Politicians, Protests, Nation-states, and the Church

closeup_of_protesters_at_ginowan_protests_2009-11-08

What a confusing era we live in! Committed, orthodox Christians living in America find themselves between a rock and a hard place in many ways. I imagine there are others who feel like I do.

I am no fan of Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for him (…or the other candidate). I’m deeply disturbed by his entire persona – his highly reactive, childish and petulant way of communicating, his bullying with Twitter, his disgusting and appalling way of talking about women as objects of sexual conquest, his xenophobic-inspiring demonization of others, his audacious hypocrisy, his unfettered ambition and greed, and his cavalier approach to his office as president. Very rarely have I ever observed a public person with such thinly veiled narcissism.

But my opinions do not alter the fact that he is in fact the president of the country in which I live (and, let’s be honest… Christians have lived under far worse leadership conditions – need I mention Nero, or Decius, or Diocletian). So I pray for him on a nearly daily basis out of obedience to the scriptural admonition to pray for those in leadership and authority (I Tim. 2:2). I pray that he would come to understand himself as one under authority who must give an account of himself. I pray that he would be restrained in using the terrifyingly-massive arsenal of weapons and military force at his disposal.

Even though I’m extremely disturbed by President Trump, I’m hesitant to devote my passionate concern to a movement of resistance as it is currently being carried out in our society. I’m all for resistance… just not in the way it’s imagined by most Americans. So I haven’t yet gone marching and am withstanding the urge to post a bunch of angry comments and/or articles on social media (which is only adding to a sense of alienation). This doesn’t mean I see no value in marching or posting, it’s just not how I imagine my primary means of resistance.

Does this mean I’m some sort of a political “quietest” or that I don’t care about what is going on? No. I have a deeply robust concern for the public sphere and a legitimate fear for people in the crosshairs of Trumps policies. But here’s the thing: My priority as a Christian (and pastor) is that I choose my path of resistance carefully, strategically, and in a way that doesn’t accidentally undermine the greatest instrument of resistance we have: Christ and His Body.

I believe the most powerful form of resistance at our disposal to the ugliness we see in politicians and their policies (of whatever stripe) is full participation in an alternative polis / society that is, by definition, international, historical, and from every class, nation, people, and language. I’m, of course, talking about the Church. This is the only body that has any hope of restraining the terrifying force of a nation-state as powerful as America. For a fascinating historical example of this in action, read William T. Cavanaugh’s book “Torture and Eucharist” about Chilean Christians and their resistance to the tyrannical rule of Pinochet in 1970’s and 1980’s.

Remember, it was the weakened state of the Church in Germany (with a completely washed out and individualized gospel and a gutted, liberal theology) that allowed Hitler to rise to power… and before that allowed for the god-awful atrocities of WWI to transpire. It was the Church’s accommodation to the nation-state’s interests that allowed Christians to justify killing other Christians simply because they represented another flag/nation-state. This was only possible because of the subversion of Christian identity by the nation-state.

So here’s what I’m saying: I am cautious about over-investing myself in a battle for the policies of the state if it means drawing the focus away from the actual Body that has the substance, history, power, and gravity to resist the state.

Here’s my concern: When Christians pretend that the nation-state and its policies are the essential territory for determining, enacting, and exercising their communal ethical commitments, they merely act in such a way as to reinforce the actual power of the state. This is only deepening the problem, Christianly speaking.

What if there was a way to subvert the power of the state by living and acting from an identity that is anchored in a completely different authority structure, story, tradition, etc. that has different ends and different means? This is what I mean by the Church as a communion of resistance. Granted, this cannot happen overnight. And much of the Christian faith present in America right now is far too mixed up with the notion of being American to be able to do this. So, what I’m suggesting would require a radical transformation of what people understand the Church to be and how they imagine Christian faith/salvation to begin with. But what I’m describing is not utopian. It’s how the church of the first three centuries existed: an alternative society of resistance.

The way we got to where we are now is the long saga of how Christians in the West ceded the public sphere to the nation-state (which is a modern creation not to be confused with “nations” of previous eras that operated differently). All of this is a part of the legacy of the creation, and then crumbling of, Christendom. What’s now left in the imagination of Christians in a place like modern America is for them to either wrangle the nation-state in such a way that they have power over it (religious right’s tactics), or get on their knees and plead with it for a limited set of protections as individuals from its all intrusive power (the more modest/pragmatic approach taken by Christians whenever they fear they have lost power). Either way, the nation-state is the main focus and the assumed place of significance for the public realm.

Everything centers around the individual and the “rights” promised by the nation-state and the nation-state itself. Between the individual and the nation-state there is no significant body or social space (with the exception of perhaps the business corporation). All that’s left is for individuals to band together in order to resist. But this resistance is far too limited. It doesn’t really get at the real problem.

