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In his book The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future Thomas Berry writes, “The deepest cause of the present devastation is found in a mode of consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the human and other modes of being…”[1] In other words, Berry contends that the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in at the advent of the twenty-first century is due in large part to the failure of human beings to understand and truly appreciate the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life and matter on the Earth. As Berry writes, “In reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all it component members whether human or other than human.  In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its inner spontaneity.”[2]

Unfortunately, we in the West, particularly those of us in the United States of America, have come to understand the world around us through what could be characterized as a purely utilitarian lens. Again, Berry writes succinctly, “A sense of the continent being here primarily for our use has been developing throughout the past few centuries.”[3] One could argue that one of the strongest indicators and representation of this reality is the consumerism that controls our very culture and economy.  Such consumerism is always in need of something new in order to keep the economy going.  We make products with a planned obsolescence in mind.  They must die and be thrown away so that we might continue to consume products made from the very resources of the earth.  Thus, more wisdom from Berry: “Our more human experience of the world of meaning has been diminished in direct proportion as money and utilitarian values have taken precedence over the numinous, aesthetic, and emotional values.”[4]

One of the more disconcerting aspects of the ‘radical discontinuity’ is that its development can be attributed to aspects of the Western Christian worldview. It’s a bit ironic to note that the first settlers who came to North America came in search of religious freedom having fled persecution.  Those such as the Pilgrims and Puritans came seeking the freedom to practice their religion as they saw fit.  Unfortunately, this did not translate into a wholly benevolent spirit towards outsiders whom they encountered such as the Native Americans as well as towards the abundance of natural resources throughout the New World.  What developed was exploitation of the land and the devastation of wildlife.[5] Such behavior found its justification in the often misunderstood passage in Genesis 1:26-30 which states,

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them;     male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Words such as “dominion” and “subdue” engendered the belief that creation and its animals were simply there for the benefit of human beings according to the bible. Such an understanding has been communicated by the likes of journalists and political commentators such as Charles Krauthammer who said “Nature is our ward, not our master”[6] and Ann Coulter who infamously said, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.'”[7]

Ironically, I believe that it is the aforementioned understanding of Genesis 1 that can provide the inroad for a religious education that can serve to reform the attitudes of many Christians concerning creation.  The understanding of Genesis 1 that provided the justification for the exploitation and devastation of the Earth is woefully mistaken.  In fact, one could argue that the words of both Charles Krauthammer and Ann Coulter are heretical.  The reason being is that the writer of Genesis was most likely concerned with forming a meaning and worldview that stood in contradistinction to that of the great empires like Babylon and Egypt.[8]  Fascinatingly enough, these empires were known for exploiting the land of its resources and not respecting the dignity of all human beings.  Genesis 1 is a counter-narrative to this way of thinking and being. It asserts that God created everything and that it is good. It also asserts that “all the heavens and earth are filled with God’s creative presence and life.”[9] What’s more, it reveals that human beings are given the task of taking care of and stewarding this creation and its animals. It’s not hard to see a connection between such a worldview and the worldview of many of the indigenous tribes all around the world, particularly the worldview of the Native Americans.

While in the Hebraic worldview human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation this does not mean that they have the right to abuse and exploit. In fact, Genesis reveals a more “naturecentric”[10] worldview than previously thought.  Words like “dominion” and “subdue” are not the best translations that have different connotations in English and other Western languages.  “Manage” “steward” and “take Care of” are far better translations of the Hebrew word “Radah” particularly as they relate to our cultural context.  Highlighting these very things in the context of teaching, preaching and worship life can enable the Holy Spirit to bring about a renewal of thinking (Romans 12:2[11]) concerning the “radical discontinuity” of which Berry speaks.

It’s also important to recall that Genesis 3-11 is actually a commentary on the pitfalls of human exploitation and devastation. In Genesis human beings fall into sin and they end up creating a world of their own making within God’s world.  This world comes to its culmination in the creation of the city (Genesis 4:17) and in the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).  As Wes Howard Brook notes regarding Adam and Eve’s desire to be like God and falling into sin, “It is a condition that generates a “need” for something that God has not provided and they therefore must make for themselves.”[12]  It’s not hard for one to trace the consumerism of our culture all the way back to Genesis 3.  Before we know it fig leaves are used as clothing, animals need to be killed for their skins to provide better clothing, brother murders brother and weapons are made.  This points to the “disjointedness” that comes about in creation because of sin.  In a sense, we witness the first fruits of a radical discontinuity in Genesis and according to the writer it is not a good thing.

