Christian Missions is Not “If it Works, Do it.” (Quote)

“Jesus at the outset of his ministry was forced to contend with three of the most powerful temptations Satan could offer— expediency, popularity and power (Mt 4:1-11). It would have been expedient, logical and even strategic for Jesus to have ended his forty-day fast by turning stones into bread. He could have attracted the attention, interest and admiration of an entire nation had he leaped from the top of the temple and landed on his feet. Most of all, he could have ruled over all of the earth if he had just bowed down to Satan.

Think of it— Satan offered Jesus the opportunity to complete all he came to earth to accomplish— in one stroke he would rule the world. Would something like this be a temptation to Mission, Inc.? At long last the Great Commission could be fulfilled in our generation by our efforts and ingenuity. Jesus had a very different agenda, however. His was to be a spiritual kingdom based on unwavering obedience to all that he had learned from his Father. He engaged in no sloganeering to “complete the task,” no triumphalistic Great Commission countdowns, no strategic plan and timetable other than the certainty that he would be forsaken by his followers and left to experience a traumatic, lonely death.

We suggest that those of us on this missions pilgrimage reexamine our rhetoric and publicity. Let us join in the sober recognition that the spiritual kingdom of Jesus is distinctly and irreversibly countercultural. It is all about communities witnessing to Christ’s kingdom without the convictions of worldly expediency, glamour and power. Yet without fanfare it transforms the world.

-James F. Engel and William A Dyrness, “Changing the Mind of Missions” (InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 180.

 

Subverting the Tropes in Christian Missions

The following is an excerpt from my new little book, “Missions in Samaria.” This section seeks to look at one principle for missions that can be drawn from the history of missions work in Samaria and with Samaritans. This one is about Subverting the Tropes.

Missions in Samaria

Subvert the Tropes. Jesus did this in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The story could have followed a classic structure maintaining a mythic role supporting cultural values and prejudices. Consider the following story:

One day a Gentile had business in Jericho and so started the windy arduous road down to that village from Jerusalem. At one of the blind turns of this road he was accosted by highwaymen who stole everything he had and left him for dead.

As he was lying there bleading, a tax collector came upon him. However, the tax collector did not even slow down but hurried on past. “No profit here for me,” he thought, “and whoever attacked him may be waiting for me as well.” Soon another man came along the trail– a Samaritan. “Better him than me.” He also hurried onto his destination.

After awhile, a poor Jew came by. He saw the Gentile and had pity on his plight. He thought to himself, “The Law says that I must show hospitality to all, including aliens and strangers. I certainly cannot just leave this man here.” So the poor Jew cleansed and bandaged the Gentile’s wounds and clothed him as best he could, and put him on his donkey and brought him to Jericho where he tended to the man until he was able to care for himself.

This story fulfills the common tropes of the time with tax collectors being too concerned with self and with money to provide help, and Samaritans being bigoted, selfish, and not obeying the Mosaic Law. The poor Jew, however, piously does what is right in honor to his faith and to his God.

As you know, I am sure, Jesus did not do this. The unmerciful ones were not only Jews, but they were Jewish religious leaders. The merciful one, the hero, was the Samaritan.

By learning the stories, tropes, prejudices that exist driving communities apart, we have the tools for subverting them. Stories that challenge the status quo and the preconceived notions of a culture have a parabolic role– serve in the role of a parable. Jesus did that a lot. His stories would often subvert commonly-held values. The one most precious is the one that wandered away. Divine love is most clearly visible when it is given to those who seem to deserve it the least. The most weak or seemingly insignificant things are often what matters most. The wealthy may not only NOT be closer to God, but the wealth may actually be a hindrance to their being righteous in God’s sight.

A second way to change the narratve is to Change the Focus. Consider the old trope of the silent era (lampooned in the cartoon shorts of “Dudley Doright”) of a love triangle of a rejected ugly bad man, a beautiful but helpless young woman, and a handsome noble hero. Ultimately and predictably, the hero overcomes the bad man and wins the heart of the ‘fair maiden.’ There are many options to subvert this story, such as making the woman heroic and capable rather than helpless. However, the narrative also changes when one changes the focus. In this classic example, the focus is on how the hero resolves the conflict by “saving the day.” But one can also focus on the woman who lives in a world of objectification, or on the bad man, driven to hate and revenge for reasons that could be fascinating to explore.