William T. Cavanaugh argues that one of the meta-problems that confuses Christians in our era is the notion of the nation-state as the keeper of the “common good.” He argues extensively against this notion showing how this is simply not a good understanding of what nation-states do in practice. In practice, nation-states are continually involved in “boundary disputes” through regulation. He quotes John Milbank: “More of life becomes economized and legalized, as legislation seeks—hopelessly—to catch up  with every instance of “overlap,” and institute more detailed rules of absolute ownership, whether by individuals, or legally incorporated groups…”

Cavanaugh summarizes, “The result is not the common good, but an (ultimately tragic) attempt to ward off social conflict by keeping individuals from interfering with each other.” 

The alienation in our culture is directly related to this phenomenon. The goal of the state is not primarily to foster belonging or communion (thus cultivating the common good), but the protection of individual liberty (thus the societal vision of “good” is transformed into what we now recognize as autonomous individualism).

Out of a necessity in order to create a sense of national loyalty, the nation-state does, however, cultivate a kind of “belonging” through civic quasi-religious experiences using symbols (flag, constitution, architecture, etc.), rituals (inauguration, pledge, 4th of July, etc.), music (national anthem), poetry (The New Colossus), narrative, heroes (national “saints”), etc. This cannot but result in tension with the Christian faith. Both the state and the church are vying for people’s ultimate commitment and loyalty. Supreme loyalty is the only way that nation-states could hold the power of taxation, the power of imprisonment and violence, etc. How else do you get individuals to go and sacrifice their lives in conflict against peoples of other nation-states… even to the point of killing others of the same faith?

In service to the protective (Enlightenment inspired) notion of “separation of church and state” we’ve lost the vision of the Church as an alternative society and have allowed it to merely become an interest group within, and subject to, the boundaries set up by the nation-state. The Church has been effectively neutered from a public role, limited to private expressions of piety, making it the equivalent of a weekend hobby group – a coming together of like-minded individuals. That, of course, isn’t anything like what the Bible means by Body of Christ or Household of God. This way of imagining Church is hardly capable of resistance.

Both politically left-leaning and right-leaning Christians share a lack of imagination for what the Church is and should be. Both have been hypnotized by the drama of the nation-state. Wrangling or protesting the nation-state as disaffected individuals joined in movements of temporary solidarity is only able to move the markers on the field this way and that way a few yards. It cannot produce the common good. At best, it can try to protect groups who might be trampled on by the nation-state. To that end, Christians in America have a responsibility to participate in the political process. If that means marching or holding signs, I will do so. But let’s be honest… this is merely a stop-gap measure. It’s far from a real solution to our world’s needs. No government, politician, or movement can provide the common good. Only Christ through His Body, the Church can truly do this.

Here is how William T. Cavanaugh summarizes much of what I’ve been trying to say.

“In the first place…then the nation-state is simply not the universal community under whose umbrella the Church stands as one particular association. Not only does the nation-state carve the world up into competing national interests, but internally as well, it is destructive of forms of commonality that do not privilege the sovereignty of narrow individual self-interest. In the second place, the Church is not a merely particular association, but participates in the life of the triune God, who is the only good that can be common to all. Through the Eucharist especially, Christians belong to a body that is not only international, and constantly challenges the narrow particularity of national interests, but is also eternal, the Body of Christ, that anticipates the heavenly polity on earth. Salvation history is not a particular subset of human history, but simply is the story of God’s rule— not yet completely legible—over all of history. God’s activity is not, of course, confined to the Church, and the boundaries between the Church and the world are porous and fluid. Nevertheless, the Church needs to take seriously its task of promoting spaces where participation in the common good of God’s life can flourish.” (the whole article is here or you can buy his book which I heartily recommend “Migrations of the Holy“)

 

Thoughtfully and Faithfully Managing Wealth

blueberry

Our Eucharist Church Community Group discussions over the past 7-8 weeks have been helpful in sussing out a number of the complexities of handling wealth as a Christian in our current setting. A sampling of our questions: How much money should we give… to whom? What are needs versus wants? Is everything really relative, financially speaking? Are there any universals? Who should know about our finances? How does the Bible and the larger Christian tradition guide our thinking and action? What should we do about poverty and wealth – both locally and internationally?  

Below are some principles that have begun to emerge that we think should be considered in developing one’s approach to managing money as a committed Christian.