In a similar vein it’s important to note that Jesus of Nazareth offers an alternative to the radical discontinuity of our age as well. Given that he is the “New Adam” he has come to make things right between humans, creation and God, he comes to show God’s Way and to liberate human beings and his creation from the sin, death and the evil one.  Some stalwart conservative Christians might vehemently protest against such an understanding and usage of Jesus of Nazareth and the gospels but if one looks closely Jesus’ message has much more in common with indigenous values than much of what we might find in the modern industrial context.  Note what Berry states regarding the indigenous people of Australia,

“[They] were once thought to be totally lacking intellectual or cultural achievements associated with even the most primitive peoples known elsewhere. They had food for the day, no permanent dwellings, no clothes, only a few implements.  Yet we now find amazing achievements in their capacity for understanding and responding to both the physical and the spiritual dynamics of the world about them.”[13]

If one looks one can see a parallel here between indigenous values and the teaching and ways of Jesus as found in the gospels. Jesus teaches his disciples not to worry about tomorrow and to look at the flowers and the birds as an example of God’s continuous provision.[14] They are to live in the moment and to look at the creatures and creation around them for reminders and encouragement.  As Berry writes,

“Only if the human imagination is activated by the flight of the great soaring birds in the heavens, by the blossoming flowers of Earth, by the sight of the sea, by the lightning and thunder of the great storms that break through the heat of summer, only then will the deep inner experiences be evoked within the human soul.”[15]

Moreover, Christians are not to hoard but rather are to give and to serve for the sake of other and the upholding of the community.[16]  Again, one can sense a kindred spirit in the teaching and message of Jesus with that of the Native Americans like the chief of Powhatan confederacy.  This chief said to John Smith in regards to the colonists’ aggressive actions: “Why do you take by force what you may have quietly by love?”[17] Ultimately, their way of life is to be bound up in the belief and understanding of a gracious heavenly father who deeply cares for and loves them and the entire creation.[18]  A religious education that is simply based on the gospels can make inroads into combating the radical discontinuity of our age and its formative influence upon our thinking and approach to life.

This now provides a segue into the last aspects of this project. Given the vein and purpose of Thomas Berry’s writing it would be unthinkable and almost unjust to not reference and use Celtic spirituality.  One of the big problems with “a radical discontinuity” is that it reduces “the earth to an object primarily for human possession and use” which “is unthinkable in most traditional cultures.”[19] Having discussed how both Genesis and the gospels can be used in a religious education that can ward off the influences of a “radical discontinuity” Celtic spirituality can serve to bring this project to its coalescence.

Celtic spirituality reminds us to look for God in creation which also serves to remind us that all life is holy and purposeful. It is believed that Celtic spirituality comes from the Johannine tradition. It was the Apostle John who began his Gospel with the words, “In the beginning was the Word…All things were made through him.”[20]  The Word or Logos has always been understood to be Jesus.  And John’s language is meant to remind the reader of the beginning of Genesis.  Here, in the gospel of John, creation and Jesus meet and it all comes together.  This is why John Philip Newel writes,

“What we need today are insights and spiritual practices that remind us of the Unity of our origins and that further nourish the longing for peace that is stirring among us. The Celtic tradition offers these to us while at the same being deeply aware of the disharmonies within and between us that shake the very foundations of life.  This is not a tradition that is naïve regarding the destructive energies of evil.”[21]

Thus, with a strong understanding and spirituality that Christ is truly “in, with and under” our creation we can be better poised to introduce a “radical continuity” in our own minds and lives and in the minds and lives of others. Amen.

[1] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” New York: Three Rivers, 1999, 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.,5.

[4] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 60.

[5] Ibid.,44.

[6] Ibid.

[7]Consumpopculture.com, “Ann Coulter,” consumpopculture.com, accessed May 11,2017, http://www.consumepopculture.com/ann-coulter/

[8] Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond,” Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010, 22.

[9] Ibid.,19.

[10] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 45.

[11] Romans 12:2: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

[12] Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond,” 30.

[13] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 54.

[14] Luke 12:22-34.

[15] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 55.

[16] Mark 10:17-31.

