw that the holiness of the church is necessary for the redemption of the world.

Though Bonhoeffer saw American theology as superficial, he has many followers currently echoing his ethos for Christian praxis. A New Yorker profile on the Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore noted, “he says that Christians in America must learn to think of themselves as a marginal community, struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile secular culture.”

Moore tends toward introspection, admonishing Southern Baptists to think first—and often—about their own sins. The denomination was formed, in 1845, by white Southerners who split off from a national Baptist movement that was growing increasingly intolerant of slavery. Moore sees in his theological ancestors a cowardly and catastrophic willingness to ignore the uncomfortable. “If you call people to repentance for drunkenness, or for adultery, or for any number of personal sins, but you don’t say anything about slaveholding or about lynching,” he says, “you’re just baptizing the status quo.”

Though leaders change and the appearances of majority diminish, the call and foundation of the Church remain. Hauerwas, again quoting Bonhoeffer, concludes:

The church names that community that lives in radical hope in a world without hope. To so live means the church cannot help but be different from the world. Such a difference is not an end in itself but “automatically follow[s] from an authentic proclamation of the gospel.”

Prayer: The Greeting
Our of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God reveals himself in glory.
Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause; for God himself is judge.  — Psalm 50.2, 6

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Prayers from The Divine Hours available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Amos 2 (Listen – 2:12)
Psalm 145 (Listen – 2:19)

Additional Reading
Read More about A Different Kind of Exile
Living as outcasts in society has nearly always brought healing to the church through suffering. The historical church that suffers, tightens its grasp of the Gospel as it loses worldly influence and power.

Read More about being Undefiled at Heart
At times, like Daniel, we must beg for permission from governments and employers to follow our consciences. That the government may not relent, and we may be forced to eat what is given is a part of being an exile.

Articles:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Political Theology. Stanley Hauerwas for The University of Waterloo.
The New Evangelical Moral Minority. Kelefa Sanneh for The New Yorker.
A White Church No More. Russell Moore for The New York Times.
The Priestly Kingdom (pp. 42-45, draft provided by Duke). John Howard Yoder in Christian Ethics.

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Breath, Reconsidered

Psalm 144.3-4
Lord, what are human beings that you care for them,
mere mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
their days are like a fleeting shadow.

John 3.5-8
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Reflection: Breath, Reconsidered
By John Tillman

We rightly think of the psalmist comparing us to breath as humbling. But not everything that humbles humiliates. When humbled we are prepared to be lifted up, by God.

In Aramaic and Greek the word for “Spirit,” “breath,” and “wind” is the same word. This makes Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus one in which we must carefully attune our ears to context. Jesus is purposefully mixing his meanings. As Eugene Peterson rhetorically asks in his book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, “What’s being talked about here, breathing, or weather, or God?”

Although the length of a breath may be a humbling downside, perhaps, there is also an upside.

Breath, Reconsidered

Lord, what are we that you care for us?
We are like a breath.

Like a breath, Lord, we pass from the earth.
Like a breath, Lord, insubstantial we seem.
Like a breath, Lord, some deep and some shallow.
Like a breath, Lord, we dissipate in the breeze.

But you gave us breath,
Your mouth on Adam’s lips.
And you redeemed breath
When Christ first drew it in
And you received his breath,
When his Spirit he released
He gave that Spirit to us
When on the disciples he breathed…

We are Adam’s first breath,
His first breath, re-breathed.

We are like a breath, we are a beginning
We are like a breath the first sign of life
We are like a breath, divine inspiration
We are like a breath, a baby’s first cry

We are the breath, of a worker,
drawn to take strength
We are the breath, of a mother,
that can warm frigid hands
We are the breath, of the preacher,
whose voice carries a dream
We are the breath, of a singer,
whose song fills the land

Breath sustains symphonies
Breath extinguishes candles
Breath ignites embers
Breath powers prophets
Breath connects lovers
Breath fills balloons
Breath is life

Breath serenades
Breath enlightens
Breath enlivens
Breath laughs
Breath shouts
Breath prays
Breath fills
Breath comes
Breath goes

Lord, what are we that you care for us?
We are like a breath.

Prayer: The Greeting
The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined from ore and purified seven times in the fire.  — Psalm 12.6

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Prayers from The Divine Hours available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Amos 1 (Listen – 2:38)
Psalm 144 (Listen – 1:56)

Additional Reading
Read More poetry from Accepting Jesus
From woman, formed of man
And formed of earth
God takes on flesh.
Though prophets are dumb
Profound cries of God
Are heard within the creche.

Read More about poetry and Walking the Way of Pain
Poetry has a way of putting into language that which we are unable to speak on our own. It communicates poignant, intentional thoughts, feelings, and expressions of all that we hold dear, but, perhaps, have never uttered aloud.

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Each month over 22,000 Park Forum email devotionals are read around the world. Support our readers with a monthly or a one time donation.

Giving Thanks :: Weekend Reading List

“I have been thinking of something that stifles thanksgiving,” wrote Elisabeth Elliot almost 30 years ago—and, though it was neither politics nor family struggles, her insight cuts right to the heart: “It is the spirit of greed—the greed of doing, being, and having.” Elliot explains:

When Satan came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, his bait was intended to inspire the lust to do more than the Father meant for Him to do—to go farther, demonstrate more power, and act more dramatically.

This lifestyle of greed metastasizes in every corner of our soul—often expressing itself as we think of the worldly things for which we are thankful. But what if Thanksgiving was defined not by what we have accumulated but by rest from the demands of commerce and striving? Elliot continues:

The enemy comes to us in these days of frantic doing. We are ceaselessly summoned to activities: social, political, educational, athletic, and—yes—spiritual. Our “self-image” (deplorable word!) is dependent not on quiet and hidden “Do this for My sake,” but on the list the world hands us of what is “important.” It is a long list, and it is both foolish and impossible. If we fall for it, we neglect the short list.