  • Repentance: To be a Christian in 21st century America with our particular history, our economic philosophy / system (which is not spiritually neutral), our structural idolatries, and our historical (and ongoing) exploitation of others to achieve our wealth is to be implicitly involved in a certain amount of sin and injustice that is beyond our direct control. Some things are within our control; we ought to do whatever we can to prevent injustice. But much is not. Overall, this is an invitation to humility and repentance – throwing ourselves on the grace of God. This is a truly Christian place to begin thinking about money/wealth.
  • Faithful Obedience (general): All truly Christian financial decision-making begins with an overarching commitment to the Lordship of Jesus over all things. Apart from this way of approaching life, I cannot make a truly Christian financial plan.
  • Remaining situationally responsive to the Holy Spirit’s leading: There is real diversity in where / how God directs our paths and where He stations us in life. We should not presume uniformity (see John chapter 21: 20-23 for example). Jesus did not treat every person’s situation the same in the gospels. He did, however, demand total devotion to Himself. For instance, in regard to our wealth – in Luke 14:33 “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Yes, Jesus is totalitarian. But but that means He sometimes asks for full renunciation (Rich Young Ruler / St. Francis style) and other times leaves a certain amount of wealth (in some cases quite a bit – Matthew 27:57 for example) in our hands to use and distribute as He leads us over time (Zacchaeus and many others). Either way, it’s all actually His if He is Lord. By the way, it is actually much more difficult to manage wealth situationally than just to default to a rule (renunciation or “tithing” for example). Perhaps this is God’s way of growing our capacity to listen, trust, obey, and exert a certain measure of authority.
  • Contentment: I will almost certainly not make truly Christian financial decisions when I’m working from a sense of restless desires – which often arise from comparison, greed, anxiety, fear, etc. As Paul says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have…” – Phil. 4:11. Paul meant that literally. He lived it. Until we have that perspective, our financial decisions will be warped by the forcefield of our un-discipled desires.
  • Sacrifice: There has been a fairly strong consensus coming out of our discussions that part of what ought to guide our sense of how much to give is this idea of sacrifice. The basic idea is that we ought to feel our financial giving or it’s not much of a gift. If it doesn’t really impact our overall finances, we’re probably not giving at a “gospel” level. This is why tithe (10%) as a strict rule is not terribly helpful (nor is it part of the New Testament teaching for Christians, by the way). Tithing (as in 10%) for people living right on the edge of survival involves a sacrifice, to be sure. Tithing for people who have their needs met and who live in luxury is not much of a sacrifice. Perhaps some people ought to reverse tithe – live on 10% and give 90% away. Of course, “sacrifice” is a very fuzzy term and open to wild amounts of subjectivity. For some people “sacrifice” means not going on a second luxurious European vacation this year. For others, sacrifice means forgoing vacation at all and fasting meals each week in order to be able to give. This leads us to our next principle. 
  • Being in relationship and community with people of differing levels of wealth: Our vision of sacrifice, “enough”, and luxury are powerfully shaped by benchmarking off of others. The Bible is clear that the Christian community is not to be structured by, or segregated by, economic class or financial means. This means that the poorest Christian and the richest Christian are brothers with equal seats at the table of Christ (actually in His teaching, Jesus repeatedly gives priority to the poor). Christians will work increasingly toward financial equity and the removal of social barriers that go with differences of wealth if we are thinking in gospel terms. See this post for ancient perspective on this.
  • Transparency with others: We live in a highly individualistic era. Our autonomy and anonymity, financially speaking, makes wealth/giving/etc. a very difficult aspect of our lives to be discipled in. We need people to speak into our lives – to help us, to encourage us, to challenge us, to keep us accountable, etc. It’s not appropriate for the whole church to know everything about my personal finances. However, I should have a handful of trusted people – ideally of different socio-economic statuses – who know something about my spending, giving, saving, etc.

 

Wealth & Poverty: Wisdom from Chrysostom

St.-John-Chrysostom

I was struck recently by this passage from John Chrysostom (“On Wealth and Poverty” – Six sermons on Lazarus and the rich man). Chrysostom is brilliantly vivid in his imagery. I would love to have heard him preach if I lived 1650 years ago.

“For just as on the stage actors enter with the masks of kings, generals, doctors, teachers, professors, and soldiers, without themselves being anything of the sort, so in the present life poverty and wealth are only masks. If you are sitting in the theater and see one of the actors wearing the mask of a king, you do not call him fortunate or think that he is a king, nor would you wish to become what he is; but since you know that his is some tradesman, perhaps a rope-maker or a coppersmith or something of the sort, you do not call him fortunate because of his mask and his costume, nor do you judge his social class by them, but reject this evidence because of the cheapness of his other garb.

In the same way even here, sitting in this world as if in a theater and looking at the players of the stage, when you see many rich people, do not think that they are truly rich, but that they are wearing the masks of rich people. Just as that man who acts the part of king or general on the stage often turns out to be a household servant or somebody who sells figs or grapes in the market, so also the rich man often turns out to be the poorest of all. If you take off his mask, open up his conscience, and enter into his mind, you will often find there a great poverty of virtue: you will find that he belongs to the lowest class of all.

Just as in the theater, when evening falls and the audience departs, and the kings and generals go outside to remove the costumes of their roles, they are revealed to everyone thereafter appearing to be exactly what they are; so also now when death arrives and the theater is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account.”

The “Sacramentality” of Money

sacramentality of money

(This is post #3 in a series on Jesus & Money)

In this post I would like to suggest something that may sound a bit radical. I suggest this: money functions in our society as a kind of humanistic sacrament. Fiat money (currency such as the US dollar) works by a sacramental logic and operates in our world in many parallel ways to the way the Eucharist has traditionally operated. Keep in mind that a sacrament is a physical/material object that conveys an invisible (spiritual) reality.

  • Money conveys invisible power, but is virtually worthless in and of itself. As I explained in the first post, paper money (“fiat money”) is worth next to nothing in and of itself.