[17] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 37.

[18] Luke 11: 1-13, 12:4-7.

[19] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 61.

[20] John1: 1a, 3a.

[21] John Philip Newell, “Christ Of The Celts: The Healing of Creation,” San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2008,  xi.

We’ve recently taken up gardening in the Geminn household and I have found it immensely enjoyable.  We now have two garden beds with growing vegetables, fruits and flowers.  What’s amazing about this new experience of ours is how easy it has been.  Apart from getting everything set-up like building the boxes, putting in the dirt, the plants and then watering them it hasn’t required much more from us.  Instead, with enough sun and water they grow which is exactly what is happening with ours. Frankly, it’s a miracle.

Again, so simple and easy.  It so fascinating to me because it sort of runs in contradistinction to the workaholism that has come to dominate our culture and church.  Embedded within this notion is the idea that how hard one works is indicative of the outcome they will get.  It correlates hardwork with production and in a consumer based culture production is incredibly important, is it not?  But this begs the question: have we misunderstood the value of hardwork as it relates to our vocation as human beings?  I sometimes think that we use vocation as justification for unhealthy behaviors such as workaholism which often plays itself out in bad boundaries and co-dependent behaviors.  Moreover, as I’ve written elsewhere, we tend to use vocation as the legitimator of “life as it is” in the midst of systemic and personal sin.

Maybe I am getting ahead of myself but this experience has prompted me to reflect upon our role as human beings in God’s creation.  The ancient wisdom found in Genesis suggests that we were called to be gardeners with God rather than busy bodies working endlessly for some sense of pleasure and security.  This problem, of course, comes when we decide to create our own world within God’s world which results in the curse of hard labor and toil.  For some reason we accept this as our lot in life rather than reflecting upon the fact that while it’s a curse there’s a way out.  Abel reveals that much to us in Genesis 4 when instead of being obedient like his brother Cain by becoming a farmer he becomes a shepherd.  Remember, there’s a direct line from Cain to Egypt.  After all, the farming Egyptians looked down upon the Hebrew shepherds because they considered them lazy and unproductive.  What could such persons contribute to their way of life?  Slavery it was!

Anyways, forgive the digression, but gardening has proven to be enjoyable for us.  I am amazed at the joy it brings me when I look outside our back window to see both garden beds growing more lush by the day.  I also find myself more grateful for things like rain and sunshine because I know what effect such things will have on my plants.  Gardening reconnects me with creation and reminds me that I am link in a chain of interdependence which has been mostly forgotten in this highly individualized and modernistic era of ours.  I can better understand and appreciate the profundity of the words of Moses throughout Genesis 1, “it was good.”  Indeed it is good and the Lord has invited us to take part in this goodness, in taking care of it and in taking care of one another.

Correction: In most cases military recruiters do not receive a commission based on the number of recruits.  

During my four years of high school we were visited by a military recruiter each year.  The military recruiter would set up shop in our cafeteria so that we could speak with him during lunch time if we so desired.

I grew up with a positive view of the military.  In fact, I flirted with the idea of enlisting in either the Navy or the Marines.  When my senior year rolled around I decided to look seriously into this option and had a conversation with the recruiter who was a Marine in the cafeteria in my high school.  I distinctly remember him telling me that him becoming a Marine was the greatest thing he had ever done with his life.  He even brought along Brian who graduated the year before and had gone through boot camp and was now officially one himself.  Brian echoed his sentiments.  It was a life-changing experience for him, too.  Also, they both looked damn good in their uniforms.  With that I gave the recruiter my information as I was on the fence about going to college even though I had been accepted and received a good financial aid package.  What followed after this was nothing short of overbearing.  In the coming months the military recruiter called me regularly and continuously tried to get me to his office.  He was incredibly pushy and aggressive to the point where despite communicating that I was no longer interested he still kept on calling.  I remember getting off of the phone with him and complaining to my father about the pushiness.  It turns out that recruiters have a quota that they must fill which determines where they are stationed next.  Hence, that explained the pushiness.  After that I was completely turned off, this didn’t necessarily match up with the nobility and glory of the military message that I was getting from the said recruiter.  I still got phone calls, though, and I am not even sure when they stopped altogether.