In the story of the ten lepers we see a change of focus from the norm. Jesus tells ten lepers who are seeking to be healed to go to the priest to be declared clean (a requirement in the Mosaic quarantine laws). On their way, they discover themselves healed. Nine of them joyfully continue their journey to be legally declared clean. One however, turned back to express thanks to Jesus. The story specially notes that the man who thanked Jesus was a Samaritan. The story could be presented as many other stories in the Gospels with Jesus as the focus. In this one, however, the focus is not on Jesus primarily. It is also not primarily on the lepers as a whole, but is rather on the Samaritan who returned to express gratitude.

Sometimes we need to change focus. A few years ago in the United States there was a movement called “Black Lives Matter.” It was a response to some questionable shootings of African-American men by police officers. In many of those cases the police were exhonerated by the justice system, often despite pretty damning evidence against them. Some people, including many Christians, responded negatively to the Black Lives Matter movement suggesting that it is better to say “All Lives Matter.” In a sense they are right— All Lives do in fact Matter. However, when there has been a strong amount of discrimination and marginalization in a society, it needs to be responded to with focus, not with generalities.

During this pandemic, there are people, again including some Christians, who are making the argument that the elderly should be given lesser priority. Some see it as a “thinning of the herd”– a surprisingly Darwinian attitude. For others, it appears to be driven by a higher value on economics than of human life. If one would seek to counter this attitude, saying “All Lives Matter” would be inadequate. We would may need to say that “All Elderly Lives Matter,” or “All Medically Under-insured Lives Matter.”

Taking this same example into first century Judea, saying that one must love one’s neighbor, or one must love everyone, may be true but is too general to hit home. Focus is needed to make the message hit home. You must love your enemy. You must love Samaritans. You must love the poor. You must love Gentiles. You must love tax collectors and prostitutes. And you must demonstrate that love not only through words but through action. This leads to the second point.

Robert Alter Extended Quote

I recently been reading Robert Alter’s book, “The Art of Biblical Narrative” (Basic Books, 1981). A few years ago, I wrote a book, “Theo-storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture.” A friend of mine, who has since passed away suggested that I might benefit from Robert Alter’s work on narrative in the Hebrew Bible. I finally got around to it. The following is an extended quote from near the beginning of chapter 3.

One of the chief difficulties we encounter as modern readers in perceiving the artistry of biblical narrative is precisely that we have lost most of the keys in the conventions out of which it was shaped. The professional Bible scholars have not offered much help in this regard, for their closest Robert Alter's 'The Art of Biblical Narrative' and Qur'anic ...approximation to the study of convention is form criticism, which is set on finding recurrent regularities of pattern rather than the manifold variations upon a pattern that any system of literary convention elicits; moreover, form criticism uses these patterns for excavative ends— to support hypotheses about the social functions of the text, its historical evolution, and so forth. Before going on to describe what seems to me a central and, as far as I know, unrecognized convention of biblical narrative, I would like to make clearer by means of an analogy our dilemma as moderns approaching this ancient literary corpus which has been so heavily encrusted with nonliterary commentaries.

Let us suppose that some centuries hence only a dozen films survive from the whole corpus of Hollywood westerns. As students of twentieth century cinema screening the films on an ingeniously reeconstructed archaic projector, we notice a recurrent peculiarity. In eleven of the films, the sheriff-hero has the same anomalous neurological trait of hyperrefexivity— no matter what the situation in which his adversaries confront him, he is always able to pull his gun out of its holster and fire before they, with their weapons poised, can pull the trigger. In the twelfth film, the sheriff has a withered arm and, instead of a six-shooter, he carries a rifle that he carries slung over his back. Now, eleven hyperreflexive sheriffs are utterly improbable by any realistic standards— though one scholar will no doubt propose that in the Old West the function of sheriff was generally filled by members of a hereditary caste that in fact had this genetic trait. The scholars will then divide between a majority that posits an original source-western (designated Q) which has been imitated or imperfectly reproduced in a whole series of later versions (Q1, Q2, etc.— the films we have been screening) and a more speculative minority that proposes an old California Indian myth concerning a sky-god with arms of lighting, of which all these films are scrambled and diluted secular adaptations. The twelfth film, in the view of both schools must be ascribed to a different cinematic tradition.