In a similar way, bread and wine are relatively inexpensive in and of themselves. They were the basic elements of ancient near eastern meals. But the Early Church understood the bread and the wine in Holy Communion to convey the very life and powerful presence of Christ.

  • Money must be handled within certain rules and must be destroyed (taken out of circulation) in particular ways. To mishandle bank notes (US currency) is to risk being fined or otherwise held accountable to the law. Note that nobody has rules or legal regulations about how people handle gold – which is understood as inherently valuable. Fiat money has to be protected because it conveys invisible power and operates in a system that could be messed with if people dishonor the physical bank notes.

Money and the Eucharist parallel each other here. The consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist is subject to church regulations precisely because it is spiritually valuable, not inherently physically valuable. I realize I’m headed into something of a historical theological battlezone about the precise nature of what is happening in the consecration of the bread / wine. But at a very basic level all I’m trying to say is that what is going on in the Eucharist is more than meets the eye – same with fiat money. I feel no qualms about throwing away a half eaten peice of unconsecrated bread in my home, but I don’t do the same with consecrated bread/wine. Traditionally, the consecrated bread and wine must either be consumed or buried properly in ground no one will walk on.

  • Money conveys value to those who have placed their trust in it. It’s fascinating to me the degree to which money is connected to faith/trust. This was illustrated to me recently when I was re-watching the charming, cult-classic movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” There is a scene in which the white South African biologist tries to figure out how to compensate the Bushman from the Kalihari desert who has helped him do some tracking. He tries to give the Bushman some money (paper currency), but the Bushman is confused and has no use for it. He discards it as useless, dirty paper (we’re shown it blowing away in the wind). It illustrates that you have to believe in money to perceive its value.

In a similar way, the Eucharist is just bread and wine to those who lack faith (though objectively it possesses the very presence of Christ invisibly and may even on occasion be dangerous for someone who is not properly “discerning” to receive – see I Cor. 11:30). But for those of us who believe, we recognize that the Eucharist conveys the Presence of Christ.

  • Money establishes value. Everything in our society is valued according to the dollar. It is the standard and the means of valuation. When we want to know something’s worth, we ask in terms of dollars. For example, when a person wants to purchase an artist’s painting, it is purchased by establishing a monetary value based off the dollar.

In a similar way, humanity is valued according to a sacramental logic. Humanity was forever imbued with value when God took on human flesh. We measure value according to the incarnation, the ultimate sacrament—Jesus Himself, fully human, fully divine. Why else is human life any more valuable than other creatures or environmental systems? (Yes, I’m aware of the Genesis 1 argument about being “made in the image of God” – but that is itself sacramental/incarnatinoal when you come to Colossians 1:15 – He is the image of the invisible God). Of course, outside of a Christian setting, this is all up for grabs.

  • Money connects people together who would be unconnected were it not for their mutual trust in it. We might ask: what unites the American people? It’s not a common ethnicity, not a common language, not a religion, not a shared culture, not a common history, not a shared vision of politics. I would argue, at its most basic level, it’s one thing: The dollar. The wide variety of people in America share an economic marketplace built on the dollar. I don’t need to speak your language or believe what you believe about God or agree with you politically or socially. As long as I show you a dollar, Americanly speaking, you and I share what we need in common to make it work.

The Eucharist is not merely a vertical experience (connecting us in Communion with God). It is very much a horizontal reality as well, connecting us together as the united Body of Christ. The one thing that the church around the world holds in common is Christ. It’s not language, economy, culture, tradition, ethnicity, class, nation or anything else. It’s Christ and His Kingdom. In our world, as in the Roman world, the economy is what unites empires and relates people to each other. In terms of the vision of Christianity, it’s the Eucharist (the Living Jesus).

  • Money is widely understood to change those who experience a lot of it. Have you ever seen someone you know come into a lot of money? Money changes a person. It is immensely powerful (like highly enriched uranium) and changes the entire “forcefield” around a person who has it.

Christians believe that the Eucharist is powerful. It changes us. Experiencing Holy Communion on a regular basis has a transformational effect on us.

  • People consume money but often realize in hindsight that they have been consumed by money. Money is perhaps the primary means by which our desires get awakened and then fulfilled. We want to aquire. The process of aquiring is the exciting part, not just what we purchase. But very quickly, the item we purchased is less exciting and we must consume more. Soon we are consumed with the desire for more money. It’s circular.

The Eucharist is this strange thing in which we consume Christ (aka consecrated elements of bread/wine), but find ourselves consumed by Christ. We become what we eat. We become the Body of Christ by taking the Body/Blood of Christ.

There are probably a half dozen other ways we could see parallels between the Eucharist and Money. If you think of one, post it in the comments.

Jesus, Wealth, Government, and Fiat Money

Fiat and wealth

There is wealth and there is fiat money. They’re not the same thing. Wealth can be held in many different forms. Holding wealth in fiat money is the default setting in our culture/era (though anybody with significant wealth knows to “diversify”). Fiat money is different from many forms of wealth in that it involves an additional layer of power, control, and trust in a human institution: the government.