Interestingly enough, here I am 16 years later getting a recruitment video for military chaplaincy.  Yesterday I got an email from the LCMS Ministry to the Armed Forces entitled “‘If not us, then who?’ – military chaplains needed”.  It seems that I get such a notification via email or snail mail every few months.  It came with a video too.   Though, since I am now clergy the pay and the work are far higher and different. What’s striking are the images in the video of chaplains extolling the virtues of military chaplaincy while giving their blessing to aircraft that are built to bring all sorts of destruction down on people and places.  It’s a bit eerie to hear their voices of the need for chaplains as a huge tank of sorts rolls by as well as soldiers getting into those very tanks. It’s so strange to hear the talk of the two kingdoms which is derived from the words of an ancient Jew whose scriptures decried the military might of empires like ours today.  It’s also strange because he wrote those words serving amongst a marginalized people who were tempted toward revolutionary revolt against a mighty power with great military resources like ours today.  But I suppose it also reveals that we can convince ourselves of anything so long as we believe we are right or on the side of right.   Heck, we’ve even got theology and theologians to do that.  In my opinion one of the best examples of this inconsistency is St. Martin of Tours.  Martin was a soldier who became a conscientious objector because of the call of Christ.  He is quoted as saying to his superior officer, “But I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.” Yet, Martin is the patron saint of soldiers.  Moreover, the LCMS has an award named after him that they give to chaplains.

There are times when it seems that right theology seems to drown out the deeper dynamics and meanings of some of our most significant and meaningful texts.  This very reality seems to get exasperated on Good Friday and then, in turn, on Easter.  Right theology leaves behind the living breathing aspects of the text for propositions and truths that are to be believed if one is going to go to heaven.  In many regards, this makes Christianity a much safer thing, it ends up losing it’s truly countercultural core and in turn becomes a legitimizing force “for the ways things are.” In Protestant circles the dominant caricature is that Jesus was put to death for preaching a message of justification by faith.  According to some, this message was so revolutionary that that’s what motivated the Pharisees to murder Jesus.  Though, I’m not entirely sure how such a message would prompt such men to go through the efforts they went through to oust Jesus.  After all, there was a would-be Messiah at every turn preaching various messages. The reality is that such a message would not have caught the attention of a Caiaphas or a Pontus Pilate.  Why would they even care so long as the revenue from taxation kept flowing into the holy city?  Something much deeper was going on.

In order to understand this we need not look at the gospel texts, at least not right away. Instead we can simply look to those who have lost their lives for speaking truth to power, for standing up to the powers that be.  The 20th century is full of such persons from Oscar Romero to Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X to Dorothy Stang to Mohandas Gandhi.  These persons sacrificed their lives for the sake of a greater cause and were killed at the hands of the powers that be.  They were killed by what some have called the Domination System.   They offered a counter message and counter way to the dominant messages and ways of the day.  Oscar Romero spoke out against the oppression of the poor and marginalized by the Junta and was assassinated by the bullet of a gun.  Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against racism and when he began speaking out against Vietnam and for workers’ rights a gunshot found him as well.  Malcolm X spoke out against racism and began moving towards fighting for human rights for all people and in due time gunshots came at him as well.  Dorothy Stang fought for the poor, the oppressed, and the Amazon and was shot at point blank range.  Lastly, Mohandas Gandhi was also shot at point blank range.  The motive for Gandhi’s assassination: he was too welcoming of Muslims.

Invariably, in most of these assassinations there is a Caiaphas figure extolling the pragmatism and logic of ridding the world of the aforementioned figures.  There is also the Pontius Pilate figure as well.  One who is ruthless, cunning and stuck in the midst of the real politick of competing interests.  In the case of Jesus spies came down from Jerusalem to investigate him and figure what all of the commotion was about.  Similarly, the FBI infiltrated groups associated with King and X, they went so far as to wire tap their phones and conversations.  Oscar Romero had similar problems with the Junta. As his popularity grew he had to be watched and followed.  How dare the crowds go after him!  Two men just randomly happened to show up to murder Dorothy Stall.  It’s not hard to imagine the conversations that took place regarding the planned assassination of these figures.  It probably went something like,  “If we don’t put an end to this we will lose our nation and our way of life!” “If we don’t get her out of the way we stand to lose money and to upset investors, there’s no way of knowing what this could do to the economy.”  “If we don’t shut him up now who knows what effect his speeches will have on public morale and support for the war.”

