Call Me Fallacious

Some time back, I was in this confusing and exciting time in my life when God was leading me out of my theological comfort zone into something richer. (He’s always been doing this, of course, but this was one of those intensely formative seasons that shine in my memory like a hot flame.) During this time, I had been prompted to think more deeply about the practical and ethical implications of following a crucified God and in typical fashion, I preached a series of messages on the topics of Jesus and his cross. Nearly three quarters of the way through this series, a member of the church approached me and firmly told me I needed to preach “less Jesus and more Paul.”

This was not a particularly new concept to me. I am steeped in a tradition that occasionally holds those who focus on the gospels with deep suspicion. More to the point, many of my experience seemed afraid that thusly emphasizing Jesus would undermine the complex, perilously built arguments we had made about “sound doctrine” from the epistles. Thus, those who granted undue importance to the gospels were often labeled “change agents.” (Indeed, it wasn’t long after this man approached me that I was labeled similarly.) Some would even go so far with this view as to argue that Jesus’ teachings and actions were not normative for Christians because he lived under an older dispensation while we live under the new one. It was, in this view, Paul that counted where ethical living was concerned.

What struck me that day, during this formative season of my life, was that I had been preaching from Paul. Back in the day, I did handouts for every sermon and I happened to have a copy of each from the series I was preaching. I pulled them out and asked the man to look them over. Where were my texts from?

I’ll tell you. They were from Paul.

Even this week, I encountered a respected scholar from my heritage that argues against holding this “christological fallacy.” We can’t see the gospels – or Jesus’ teachings and life – as more authoritative than any other part of Scripture. Those who do so, the argument goes, are trying to get away with something: to undermine doctrine, or discredit some part of inspiration, or some other such nefarious nonsense.

But, let me suggest that my happy adoption of such a fallacy came about precisely because I took the authority of Scripture seriously. (I often remind people that I am only as “liberal” [whatever that means] as I am because I was raised to take the Bible seriously.) It is, after all, the witness of Scripture that leads one to place Jesus’ life and teachings at the center of how we understand what God is teaching us in Scripture. Jesus becomes the lens through which we interpret Scripture at the insistence of Scripture itself.

It is Paul who incessantly preached the crucified Lord. (And, might I suggest, that if we read Paul as primarily talking about anything other than Jesus, we’re reading him wrong.) It is Paul that would spend the opening chapters of nearly every one of his letters discussing the meaning of Jesus’ life, teachings, and actions before drawing ethical applications with an important therefore. (That is, he says, “I’m going to talk to you about how to live on the basis of all this talk about Jesus we’ve been having.”) It is Paul who gives us the rich, practical language of Christ-likeness.

And, this isn’t even to begin discussing all the ways the other writers of the New Testament insist on the same emphasis. Nor is it to begin discussing the beautiful, complex dance between the Jesus and the Hebrew Bible, which at the same time gives us context for understanding Jesus and demands re-interpretation through a christological lens because of Jesus.

I say all of that to stake out this claim: if it is a fallacy to see Jesus – his life and his teachings – as the absolute, defining center of how I understand both Scripture and my life, call me fallacious.

I’ve been called worse.

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Call Me Fallacious

My Wife, Conqueror

 

Death has been swallowed up by a victory.
         Where is your victory, Death?
        Where is your sting, Death?

(Death’s sting is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.) Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord.

~ 1 Corinthians 15:54-58

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death—the devil—by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death.

~ Hebrews 2:14-15

For those who were there or are willing to look, it’s no real secret that a few years ago my wife attended the annual Women’s March in Austin with a friend. Her reasons for going are somewhat less known. In many cases, this is because those who took notice of her presence at the march were considerably less interested in hearing her reasons for attending than they were their own assumptions about why she went. Then, as now, our nation and church situates themselves in a place where nuance, complexity, and depth are often lost to the more blunt and vulgar narratives of partisan politics, of elephants and donkeys.

In the weeks after the march, I was frequently asked why she marched. (It is telling that, so far as I know, no one bothered to ask her why she marched.) As if she only went because I had given her my permission, I was grilled as to why I was okay with her (a Christian!) participating in the Women’s March when there was so much sinful stuff happening around her. Why didn’t she leave when she saw how bad it was? My answer, of course, was because my wife takes communion.

The table is the place where we gather every week as racists, bigots, adulterers, liars, thieves, addicts, idolaters, hypocrites, gossips, gluttons, greedy opportunists, abusers, rabble rousers, drunks, and law breakers. We gather as those who are prideful, judgmental, accusatory, stubborn, lustful, angry, spiteful, apathetic, contentious, self-righteous and … well, you can imagine how this list could go on and on and on …

What’s more: Each Sunday, I find myself at more places on that list than I care to admit.