Jesus warned against mammon, which means “wealth” or “riches” (in general, but surely inclusive of fiat money). But in my reading of the gospels, He also seems a bit hostile at times to the notion of fiat money (or more generally, government controlled currency) in particular, or am I reading that into the gospels?.

For example, why was he bothered that money changers were on the temple grounds? Was it merely that they were doing financial transactions in a sacred place? But isn’t a wealth transaction at the heart of sacrifice? – i.e. a person brings something of worth to give to God and the priests/Levites. Or was Jesus bothered by the fact that there was a measure of power, control, and trust involved in exchanging tangible assets (animals, etc.) into a central currency controlled by the religious and political elites? – Jewish temple leaders had created their own currency that people had to use.

roman coinThere’s also the story about the taxation question where Jesus famously said, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Seems like there is a layer in the story about fiat money to me. Note that Jesus isn’t carrying that currency (the Roman coins with Caesar’s image on it). He has to ask the questioners to provide a coin – which proves they’re invested in the Roman state and Caesar’s empire. (More on this below.) 

Ultimately, though, both wealth and fiat money run a risk becoming a substitute for God (idolatry), a means of establishing a sense of “god-like” autonomy, and a means of vastly expanding our will/influence (having “god-like” power). So maybe this distinction doesn’t matter.

But I would argue that fiat money adds an interesting additional layer of complexity into the mix. When I use fiat money, I am implicitly trusting in, and enmeshing myself in, a financial system which is dependent on a nation-state that issues/controls the currency. When I use fiat money, it’s a political act. To hold any significant amount of my wealth in fiat money is to be invested in the political success of the state whose currency (fiat money) I hold.

zimbabwe-banknotes-50-trillion-frontThere is a reason why I don’t hold my personal wealth in the (now defunct) currency of Zimbabwe. I have a 10 trillion dollar Zimbawe note sitting on my desk, but it’s worth nothing. I tend to hold my (not-so-considerable) wealth in US dollars. But by doing so, I have an interest in the success of the US (assuming I hope to maintain my meager wealth). Interestingly, the fact that much of the world uses the dollar as its standard and holds US currency in reserves means that much of the world also has an interest in the American political drama. Why do we wonder about the world’s interest in our elections? If other nations hold dollars in reserve or peg their currency to the dollar, isn’t it appropriate for them to have an opinion? Their wealth and well-being are attached to our politics. 

This connection between holding wealth in fiat money and its implicit enmeshment in the success of the state is not always obvious to us. It becomes more clear in certain moments—like when, in the aftermath of 9/11, President George W Bush told the Americans who wanted to be patriotic to go shopping. Feeling threatened? Go out and buy something. Fiat money is inherently unstable. It’s only as stable as the trust people put in it. That’s why in a moment of national insecurity President Bush told people to go out and buy stuff with it. It deepens the enmeshment we all have in it when we have to pass it around and value stuff with it.

“You still take that green stuff?” -My dad used to make this joke when he was standing at the counter with the cashier as he was purchasing something. It was a humorous way of establishing rapport. The cashier would usually chuckle or try to say something witty in return. I always thought it was kind of a dumb joke. Of course people take money. What else would they take? I guess in Zimbabwe, it’s a real question. But I’m an American. My pre-conscious imagination has been so saturated with the notion that fiat money is as good as wealth and trustworthy that I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

For us who are Americans, not only are we disproportionately wealthy (generally speaking), we’re the holders of the world’s fiat money standard. As such we’re deeply entangled in the biggest ponzi scheme ever dreamed up. Keep in mind that if everyone tried to withdraw their cash from their bank accounts at the same time, we’d have a SERIOUS problem. Yes, make no mistake, it’s a ponzi scheme. And yes, we’re all in on it. It’s not ultimately the banks that are too big to fail, it’s our faith in the American economy and finance system.

This blog entry is not a revolutionary attempt to convince people forego their use the dollar or fiat money (Although rumor does have it that somebody recently tore up a $20 bill in front of church). To be honest, I’m not sure that we, as Americans, even can extract ourselves from this system we’ve created. It’s global and has its tentacles in everything. Also, the notion of exchangable currency of some kind is not in itself a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s quite helpful as a means of financial transaction (more efficient and effective than bartering).

I guess my purpose in writing is to help us be aware of our own implication in the giant, complicated financial system that acts as perhaps the greatest idol ever created. Folks, solving our problems is not as simple as buying fair trade chocolate. We’re talking deep, deep issues. The problems are systemic, historic, philosophical and, I would add, theological. And we’re all in it up to our ears. It’s the water we swim in. This doesn’t mean we can’t work for good; we must. We should be as ethical and generous as we can (more on this in future blog entries). But we should do so recognizing that our faith in the fiat money system of America is just that: faith. Hopefully we can put that faith in its rightful place and not confuse it with our faith in God.

Perhaps the takeaway is the need for profound humility and a call for Christians to constantly return to repentance – not only our personal greed and idolatry around wealth, but for our part in sustaining a giant system of trust in something that, when you spend any measure of time looking into it, is not worthy of such trust.