In such scenarios innocence and justice mean absolutely nothing though it’s often claimed otherwise.  Rome claimed to uphold justice and yet Pontius Pilate knowingly put an innocent man to death.  Ahh, yes nations love to talk about truth, justice and the… but all too often action betrays so-called ideals.  It had to be done.  There’s always “give and take” in politics especially when it comes to those you rule with.  Crucify Jesus, placate the crowds, and get an IOU in the process from Caiaphas and company.  Besides, if need be we can always builds monuments to such prophets.  Have you seen the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in D.C..  Pretty cool, huh?

Nonetheless, there are such martyrs all throughout the history of the world because the world has been held captive by what Paul called the powers and the principalities.  Jesus was put to death for a myriad of reasons, none of which has to do with his preaching against works’ righteousness or upholding some Anselmic notion of justice.  Jesus was crucified because he bore witness to God’s life giving ways.  He started a movement preaching the empire of God in the midst of another empire that claimed to have the blessing of God.   He attacked the economy of the Temple by healing many such as lepers, forgiving debts, and healing on the Sabbath.  He spoke out against the injustices of misogyny, wealth, and abuse.  He was inclusive of the unclean, Gentiles and women.  He was subversive and revolutionary and this was simply too much for the aristocracy in Jerusalem.  Jesus simply signed his death warrant when he began flipping tables and shut-down the economy of the Temple which had simply become a representation of the corrupt and oppressive temple system.  He was too much, he was uncontrollable and the crowds were going after him.  Thus, if Rome caught wind of such hype they might take matters into their own hands and all would be lost for God’s chosen people.  The people of Palestine had suffered the wrath of Rome before, they knew what they were capable of.  Therefore, Jesus must die and he did.

But do not confuse Jesus’ willingness to do with a sort of codependent behavior.  Jesus bore witness to God’s life-giving ways which resulted in death.  He did not go looking for the Cross rather he knew that the Cross would find him just as bullets found those above; because that’s the world’s response to what Gandhi called ‘satyagraha’ or truth force.  He gave himself over to God’s Way, he was obedient to the point of death.  The Cross is the power and principalities response to the Way.  Death comes on Good Friday.  But vindication of Jesus’ entire life in the form of Resurrection comes on Easter Sunday.  Thus Paul could write,

“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

Thus, we are set free, liberated, rescued from the powers and the principalities.  Not through wrath but through all consuming, all suffering love.  One thing is made clear by the gospels: we are now invited on such a mission.  We are now called to be such a sacrifice for the world…

 

Across our nation on every week day morning children begin their school day by standing and pledging allegiance to the American flag.  It’s one of those things that I never gave much thought to as I said it on all those mornings throughout my childhood.  But after many of years of not saying the pledge I found myself in a school setting again as a pastor and saying the pledge struck me as rather awkward.  I mean, pledging allegiance to a flag?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to pledge allegiance to a nation or a person rather than an inanimate object such as a flag? Nonetheless, it was a reminder of the sort of quasi-divine value we give to various objects, whether flags or crosses.

I begin with this reference to the Pledge of Allegiance because earlier in the week I was reading an article on faith development for the graduate class I am currently in on religion and human development.  In this article author James Fowler explains that there is large difference between the modern understanding of belief and the pre-modern understanding of belief. For example, pre-moderns simply took the existence of god or gods for granted and therefore belief was originally understood as that to which one pledged allegiance to.  In the modern era (16th century and onwards) belief has come to mean something different because the existence of god or gods is no longer a given due to scientific advances and secularism.  Thus, the understanding of ‘belief’ went from being that which one pledged allegiance to and aligned themselves with to a proposition that one assented to being true among many other things.  As one religionist put it regarding a modern approach to a person’s religious belief, “the idea of God is part of the furniture of his mind.”

It’s a fascinating distinction, isn’t it?  Belief in the pre-modern era was a sort of holistic thing as it meant what you had given allegiance to, what you had set your heart upon.  In the modern world it’s compartmentalized and propositional.  Therefore, it leaves room for us to pledge our allegiances elsewhere, doesn’t it?  Faith and belief are seen and understood as a sort of category next to many other such categories such as politics or sports.  I wonder if this is why Americans are so incredibly passionate about the latter two while only being nominally or superficially religious or spiritual.  They can claim belief in the Christian God or a god while giving themselves over to a political party or team and not see any contradiction of sorts.  Is this also why we can pledge allegiance to a flag without sensing an inherent contradiction between doing so and our faith?