The central point, of course, that these strictly historical hypotheses would fail even to touch upon is the presence of convention. We contemporary viewers of westerns back in the twentieth century immediately recognize the convention without having to name it as such. Much of our pleasure in watching westerns derives from our awareness that the hero, however sinister the dangers looming over him, leads a charmed life, that he will always in the end prove himself to be more of a man than the guys that stalk him, and the familiar token of his indomitable manhood is invariable, often uncanny, quickness on the draw. For us, the recurrence of the hyperreflexive sheriff is not an enigma to be explained but, on the contrary, a necessary condition for telling a western story in the film medium as it should be told. With our easy knowledge of the convention, moreover, we naturally see a point in the twelfth, exceptional film that would be invisible to the historical scholars. For in this case, we recognize that the convention of the quick-drawing hero is present through its deliberate suppression. Here is a sheriff who seems to lack the expected equipment for his role, but we note the daring assertion of manly will against almost impossible odds in the hero’s learning to make do with what he has, training his left arm to whip his rifle into firing position with a swiftness that makes it a match for the quickest draw in the West.   (pages 47-49)

A narrative understanding of the Bible is useful, but challenging since, as Alter has noted, we are disconnected from the conventions. In some cases we can reconstruct them, but in others we must struggle tentatively forward. Jesus told great parables by not only connecting them to classic tropes in his day, but also knowing how to break the patterns. Unfortunately, it is too tempting to fall into a historico-critical perspective or simply to get lost in the words and miss the underlying story… and the story behind the story.

 

 

Missions Theology— Problems of Reaction

Consider Quote from Corbett and Fikkert’s book When Helping Hurts:

As numerous scholars have noted, prior to the twentieth century, evangelical Christians played a large role in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. However, this all changed at the start of the twentieth century as evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Evangelicals interpreting the rising social gospel movement, which seemed to equate all humanitarian efforts with bringing in Christ’s kingdom, as part of the overall theological drift of the nation. As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. This shift away from the poor was so dramatic that church historians refer to the 1900-1930 era as the “Great Reversal” in the evangelical church’s approach to social problems.

It is important to note that the Great Reversal preceded the rise of the welfare state in America. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty did not occur until the 1960s, and even FDR’s relatively modest New Deal policies were not launched until the 1930s. In short, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation was fundamentally due to shifts in theology and not— as many asserted— to government programs that drove the church away from ministry to the poor.    <Corbett and Fikkert, page 45>

In the 1960s another shift reaction occurred but this time in Missions. During this time, theological liberalism was having a growing impact on Western Protestant missions due to the growth of belief in pluralism among Protestants, and a unique interpretation of Missio Dei. The former reduced the feeling that non-Christians needed an allegiance shift to Christ. The latter saw Missio Dei, the understanding that God is working on mission everywhere at all times on earth, as making the role of Missio Ecclessiae doubtful. In fact, from a mission perspective, if God is working in other cultures, for a missionary to come in an challenge the beliefs and practices of a people, could it not be a working against God? As such Missions is seen as a ministry of Presence rather than Proclamation.

In reaction to this, there seemed to be a narrowing of mission work among Evangelicals to proclamation and church-planting. Exacerbating this was a focus on what I would call Apocalypticism. That is, Christ is returning any moment, so what should we work on right this minute to be ready for this return? While this focus may seem reasonable, the result was that anything that might be considered a “long-term investment” in terms of ministry (such as poverty alleviation, cultural transformation, community development) were seen as too slow and not a priority. Further, Kingdom of God over the decades tended to be associated more and more with Heaven so problems on earth (ecological and social injustice) were seen as lacking value.  We still find these problems. I was reading a recent mission CPM book that discouraged social ministry or even friendship evangelism as “slowing things down.”

I could go on. But let’s stop here a moment and think what’s been going on:

  • Evangelical Missions has often been reactionary. Rather than centered on God’s word, it tended all too often to react against theological liberals, or pluralists, or liberationists, Catholics or others. (Often these other groups were seen as “the enemy.”) As such, Evanglicals often were guilty of what they charge others (of not treating the Bible as authoritative and basis for faith and practice).
  • Relatedly, short-term marketing choices were often given formal “blessing” regardless of whether they were based on solid principles.