Lord have mercy.

Next post: The Sacramentality of Money

The Spirituality of Money

money

We misjudge money when we think of it only in instrumental terms. We can probably all agree that money is highly useful as an instrument of exchange. It’s a lot more efficient and effective as a way of exchanging goods and services than merely bartering. But I’d like to suggest that money is more than instrumental. It is spiritual.

Let me explain.

Most of us use money without ever stopping to think about what money actually is. I’m not an economist or a finance nerd; I’m just a curious person. So, I’ve been poking around to try to understand money. What I have discovered is half fascinating/half terrifying.

400-oz-Gold-Bars-AB-01It turns out that money, as in currency (such as the dollar), is only as good as the faith people put in it. As is obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a second, it’s just fancy paper. Ever since the 1970’s, when the Federal Reserve intentionally unhitched the value of the dollar from the price of gold, there has been nothing concretely undergirding our money except for our collective confidence in it. This is explained concisely in this 1 minute video

It seems that most of the world has also joined the party and decided to peg their currency’s value to the dollar. So that means that the pool of people invested in trusting the value of the dollar is quite a bit larger than just the American population. Economists can attempt to justify the value of the dollar by pointing to the size of the American economy and the assets undergirding it. But it seems clear that ultimately its stability is more about the fact that there are too many people invested in it to allow it to easily fail. Check out this short clip explaining this.

So, the bottom line is that when we use money, we’re actually dealing in a kind of currency of faith—faith in the American government and its fiscal policy, faith in the American economy, faith in the collective commitment of others to keep playing the same game of trust, etc. This explains why the economy is so deeply psychological and emotional (and I might add, spiritual—i.e. non-material). Everything about it ultimately hangs on faith.

Faith/trust is an inherently spiritual thing (whether one is “religious” or not). By spiritual I mean that it is non-material. The practical need for faith/trust in human existence points to the contingent nature of life—that none of us are self-sufficient; we’re vulnerable creatures.

Faith/trust (I’m using them interchangeably) is a fairly abstract concept. One way to picture faith/trust is to imagine it as invisible, non-material/spiritual threads of connection between persons, or toward institutions and objects. If you think of money in these terms, it’s not hard to see that there are vast amounts of spiritual threads of connection that run through money. This is part of what I mean by saying money is spiritual.

Jesus seems to assume this. He goes beyond merely recognizing the spiritual nature of money to seeing it as having an almost personified kind of power. He uses the word Mammon, a Syriac and Aramaic word meaning “riches” or “wealth” in a personified manner. He says in Matthew 6:24,

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

mammon_and_the_greedy_wolf_by_lorenzolivrieri-d7v0saeLater writers pick up this notion of Mammon and conceive of it as demonic. Dante, for example, presents Mammon as a wolf-like demon of greed (see the picture to the left). Gregory of Nyssa even more boldly suggests that Mammon is simply another name for the devil or Beelzebub.[1] Clearly these writers sensed that Jesus was speaking of more than a material reality when He spoke of wealth. He had a kind of spiritual force in mind. You don’t have to go as far as Gregory of Nyssa did to still acknowledge the spirituality of money. But most of us need to have our purely materialistic account of money expanded (puns all intended).

We miss a major aspect of Jesus’ teaching about the dangers of wealth if we think He is merely concerned about unequal distribution of wealth and issues of justice. He is concerned about those issues (see Luke 16:19-31 for example), but He seems to locate them first and foremost in a larger spiritual framework.

Next post – Jesus, Wealth, Government, and Fiat Money

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mammon

Ascension Day is Essential to Our Conception of Church

AscensionThe ascension of Christ is one of those overlooked doctrines in the Christian Church. Is it because Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday? Some churches celebrate it on the following Sunday. But I agree with the Church–historic: it deserves its own day (with feasting!)

The ascension marks the end of the physical, bodily presence of Jesus with us in the old, material creation. He has departed to be enthroned on high as the rightful King of the universe. We need not imagine that Heaven is located at some great distance or occupies a physical place in the universe in order to accept the doctrine of the ascension (quite the contrary). The realm of God might better be imagined as a vast ocean in which the material dimension of our universe exists like a buoy bobbing along, sustained by its very presence, yet distinct (“In Him we live and move and have our being” Acts 17:28). Yes, heaven and earth are distinct; there is some kind of “membrane” separating the two. The separation of the two is the essential backdrop of God’s work of atonement/reconciliation. The longing of heaven and the deepest desires of our hearts are that the two would become one in roughly the way that husband and wife become “one flesh.”

So, back to the ascension; its about how Christ has physically departed. But here is where the nature of the sacraments and the Church become essential. As I’ve begun describing on this blog previously, our world has not been left without a tangible sign of God’s presence. Quite the opposite. Jesus said that it was better that He should depart to the Father–in order to give the Spirit (John 16:7). It’s the Holy Spirit who takes the faith-filled followers of Jesus and forms them into the BODY of Christ.

How? Through the sacraments: Baptism (initiation into the Body) and Eucharist (continuous renewal of the Body).