In my last post I noted how we’ve lost sight of orthopraxy and I am inclined to believe (no pun intended) that how we have come to understand belief in the modern world is a large factor.  We can neatly categorize things, organize them, and arrange them in a certain way like furniture.  What we so often fail to realize is that belief is not as easily categorized and will spill over into those other areas of our lives.  In fact, how we live ends up revealing our allegiances in more ways than I think we might realize.  It seems that the ancients had a way better grasp of this than we moderns have had.

 

 

Author’s Note: Please do not read this as being anti-schooling as there is plenty of good that comes from schooling. 

We tend to think of education purely in terms of schooling.  Within this framework education takes place between teacher and student within a controlled environment known as the school.  Generally, the school is a building with classrooms which consists of desks that the students sit in, books and various curricular that aid them in their learning experience and, of course, there is the teacher.  For the most part, this model of education took on a life its own in the twentieth century due in large part to factors like the Industrial Revolution and increased urbanization.

In some ways, schooling is a rather abstract affair that promotes a socialization that works against how we were designed to operate.  For example, children are designed to be active, though, once they enter into school they have to learn how to sit still and be quiet for most of the day.  There’s a reason why it’s rather challenging to get a room full of children from the ages 5 to 14 to be still for a picture.  At their core, it’s not that they can’t be still because they have a learning disability or because they are poorly parented (though, those things may be a real factor).  Rather they were designed and made to be active.  Schooling tends to work against this and I find myself wondering if that lends itself towards a disconnect between thinking and praxis and how it relates to faith formation.

To use a church body like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod as an example, we tend to be obsessed with pure doctrine, with right teaching, and thereby right belief.  Given the nature of having justification by faith at the center of our theology we tend to come out on the side of the abstract.  What’s more, because we believe that faith comes through hearing we are more than likely going to place a premium on words rather than actions.  For example, the 7th and 8th grade “One in Christ” curriculum from CPH is quite linear and one dimensional with a heavy focus on getting the information right over and over again.  Thus, we are poor miserable sinners, we deserve God’s wrath, Jesus takes on the wrath for us on the cross, and we are saved.  It’s actually amazing to witness the hoops they jump through to make each lesson about this in some way.  One is left wondering if this is the result of a very limited understanding of religious education which does not account for the fact that education in the faith is quite a fluid thing.  In fact, education happens all the time and in ways that we fail to note because we are an abstract heavy and information based church culture.  Because we tend to associate education with the simple learning of information via a text book or a book or a lecture or even a catechism we fail to note and understand how important praxis actually is in the process of learning.

Ultimately, education in the faith isn’t just about orthodoxy it’s also about orthopraxy. Yes, it’s about right belief but it’s also about right practice.  Jesus wasn’t referring to himself when he said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it” rather he was saying that blessedness has every bit as much to do with belief as it does with practice.  It’s also why his brother James said, “Faith without works is dead.”  Faith is fed by works and vice versa.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his seminal work the Cost of Discipleship, “He who believes, obeys; and he who obeys, believes.”

Moreover, and most convincingly regarding orthopraxy, are the gospels themselves.  In large part, they are simply manuals or catechisms for following Jesus.  Within the early Christian framework of discipleship belief and action went together.  A simple reading of the gospels reveals this.  Mark, the most succinct of the four, is nothing but Jesus ‘doing’ with the disciples (remember disciple means learner) right behind him being educated in the Way. The disciples are Jesus’ apprentices learning the trade of what it is to fish for men and turn the world upside down (it can also be understood as learning to become human).  Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that apprenticeship has been one of the main forms of education throughout the ages.  We learn best by getting our hands dirty and putting something into continual practice.

On a  personal note, the fundamental reality for me as a disciple of Jesus is that my faith has greatly increased during times when I actually put Jesus’ words into action. The willingness to be vulnerable and empty my self of my ego led to the diffusing of an incredibly dangerous situation that led to healing.  Spending the better part of two years ministering and being apart of the lives of homeless people taught me about the injustices of being poor and the beauty of simplicity.  Blindly moving across the country at multiple times and living in places where I didn’t know a soul increased my faith in God.  The blessing that Jesus speaks of is a deeply spiritual and earthy one that is quite mysterious and almost unexplainable.  It goes in the opposite direction of what we are continually told brings blessing, namely, security, status, wealth, and approval (Thanks! Thomas Keating!).