Temptation comes also in the form of being. The snake in the garden struck at Eve with the promise of being something which had not been given. If she would eat the fruit forbidden to her, she could “upgrade her lifestyle” and become like God. She inferred that this was her right, and that God meant to cheat her of this.

Then there is the greed of having. There is no end to the spending, getting, having. We are insatiable consumers, dead-set on competing, upgrading, showing off (“If you’ve got it, flaunt it”). We simply cannot bear to miss something others deem necessary.

So the world ruins the peace and simplicity God would give us. Contentment with what He has chosen for us dissolves, along with godliness, while, instead of giving thanks, we lust and wail, teaching our children to lust and wail too.

Elliot’s soft rebuke reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s This is Water. Wallace, like Elliot, demands we question the “normal” and expand our thirst for what is possible when we give up the relentless pursuit of self.

I was also reminded of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work The Sabbath. The rabbi parses the spiritual life in the realms of space and time—drawing us beyond the materialism that defines our modern world. “The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it,” Heschel challenges. He explains:

Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time. In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space. To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective. Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.

The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. In a religious experience, for example, it is not a thing that imposes itself on man but a spiritual presence. What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time.

So as we prepare to give thanks this week, may we find space. In the midst of travel, of difficult conversations, of the joys of friendship and family—may we find the holy moments where we can experience the power of the divine.

In this way we will experience Thanksgiving as an extension of eternity—a taste of the holy rest that awaits us. “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath,” Heschel cautions, “one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come.”

Weekend Reading List

Today’s Reading
Amos 7 (Listen – 2:45)
Luke 2 (Listen – 6:11)

This Weekend’s Readings
Amos 8 (Listen – 2:16) Luke 3 (Listen – 5:24)
Amos 9 (Listen – 3:08) Luke 4 (Listen – 5:27)

 

A Prayer for Harmony and Stability :: Throwback Thursday

By Clement of Rome (fl. 88-99 C.E.)

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” — Luke 1.46-47

Grant us, Lord, to hope on your name, which is the primal source of all creation, and open the eyes of our hearts that we may know you, who alone are highest among the high; you are holy, abiding among the holy.

We ask you, Master, to be our helper and protector. Save those among us who are in distress; have mercy on the humble; raise up the fallen; show yourself to those in need; heal the sick; turn back those of your people who wander; feed the hungry; ransom our prisoners; raise up the weak; comfort the discouraged.

Let all the nations know that you are the only God, that Jesus Christ is your servant, and that we are your people and the sheep of your pasture.

For through your works have revealed the everlasting structure of the world. You, Lord, created the earth. You are faithful throughout all generations, righteous in your judgments, marvelous in strength and majesty, wise in creating and prudent in establishing what exists, good in all that is observed and faithful to those who trust in you, merciful and compassionate: forgive us our sins and our injustices, our transgressions and our shortcomings.

Give harmony and peace to us and to all who dwell on the earth, just as you did to our ancestors when they reverently called upon you in faith and truth, that we may be saved, while we render obedience to your almighty and most excellent name, and to our rulers and governors on earth.

You, Master, have given them the power of sovereignty through your majestic and inexpressible might, so that we, acknowledging the glory and honor that you have given them, may be subject to them, resisting your will in nothing.

Grant to them, Lord, health, peace, harmony, and stability, so that they may blamelessly administer the government that you have given them. For you, heavenly Master, King of the ages, give to human beings glory and honor and authority over the creatures upon the earth.

Lord, direct their plans according to what is good and pleasing in your sight, so that by devoutly administering in peace and gentleness the authority that you have given them they may experience your mercy.

*Abridged from 1 Clement 59.3-61.3.

Today’s Reading
Amos 6 (Listen – 2:13)
Luke 1:39-80 (Listen – 9:26)

 

Christ—Ruler of Political Leaders

By N.T. Wright

You shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” — Luke 1.31-33

In trying to understand that present reign of Jesus, though, we have seen two apparently quite different strands. On the one hand, we have seen that all the powers and authorities in the universe are now, in some sense or other, subject to Jesus. This doesn’t mean that they all do what he wants all the time, only that Jesus intends that there should be social and political structures of governance.

Jesus himself pointed out to Pilate that the authority that the Roman governor had over him and been given to him “from above.” Once that has been said, we should not only be shy about recognizing—however paradoxical it seems to our black and white minds—the God-givenness of structures of authority, even when they are tyrannical and violent.

Part of what we say when we say that a structure is God-given is also that God will hold it to account. We have trained ourselves to think of political legitimacy simply in terms of the method or mode of appointment (e.g., if you’ve won an election). The ancient Jews and early Christians were far more interested in holding rulers to account with regard to what they were actually doing. God wants rulers, but God will call them to account.

Where does Jesus come into all this? From his own perspective, he was himself both upstaging the power structures of his day and also calling them to account, then and there. That’s what his action in the Temple was all about. But his death, resurrection, and ascension were the demonstration that he was Lord and they were not.

The calling to account has, in other words, already begun—and will be completed at the second coming. The church’s work of speaking the truth to power means what it means because it is based on the first of these and anticipates the second.

What the church does, in the power of the Spirit, is rooted in the achievement of Jesus and looks ahead to the final completion of his work. This is how Jesus is running the world in the present.

*Excerpt from Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright.

Today’s Reading
Amos 5 (Listen – 3:44)
Luke 1:1-38 (Listen – 9:26)

 

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