And God has made room for all of us messy, broken people at his table, redeeming us in the middle of that messiness. God reminds us of who he is at his table. He is the one who left heaven to wade into the messiness of our existence. And, he is the one who sends us out from the table, into his messy world.

So, it’s no more shocking nor objectionable to me when my wife would follow him into the middle of it all at the Women’s March than it was when a group of ladies from a former congregation decided a few years back to follow Jesus into the middle of it all and minister to strippers in their dressing rooms.

This is to say that, for my wife, it was theological. It was christological and pastoral. It was not political in any modern sense of the word. Here’s what I’m suggesting:

What happens if you begin without the assumption that the only way of making change was via the government or the assumption that the only purpose of marching was to try and force the government to change? (Because, you know – you don’t believe change is contingent on the government.) What if, instead, you believed that the way to make change in the world was to follow in the way of the kingdom by building relationships rooted in the sort of love God demonstrated in the person of Jesus?

Why would you march? One reason might be that reimagining our assumptions as described above leads to the possibility of marching for someone rather than against something or someone. It opens the possibility of the act being more about saying to others, “I hear you in your darkness,” rather than saying to the government, “I demand you listen to my voice.” If you reconfigure your imagination in this way, it doesn’t matter so much why other people are walking down the street next to you. In fact, your individual presence in the march is probably politically insignificant on a national, state, regional, or local level – even if you are marching against someone or something. But relationally, the act stands to carry great power for the loved one struggling in the darkness whom you have marched for.

This marching for, this symbolic act of solidarity and advocacy, driven by the love Christ had shown her, a love she intended to share with others regardless how the partisan among our community would react, this marching for is why she was there. And she was seen. Not only by those who whispered against her, caring for their assumptions more than her reality, but also by those who were hurting. Those who were holding the darkness inside, too ashamed to tell their story – to step into the light – lest people think them sullied or irredeemable or somehow deserving of the sins thrust upon them by their abusers. She marched for them and they saw and it opened a door, however small the crack, for healing.

I say this because she needs to be seen. Often, people will only see the quiet woman who is so inundated with our brood at worship she can seem aloof. Others will never look past her blue hair and tattoos. Others still will look at her, see she is not a good Republican, and lean into unfortunate assumptions. What they miss is the deep strength and character the Spirit has formed in my wife. What they miss is the passionate advocacy she offers for those on the margins. What they miss is her determination to use her voice for those who have been denied theirs.

Having been set free from the fear of death, she uses her freedom to bring others into the healing and love Jesus has given her. And, in doing this, she has taught me more about what it means to follow Jesus than any fifty teachers and preachers I’ve had in my life.

My favorite of her many tattoos is the one on the back of her neck. It is the seal of the Moravian Church. The seal depicts the Slaughtered Lamb carrying the banner of the cross. Around the edges are the words, “Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur.

“Our Lamb has conquered. Let us follow him.”

Amen.

PS: You really should check out her new post about why she advocates for rape and abuse victims. You can find it here.

My Wife, Conqueror

Honest-to-Goodness, Real, Live People

A few friends and I have been sitting with the Sermon on the Mount the last few weeks. We are part of a small group – our “village” – that increasingly wants to take discipleship more seriously than we have and as a starting point, we’ve been asking the question: “What would it take for our village to look more like the Sermon on the Mount this time next year?” To answer that, we’ve started by simply dwelling with Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5-7.

 

Here’s one of the more important observations I’ve run across in that time: the Sermon is all about honest-to-goodness, real, live people. It’s about how God relates to them, and how they relate to God, and how we relate to them, and about how our relating to them shapes the way we relate to God.

When I say it’s about honest-to-goodness, real, live people, I mean the Sermon largely concerns itself with a view of humanity in which humans cannot be reduced to the sum of their virtues, vices, and pragmatic usefulness. For all they do right and wrong, for all the ways in which they are helpful and hurtful, they remain fully, beautifully, and frustratingly human, and in the kingdom, God’s insistence is we continue to see them as nothing less.

The Beatitudes, for instance, are addressed to people we tend not to see. In claiming the kingdom is for the poor, Jesus challenges me to see an entire class of people I tend to pass over or malign for a whole host of reasons. If the kingdom is the place where the poor find dignity and a way forward, I can no longer ignore them, vilify them, or use them and claim to be a part of God’s kingdom. Jesus asks me to learn to treat them like honest-to-goodness, real, live people.

The same sort of thing is going on the long section of teaching, beginning in Matthew 5:21. This is a rich, complex teaching that goes right to the heart of our deepest woes. Within that complexity is the insistence we not see our neighbors as objects. We don’t have to worry about murder when we refuse to dehumanize our neighbors into objects of our anger and problems that need fixing. We need not worry about adultery when we stop valuing our neighbors as nothing more than pieces of flesh that feed our appetites. Jesus spoke this difficult word about divorce into a culture where many thought a wife could be cast off as a disposable household appliance. Jesus even went as far as to insist we see our enemies – those we are most likely to dehumanize – as brothers and friends worthy of our blessings.