There has been success in Evangelical Missions over the last 6 to 7 decades, but there has been a cost. It has lost relevance in many sectors not because of opposition but intentionally pulling out of those sectors. Failures in social justice and poverty alleviation, and focusing on Heaven only, have resulted in reinforcing the charges of Marxists that religion is about serving as an opiate for the masses. Failures to transform (or even try to transform) societies and cultures has led many to see as a failure of Christ and Christianity, rather than simply a failure of Missions theology. Focusing on UPGs (and an abusive use of Matthew 24:11) led to poorly considered and invasive tactics.

This post is long enough. But we can clearly do better.

A Luring that is Without

Somewhat lengthy quote of W. Paul Jones in his book “Theological Worlds: Understanding the Alternative Rhythms of Christian Belief.” They are quoted backwards, in that the first two paragraphs are from page 14 while the third paragraph is from page 11.

“Tillich distills these conclusions to which the past centuries have brought us by insisting that human beings are uniquely characterized by the inability to exist without meaning. We are freaks, for while life all around us does unquestioningly what it seems structured to do, humans cannot quiet the question, Why? Such self-consciousness brings forth deep needs— to be meaningful, to be significant, to belong. These needs are not optional but appear to be essential to human existence as such.  …..

Peter Berger once observed that while dogs have an instinct for being dogs, humans alone are born into an unfinished world, one they must endeavor to complete in order to be able to call themselves human. Whatever functions as one’s ultimate concern in this endeavor provides the content designatable as one’s God. Such an understanding makes common cause with Augustine’s insistence that by nature, each person must love. The theological issue is not if, but who or what functions as one’s ultimate love.

We are restless, and thus religious, for we are never satisfied with the apparent, or tamed by the known limits. Rather, like a spider trapped in a bottle, we push at the boundaries of life and death, puzzle over strategies of good and evil, while dropping from a string hung daringly over the edges of mystery. The religious in each of us is an impulse to journey, to quest, to seek— for self-identity, belonging, legitimacy, meaning. And in the end, it is a hope worth believing that the impulse within has its counterpart in a luring that is Without.

In other words, our seemingly built-in desire for meaning— seeking to find god(s)— may actually be evidence of a God who is seeking to be found.

Two Missions Quotes from Miriam Adeney

“In the richer Gulf countries the gruntImage result for miriam adeney work is done by foreigners. Sometimes 80 percent of the labor force comes from outside. The Philippine economy is set up to facilitate overseas employment. Without enough jobs at home, there is a push to work in richer countries and send back foreign exchange.

Many Filipino university graduates take jobs as maids or nannies if they are women, or as construction workers if they are men. In the homes where they work they risk sexual abuse. On job sites they risk injuries. Legal protection is rare, and medical help for foreign labor is unreliable.

Meanwhile, back in the Philippines they have left their parents and brothers and sisters, and often wives and husbands and children too. Witness to local Muslims is illegal, and in countries like Saudi Arabia even Christian worship is banned. Yet many Filipinos have grown in their faith in this hard setting. For some nominal Christians it has been a wake-up call. They are stressed. They are spiritually starving. To help them, multilevel discipleship training programs have been developed on the spot.

Others came prepared to witness in spite of the risk. Back home there are at least ten Philippine agencies that provide mission training for workers going abroad. On the field such laborers share their faith with office mates or house mates who show interest. And they sing. Whenever there is a lull, a Filipino sings. If he or she is a believer, Christian lyrics bubble up.

          -Miriam Adeney in “Kingdom Without Borders” chapter 1.

 

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”

         -Miriam Adeney  (Don’t know the source)

9 Spiritual Temperaments and Quiet Time Quandary (Pt 1)

I have been enjoying reading “Sacred

Image result for sacred pathways

Pathways” by Gary Thomas. In some ways, it has a feel like “A Generous Orthodoxy” by Brian McLaren (although less controversial in its style, and perhaps its intent) in that both seek to broaden the perspective of Christians in what may be acceptable and pleasing to God and/or valuable to us.

Quoting from Gary Thomas, 

Sometime in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the ‘quiet time’ became a staple of most discipleship and church training programs. Usually consisting of thirty to sixty minutes, the quiet time was most commonly composed of a short period of personal worship, followed by some intercessory prayer (using a prayer notebook or intercessory prayer list), Bible study (according to a set method) and then a concluding prayer, followed by a commitment to share what we learned with at least one other person that day. This is something that’s easily taught and, for some circles, easy to hold people accountable to: ‘How many times this past week have you had your quiet time?’ Anything less than seven was a wrong answer.   -Sacred Pathways, Zondervan 2010 edition, p. 14.