01a94-bodyofchristIn the sacraments (which are “mysteries”), WE the church, become the continuation of the incarnation of Christ. Does that sound scandalous and crazy? It ought to!

After the ascension (and then Pentecost), the world doesn’t merely have a single embodied person as the place of God’s tangible presence (the historic, physically embodied person, Jesus). It doesn’t merely have a fancy box (Ark of the Covenant) where the presence of God is kept or a building (Tabernacle/Temple) that contains His manifest presence, or a city that is the seat of His glory (Jerusalem). The world has a living temple made up of living stones (I Peter 2) who are being built into an international dwelling place for God.

Yes, the Church is the continuation and expansion of God’s tangible presence. We’re a work in progress; He is refining us and building us to be the New Jerusalem where God will dwell without mediation, without Temple (Rev. 21-22)–when heaven and earth become one again.

So, the ascension is essential. Jesus must go to the Father to reign over His Church, as Head of the Body. He must send the Spirit to form the Body (this is what we celebrate at Pentecost). And as the Body grows and develops it becomes the vehicle through which God will ultimately reconcile all things (Colossians 1:19-20). May it be so!

Unity: How? And to What End?

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William T Cavanaugh, in a thought-provoking article written for the ABC religion & ethics opinion page, hits on some important themes that have relevance to this blog. Cavanaugh is interested in teasing out the difference between the way the “City of God” and the “City of Man” (to use St. Augustine’s famous images) pursue unity.

Unity is often held up as an ideal within our fragmented, secular culture (“can’t we all just get along?”). It is also, without question, part of the essential vision of the Church (see Jesus’ prayer in John 17). These two calls for unity can often look similar. But are they?

First of all, Cavanaugh suggests that unity in and of itself is not necessarily good. As Cavanaugh points out, there was a remarkable amount of unity in Nazi Germany. Unity can just as easily be one of the tools in the devils tool kit as it can be a virtuous good. As he says in the article, “evil is often a parody of the good… vice imitates virtue, and …sin is often committed by those seeking after real goods, even if in the wrong way.”

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William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh continues, contrasting the two cities and their understanding of unity:

For Augustine, the unity of people is the goal of both the heavenly and the earthly cities. The heavenly city sees that God’s purpose in history is to gather humanity into the unity of Adam before the fall. God’s creative purpose is for unity – since Adam has fallen and shattered, like a china doll, into countless pieces, the purpose of redemption is to bring them all back together in the body of Christ.

The earthly city, according to Augustine, also seeks unity, and in a sense it seeks to imitate God’s unifying power. However, since it believes that goods cannot be shared, it is a unity that depends on external enemies to function.

Christian unity is a unity that can only be found in Christ (not merely best illustrated or idealized). Cavanaugh goes on to highlight the importance of the Eucharist as the essential means to this end. He then contrasts this with the violence (or threat of violence) of the state as the secular means to unity. If you’ve ever read Cavanaugh, you know that this is his one-string fiddle, one he plays brilliantly (read his “Eucharist and Torture” or “Theopolitical Imagination” if you want more of this).

At one point in the article, Cavanaugh makes a very clarifying insight about the limitations of secular unity: “The basic problem is that the unity of humanity can never be an end in itself.” This is perhaps one overlooked, but substantial problem with the liberal democratic vision of society. It’s one point (among many) at which the Christian vision of unity in the Body of Christ departs radically from the secular vision. Cavanaugh points out that unity pursued outside of the Body of Christ is inevitably an exercise that leads to some variety of idolatry (idolatry being understood as loving anything more than God).

Christian unity is only and always unity in and through Christ. It is a participation in the life of God available to us in Christ through the Holy Spirit (Communion). The end goal is not merely a civil or nice place for all of us to get along and pursue our own good; the goal is the glory of God and Communion with Him.

All too often in the Church we’re lulled into a false vision of unity, the unity of the City of Man; the unity of the lowest common denominator. This is often cloaked in City of God language with references to John 17 no less. We should be clear though, unity at cost of faithful Communion with the Trinity is never a unity that accomplishes God’s vision of redemption. That can only be accomplished in Christ. Perhaps this is why in the Creed, the “oneness” of the Church is not the only mark mentioned; oneness (unity) stands alongside the marks of “holy” and “catholic” and “apostolic” as the vision of God’s Church.

What is the gospel? (part 3 – Jesus, Kingdom, and Church)

ascension-of-jesus

Continuing the discussion of the past couple of posts… 

As we have seen, the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) tell the story of how Jesus comes to be recognized as King. It’s a piece of prophetic irony that Jesus dies in all four tellings of the story with a sign over his head announcing him as king–albeit an executed/shamed/rejected king. His death sentence reveals His identity. But the recognition of his true identity is only fully comprehended in hindsight–looking backward through the events of the resurrection and ascension. And similarly, the significance of his death is only understood in light of his resurrection.

As we saw in the last post, the key to becoming a subject of the Kingdom of God/Heaven is how one is related to Jesus (as King).