I write all this simply to say that how we live matters, that it’s just as educational as learning from a book or starting a cutting edge program or having a special speaker.  The abstract has its place but so does the concrete.  Simply living, the day to day of our lives according to the Way of Jesus, is a curriculum all its own not only for ourselves but also for those around us.  How we treat others, how we love, how we share, how we welcome, how we speak all have a part to play in making the abstract convincing.

 

There are times when I wish that I could stop while reading the appointed gospel for the given Sunday and give a breakdown on what’s really going on in the text to the congregation.  This past Sunday’s reading from Matthew 5:38-48 was particularly challenging for me in that regard.  I felt like Dwight Schrute having to remain silent when Jim Halbert inaccurately explained Battlestar Galactica to Andy Bernard.

There are texts that are often fodder for the justification of unhealthy and sinful behaviors.  This is definitely one of them.  Such texts easily play into upholding the Ned Flanders image of Christians that many have grown to despise.  On the other extreme is the belief that Jesus is upping the ante of the law so as to show us our depravity so that we might more quickly and ferociously cling to him for our salvation.  Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, give up one’s cloak, and go the extra mile can easily be understood as Jesus’ encouragement for Christians to become passive doormats.

Nonetheless, it’s easy to see how such understandings can lead to a pseudo-martyr complex where one never sticks up for one’s self because that’s what Jesus would do, right?  It can also lead to a lot of resentment and unhappiness because one is never honest with others and how they make them feel because Christians are called to be nice.  Hence, the passive aggressive approach to life that allows one to appear good as they spew forth venom in subtle ways.  There’s a reason why Church institutions are often a hotbed for such behaviors and dysfunction.  Being a Christian can often translate into going along to get along, playing nice, and not being honest or direct.  This is often bound up with our fear of confrontation and of not being liked. No one wants to be “that guy” who may upset people and cause problems.

Here’s the thing, though.  In regards to the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus is most likely speaking to a crowd of peasants under the oppressive occupation of the Roman Empire.  Life is hard for them, getting by is challenging, and unbearable debt has become a normal way of life.  Jesus is offering them (and us) a Third Way that does not resort to passivity or violence but upholds the humanity of all those involved.  It’s love in action.

“But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer (Probably better translated as “do not repay the evildoer in kind”). But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

Backhanding was a form of humiliation in the ancient world and it was often the way in which superiors humiliated inferiors.  For the victim to turn the other cheek would be for him or her to force the evildoer to face him as an equal.  It’s a way of saying, “you cannot demean me, I am human being just like you.”  To smack with an open hand is to treat the person as an equal.

“and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”

It happened often that the debtors were taken to court for being unable to pay. Jesus tells the people to take it to its extreme so as to expose the injustice at work.  Indebtedness was often the result of Roman imperial policy i.e. taxation.  Giving the one who is suing your cloak would make you naked.  This would bring shame upon him and also reveal to him where his practices led.  All of sudden the oppressed has the power. 

“and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

Roman soldiers were allowed to levy the people for one mile but no more.  If they went beyond the one mile they could get in serious trouble for doing so (i.e. they could be flogged).  By going the second mile this puts the Roman soldier in a bad spot and turns the power dynamic around.  Now the Roman Soldier has to beg the peasant to not do so and the peasant has regained his dignity and control.

Do you notice how such factors suddenly bring what Jesus said into a different, sharper, and better light?   Jesus is encouraging his listeners to stand up for themselves in healthy and constructive ways that respect the humanity of the oppressor.  Such teachings do not validate complicity on the part of Christians rather they encourage creative and constructive approaches to dehumanizing situations.  It provides a way out of the cycle of violence and of ‘the eye for an eye’ approach that has come to dominate civilization up until this point in time.  It’s a way out of aggression and for Christians today (even in the First World) it’s a way out of passive aggression.  While we may not be oppressed or poor like Jesus’ first century audience there’s much for us to ponder and take away from these words of his.

In fact, standing up for yourself could be the most Christ-like thing you could do.  It may make some very unhappy, it may even cause more problems and discomfort.  Yet, it can also lead to self-empowerment, self-confidence, and better relationships with others.