Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Status and Hierarchy

3. Redefinition of social status and hierarchy. “The first shall be last.”

The Gospels consistently portray Jesus as redefining status. He clearly teaches, for example, that those who serve have a higher status than those who are served. In Jesus' day (and in our own!) those who serve are social inferiors. If you doubt this is true in 21st Century US culture, think about who is addressed by Mr. or Ms. and who is called by their first name.

There is, of course, a kind of paradox in this, because ultimately I believe that the more fundamental message is that status and hierarchy in themselves, undermine the principle of mutual respect that is required for the beloved community to emerge. But because those of high social status have a more difficult time honestly and vulnerably engaging those of lower status, the teaching is directed to counter the presumption of those who are of a higher status.

Social status confers power and privilege that is easily abused by those who have it. The privileged and powerful often have difficulty listening attentively to those without power and privilege. The dangerous assumption that one's position is the result of one's virtues can foster a kind of arrogance that dismisses the claims made by those without.

Similarly, those of low status, without social power or privilege, are vulnerable to the danger of assuming that lack is attributable to their own personal failing or destiny.

Both of these dangers are addressed by Jesus' overturning of status and hierarchy. His teaching and the practice of the early Christian movement takes the view that personal worth is based on one's being a child of God. All voices and lives in the beloved community are to be recognized in our life together.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Number Two

2. Kinship, national, ethnic, and other worldly ties have only relative importance.

It is probably difficult to exaggerate the importance of kinship ties in the ancient world. In Jesus' world one was nobody without one's relationship to one's family. We of the 21st century, especially in America with our hyper-individualism, probably think that we do not need the warning against unthinking kinship allegiance that Jesus and the early Christian movement demanded.

However, there is certainly a belief in some Christian quarters that loyalty to family and to nation has a sacred status. Think of how easily the phrase "God and country" flows from our lips.

Jesus understood that our worldly loyalties could easily divert us from our calling to the new beloved community that is coming into being as we become student followers of him.

There is a kind of selfishness, of course, that might divert one from appropriate duty toward one's family or, indeed, one's country. Sometimes calls to family or national loyalty are reminders that one may well have legitimate obligations beyond oneself. But when these calls would divert one from following Jesus, they must be left behind.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Judging the Judgers

Jesus did not mean to jettison the notion of rules and laws altogether. There is no doubt that clear rules and standards of acceptable behavior are important for people to live together. People need to be able to appeal to a standard apart from their own will and desire. So far, so good.

The danger is that rather than becoming standards by which persons can be corrected, misunderstandings rectified and reconciliation and restoration achieved, judgment based on the particular application of some rules and not others can serve as an instrument of those with social power against those without it.

Rules and standards are, at their best, norms that work to equalize social power, not magnify it. One of the great dangers is that one can garner social power through allying in a self-righteousness that fails to notice one's own selective awareness of who is violating the rules.

Jesus was clear, "Judge not, that you not be judged." We are invited to help one another live together, and be open to how others are correcting us as well.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

1. Human community is to be constituted and maintained by forgiveness and reconciliation instead of violence and threat of violence. Only the judgers are judged.

The explicit teaching of Jesus and the sign of the crucifixion and resurrection demonstrates that a new fundamental principal is affirmed.

After the crucifixion, Jesus does not retaliate against the disciples who failed him or even those who put him to death. Jesus' prayer is, "Forgive them." Instead, he comes to usher in by the Holy Spirit a forgiven and reconciled community. That community, shedding its fear, goes so far as to invite even those who condemned Jesus.

The practice of reciprocal revenge stops with Jesus. The crucifixion and resurrection does not evoke God's wrath, but God's invitation into a new way of life.

Jesus' teaching, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, makes plain that we are not to return evil for evil, but return good for evil. Jesus calls on his followers to love even rivals and enemies. These are remarkable commandments.

While it is true, that much of human society appears to function on peaceable agreement, this is in some way an illusion based on relatively calm circumstances. It is also a consequence of persons in communities wishing to avoid shame and judgment. While it may be that people behave well without explicit, violent coercion, the threat of punishment stands at the back of civil society.

The new community, into which Jesus invites us, is the beloved community in which the goal of reconciliation replaces the pursuit of retaliation.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Number Five

Before commenting on the first through the fourth themes, let's spend a preliminary moment on the fifth. The fifth theme, "The Kingdom of God is at hand. Trust in God," is both the goal and the context in which the other four are to be understood and practiced.

Jesus calls us to trust in God because God is active in the world and the establishment of God's reign of abundance, justice, compassion, and mercy is about to unfold. Once we trust in God, we can live without fear that the realities of the present age: scarcity, violence, revenge, injustice, and death have real power.

Jesus' ministry of provision, exorcism, healing, and forgiveness are signs demonstrating that the realities of the present age are being undone by the gracious activity of God.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Jesus' Ideas?

In setting out these five themes as foundational or critical to the Jesus Movement, I do not mean to suggest that that they emerged without roots earlier in the Jewish tradition. Nor do I have any interest in denying that they may well have significant points of contact with other spiritual and wisdom traditions.

Rather, I highlight themes that hang together as collectively distinctive, and which emerge not only from the teaching of Jesus and the apostles that we find in the Bible, but more basically from the from the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the response of those whom the Holy Spirit empowered to begin the new life together that would instantiate the Kingdom of God in the world.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Jesus' Top Five Ideas

One of our church members recently asked me what I thought the top five ideas of Jesus were.

I'm not exactly sure that this is the most helpful way to get at the gospel, but I have been giving some thought to what the most important themes of the Jesus Movement are. So far, I would identify these five most important thematic areas:

1. Human community is to be constituted and maintained by forgiveness and reconciliation instead of violence and threat of violence. Only the judgers are judged.
2. Kinship, national, ethnic, and other worldly ties have only relative importance.
3. Redefinition of social status and hierarchy. “The first shall be last.”
4. Emphasis on purity of heart as opposed to legalism.
5. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Trust in God.

I will be fleshing out these themes in the coming days and weeks.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Conversation

Let 1 Corinthians 13 be a guide for our participation in any conversation. What does St. Paul say about love?

It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

So often we are more concerned in vindicating our own position instead of cooperatively seeking the truth.

A conversation conducted in this sort of love will be a conversation that will offer wisdom to all its participants. Humility and openness will deliver the truth more readily than arrogance and competition.

This openness requires a kind of fearlessness with respect to the fact that our errors will be exposed. The paradox that many of us face is that we want to be right, but we do not want our errors exposed to be corrected by others.

Let us understand that our journey toward the truth will include correction by others. Discovering truth is a cooperative project, and even our claims that turn out to be false will be of value in the ongoing conversation. Let us give up the idea that any word of ours has any hope of being the last word.

St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Phillipians: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.

If we allow ourselves to be emptied of our fears, insecurities, and our pride, we will cooperate in creating a conversation guided by the Holy Spirit.