So the gospel is a message about the Kingdom. And Jesus is related to that Kingdom as its rightful King. Thus, to be rightly related to the Kingdom of God, to be a subject of the Kingdom, is to be rightly related to the King… to be subject to the King.

The question that much of the New Testament (apart from the four gospels) addresses is how this good news is relevant to people who live after the bodily life of Jesus on earth. The New Testament is addressed to people who live 20-60 years after Jesus’ bodily life. If Jesus is indeed the King and He will return as He promised with finality in the fulness of His kingdom, where is access to this kingdom in the meantime? How are we to be rightly related to Him, subjects of His Kingdom awaiting this return?

Colossians chapter 1 provides an essential link that helps us resolve these questions:

“He (God the Father) has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him or for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of his cross… he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him–provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith… I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the churchthe mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he who we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” 

Colossians 1:13-18a, 19-20, 22-23a, 24, 26-29

The significance of this passage is enormous! For our purposes it provides the important links between the person of Jesus, the Kingdom of God and the church. To have citizenship in the Kingdom of God is to belong to Christ as members of his ongoing earthly body, the church. Note that Jesus has become the organizing principle of God’s people, not ethnicity (church = Jew+Gentile). To belong to Christ’s body, the church, is to be reconciled to God through the death of Jesus. All of this is accomplished and sustained by faith–the active entrusting of one’s life to the “head of the body,” Jesus (“Jesus is Lord”).

So here is a short-hand summarization of what we have said so far in the past 3 blogs:

Gospel = Good News
– Good news is about God’s continued plan to procure a people for Himself, a kingdom, a communion. This is the story of creation, of Abraham and his family, of Israel–climaxing in Jesus.
– The kingdom, God’s people, are revealed to be those who are subject to the King–Jesus: those in communion with the rightful King.
– The way to be in communion with the King is through terms of reconciliation provided by the King Himself (available through Christ’s death/resurrection). This becomes for many the heart of the gospel (rightly so).
– The King, now ascended, reigns over all of the universe, having defeated his enemies. He awaits his final move (judgment and the final exclusion of evil) in hopes of bringing more people into His Kingdom.
– In the absence of the King’s bodily, fleshly presence (now that He is ascended to the Father), He has provided a body–the tangible embodiment of his Kingdom. This is the church. It is itself an essential expression of the Kingdom and at the same time a sign pointing beyond itself to Kingdom’s fullness still to come as well as an instrument of God toward that end.
– To belong to the church is to belong to Jesus and to be a subject and citizen of His kingdom for which we await the full consummation. It is to be in communion with Jesus and thus the Father, in the Spirit.

Note the important connections between Jesus, Kingdom and Church.

I will continue in the next post focusing on the image of the church as the Body of Christ…

 

 

What is the gospel? (part 2)

icon-of-christ-the-true-vine

Continuing the discussion of the last post

As we saw in the last post, it turns out that the gospel is more than a message about a kingdom; it’s a person. But how do these two relate?

When Jesus proclaims the gospel He says, “repent, the kingdom of God/Heaven is at hand.” And then we discover in the midst of the narrative of the gospel books (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) that Jesus is the King and is the embodiment of the Kingdom.

Interpreters have long noticed that there is this tension between a sense in which the Kingdom is “already” and “not yet” in the New Testament. This can be resolved by noting that in the sense that Jesus is the embodiment of the Kingdom (as its King), the Kingdom of God has come. But the other sense that Jesus, Himself, talks about (final defeat of opposing kingdoms, judgment, etc.) clearly points to the fact that the Kingdom is still to come. We are awaiting the moment when it can rightly be said, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Messiah…” (Revelation 10:15). This is the final expulsion of evil and darkness, which has clearly not yet happened.

So the gospel is a message about the Kingdom. And Jesus is related to that Kingdom as its rightful King. Thus, to be rightly related to the Kingdom of God, to be a subject of the Kingdom, is to be rightly related to the King… to be subject to the King.

If to be a subject of the Kingdom of God comes down to being subject to the King, Jesus, then the question posed to the traditional people of God (The Jews of Jesus’ time) is whether they will in fact accept Jesus as their King (Messiah). Is He or is He not the rightful King/Messiah? This is the question among the people throughout Jesus life/ministry? His disciples answered “yes” while the crowds were on the fence and the religious leaders said, “no.” The definitive answer is provided in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. For those who were uncertain, this was the lynchpin.

The scandalous teaching of both John the baptist and Jesus was that the people of God are defined not simply by ethnic origins–merely being a descendant of Abraham, belonging to the people of Israel, won’t do (See Matthew 3:7-10; 8:5-13). Rather, the people of God are defined in reference to their relationship to Jesus as the Son of God, the King/Messiah; faith in His authority, bearing “fruits of righteousness” is what matters. This is why proclamation of the “messiahship” of Jesus was the first order of business for Jesus’ disciples (Acts 2-5).

With this foundation in place, we can begin to talk about the post-resurrection understanding of the gospel. Once Jesus is resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father (a picture of Him taking His rightful place as the ruler/King), how are people able to relate to Him? He’s no longer physically present.

This is what I’ll blog about next…