The section continues:

With perhaps good intentions (who would oppose regular personal worship, prayer, and Bible study?), we reduced the devotional life to rote exercise. A. W. Tozer warned us about this: ‘The whole transaction of religious conversion has been made mechanical and spiritless. We have almost forgotten that God is a person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can.’  -Sacred Pathways, p. 14-15.  

I have always struggled with Quiet Time. It seemed often like drudgery. I always wondered why a relationship with God should seem like drudgery. Is it supposed to? But then, being a “disciple” presumably involves “discipline,” and discipline certainly does not sound like it should be easy or fun. 

Some would add more things to make Quiet Time more palatable or, perhaps, more difficult. Some recommended using different types of devotional works. One popular one then was “My Utmost for His Highest,” by Oswald Chambers. I had a copy, but I found it almost unreadable. That I must admit may not be to my credit. Chambers appeared to be a man of great faith and faithfulness to God. Others said that one should start the day with Quiet Time. The idea seemed to be that this is the best way to start the day. Of course, if it is the best way to start the day, perhaps it would also be the best way to end the day, or to spend the height of the day. (Gary Thomas mentions a humorous story of a disagreement he had with his wife, back when they were still dating, and she showed him that having Quiet Time during the lunch hour was Biblical, by quoting Acts 10:9– ‘About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.’)

But there was a strange twist. I would really enjoy learning about God, studying the Bible to learn more about God. I especially found this fulfilling in the context of preparing lessons for Sunday School, Group Bible Studies, or in preaching sermons. But then I heard from several sources that this does not count. Why? It seemed as if there is the presumption that work and worship don’t go together.

But maybe work and worship DO go together. It got me thinking that maybe what I find worship is different from what some other find worshipful. I guess that is why I like Gary Thomas’ book, because it doesn’t judge. One can worship God in different ways— one size does not fit all.

Thomas lists 9 different “spiritual temperaments” from different denominations in the present and in church history. The temperaments he listed are:

  • Naturalists
  • Sensates
  • Traditionalists
  • Ascetics
  • Activists
  • Caregivers
  • Enthusiasts
  • Contemplatives
  • Intellectuals

So I need to continue the journey as I look through these nine temperaments.

Words of Wisdom from Two Edward Everetts

Two quotes. One by Edward Everett Hale, and the other by Edward Everett Horton. Both quotes are, loosely speaking about dealing with limitations.

edward everett

Poem by Edward Everett Hale. 1822 – 1909. Chaplain to US Senate 1903 – 1909.

“I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

From “Masterpieces of Religious Verse” published by Broadman Press in 1948.

Quote of Edward Everett Horton. 1886 – 1970, Comedic Actor.

“Isn’t it marvellous to have some brains? I’m always so helpless.”

-Horton as Horace Hardwick in “Tophat”, 1935.

 

What to Do with the Unresponsive?

unresponsiveOne of my students is writing on the mission work of Paul as it may provide insight to his ministerial context. Describing the targets of Paul’s work, my student described three groups. First, he noted that Paul reached out to Jews. He would go to the synagogue and share Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Savior. Paul would present Jesus through the Hebrew Bible. Second, Paul would reach out to Gentiles. These would include both the God-fearers, who he may find in the synagogues, and others that might be labeled as pagans. The presentation of the Gospel for the Gentiles starts out from Creation and a benevolent God, rather than Hebrew Scripture, and Israel’s redemptive history.

But then my student added a third group. That was the Responsive. I felt that was redundant. If one wanted to speak of three groups, one could choose Jews, God-fearers, and Pagans. But as I read, I could see why it made sense. My student was following the thought of Roland Allen, that a key to Paul was not just in who he targeted, but also who he did not target. Paul did not focus on those who were not (fairly quickly found) responsive. Not everyone would feel that way. One of the books we read for Evangelism class was nice in many ways, but the writer promoted a “don’t take NO as an answer” attitude.