He begins that teaching by saying our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. At the heart of this kingdom righteousness seems to be a commitment to seeing those around us as our Father in heaven does.

Beginning in Matthew 6, Jesus is teaching about where we derive our worth. At the beginning of the teaching, he warns us not to do things for the sake of impressing others. At the end of the teaching, he warns us not to derive our worth from things that fade, rust, or can be taken away. In between, he gives us three examples of things the average Jew might master in order to be important, or cool, or valuable in their religious culture.

In his insistence that our value be rooted in God, Jesus forbids us from reducing others to mere tools by which we aggregate our own identity. Your neighbors, he insists are not there to bolster your self-esteem.

I could go on through the entire Sermon, but let me give you one more brief example and I’ll stop. In the beginning of Matthew 7, Jesus warns us the way we judge others will be the standard by which we are judged. Among the things we might learn here is the value of treating those around us with the grace, dignity, and understanding we typically feel we are owed. Of course, this would require we treat our neighbors with their full humanity, as that is what we typically assume we are.

So, what would it look like for us to begin living the Sermon more fully? There are, of course, lots of places that journey could start, but here is a good place: practice treating the people in our lives as honest-to-goodness, real, live people.

How would that look in your life?

Honest-to-Goodness, Real, Live People

The Ethics of Empire

At 8&H, I’ve been teaching a class with my friend Arnold Robledo about immigrants and refugees in Scripture. Yesterday we made it to the Exodus narrative, and I was able to review some of the underlying ethical impulses that guided Egypt’s response to the Hebrews as an immigrant population. If we pay attention, these impulses guide much of our decision making today.

The ethics of the empire is rooted in the reality of death. In Genesis 3, sin opened the door to death, and death created a frightening existence that terrorizes us from every angle. This is evident from the very earliest moments of our experience with death. God tells Eve childbearing will now have an attendant anxiety with it. Adam will now anxiously work for his next meal in a world re-defined by scarcity in the Fall. Because of death, fear and anxiety are ever-present realities in our world. It doesn’t take an especially religious person to realize this. Each of us will regularly come face to face with the scariness of our situation.

When this happens, a natural inclination is to ask, “Why?” Why is the world a scary place? Why do so many bad things happen? Why, try as we might, are we unable to bolster the economy, make lasting peace, or conquer our many demons large and small? Equally reflexive is the tendency to cast blame for this brokenness on someone else. In Scripture, this is the fundamental role of the satan – or the accuser. To highlight how this tendency to blame and accuse works functionally, notice the verb we translate accuse in Greek is katagoreo, from which we derive our word categorize.

In our dangerous world created by death, the fundamental move in the face of our anxiousness is to divide everyone into camps of us and them, which almost always plays out as us versus them. They are the ones to blame. They are the threat to our way of life. They are the problem with the world.

We can see each of these elements clearly in the Exodus narrative. The new Pharaoh was anxious and the Hebrews were to blame. He was a afraid that if an enemy attacked Egypt, the Hebrews would side with those enemies and defeat him. A little later, when Pharaoh’s plans to curtail the problem failed, the text tells us the Egyptians began to look on the Hebrews with disgust and dread.

Having identified the problem, the ethics of empire then calls us to find ways to overpower or dominate the source of our anxiety. At the end of the day, I propose this is what functionally makes the empire the empire. It is the ethic of out-vote, out-shout, out-spend, out-legislate, and out-bomb, in which the solution to our fears is to have more power than those that scare us.

Pharaoh is concerned about the Hebrew problem so he institutes a domestic policy of forced labor for the Hebrews – a title which, by the way, marks the Israelites out as immigrants in Egyptian society. When various iterations of that plan fail, he adds the additional measure of calling on all loyal,patriotic Egyptians to murder all Hebrew boys. All of this is done, in the face of Egyptian anxiety, in the name of national security.

So, in short, these are the ethics of empire: The way one responds to the frightfulness of our anxious world is to identify and dominate those who cause our anxiety. This is the ethical underpinning beneath Pharaoh’s actions in the Exodus narrative. It is also the thought process at work in the gospels, as the religious elite conspire and act against Jesus. And, the ethics of empire are still very much alive today.

What does this have to do with the way we treat immigrants and refugees today? I suspect you can put many of those puzzle pieces together yourself. Let me say this: Whenever we approach a people group with fear, accusation, and domination, we are living out of the empire and not the kingdom of God.

 

 

The Ethics of Empire