My student quoted a passage from Roland Allen’s classic “Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?” (p. 75 of the 1962 printing by Eerdmans)”:

The possibility of rejection was ever present. St. Paul did not establish himself in a place  and go on preaching for years to men who refused to act on his teaching. When once he had brought them to a point where decision was clear, he demanded that they should make their choice. If they rejected him, he rejected them. The ‘shaking of the lap,’ the ‘shaking of the dust from the feet,’ the refusal to teach those who refused to act on the teaching, was a vital part of the Pauline presentation of the Gospel. He did not simply go away,’ he openly rejected those who showed themselves unworthy of his teaching. It was part of the Gospel that men might ‘judge themselves unworthy of eternal life.’ It is a question which needs serious consideration whether the Gospel can be truly presented if this element is left out. Can there be a true teaching which does not involve the refusal to go on teaching? The teaching of the Gospel is not a mere intellectual instruction: it is a moral process, and involves a moral response. If then we go on teaching where that moral response is refused, we cease to preach the Gospel; we make the teaching a mere education of the intellect.

I wouldn’t say it is strongly as Allen, and I am not sure that Paul would either. Most adults who convert to Christianity, in the US at least, do not do so on the initial presentation. Still, there is an underlying truth that is worth dwelling on.

There is a similarity between Paul’s strategy and Jesus’ strategy in Luke 10. Jesus sent out his disciples to different villages 2 by 2. They would minister in different villages. If people were responsive, Jesus would come there for more ministry. If the people were not responsive, the disciples were to shake the dust of the village from their feet (taking nothing, not even dust). They would then go onto the next village. The 12 were sent out on one occasion and they were to focus on Jewish villages. On a different occasion 70 (or 72) were sent out with no constraints. As far as we know, they went to all — Jewish, Samaritan, and Pagan villages. We know that Jesus prioritized Jews, and yet reached out to Samaritan and Gentile communities as well.

In missions there has been an argument as to who should be targeted.  Should one target the hardest soils or the easiest soils? Some would say that one should reach the easiest soils. If people are coming to Christ, if the Spirit appears to be working in a place, then we should be putting our efforts there. Others would say that we need to target the hardest soils, the UPGs (unreached people groups). We need to reach everyone and especially those who have not been reached because they are difficult.

Perhaps with Jesus and Paul, we see a FAIRLY OBVIOUS synthesis:

  • Share the message with everyone
  • Focus on those who respond

One could argue that is a reasonable lesson from the Parable of the Four Soils. Some soil is going to be productive, while some soils mostly won’t. But the sower doesn’t decide that. He spreads the seeds everywhere and then tends what grows.

Christ in Contrast: A Holy Saturday Thought

I live in Philippines, a nation that many of its citizenry describe as the only Christian nation in Asia. (Of course, if “Christian nation” means majority of its citizenry describe themselves as Christian, then Armenia is also an Asian Christian nation— and Georgia, Cyprus, and Timor-Leste also qualify, depending on where one puts the artificial boundaries of Asia.) I was raised in the United States, a country that many of its citizens like to think of as a Christian Nation, or perhaps founded as a Christian Nation.

I really have no interest in either perspective.

frederick-douglass-9278324-1-402
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

To describe your nation as a Christian nation is to massively demean the adjective “Christian.” I see many problems with my home country and my adopted country. Those problems pain me, but not because the countries are not “Christian enough.” Neither country has effectively modeled Christ…

… AND THAT IS OKAY.  Christ should be seen in contrast to the institutions of the world.

I am reminded of the quote by Frederick Douglass, a former slave:

Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt and wicked. … I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.  (“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself” and quoted by Greg Boyd in “The Myth of a Christian Nation”)

I am also reminded of the story of Abraham and Jehannot de Chevigny in The Decameron. In that story, a Jewish merchant named Abraham chose to follow Christ after visiting Rome. According to the story… he was so disturbed by the gross immorality of the leadership of the Western Church that he decided that Christianity could not have come from people, but from God. In other words, the ideals of Christianity were so high in contrast the the practices of the religious institution of Christianity, that Abraham to see Christ only in contrast to the established church.

As I am writing this, it is Holy Saturday, or Black Saturday, the full day of Christ in the grave. While there are many theories as to the reason for the atonement (a dubious exercise), it is worthwhile to recall the role of institutions in Jesus’ death.

  • The Institution of Religion charged Jesus as worthy of death. He was seen as a usurper of authority and a blasphemer.
  • The Institution of Governance carried out the killing. While the government lacked the gusto of the religious establishment to have Jesus executed, it ultimately followed the Machiavellian process that governments almost always do– maintain the status quo to its own perpetuity.
  • The Institution of Revolution (if one wishes to think of Revolutionary elements in such a way) appeared happy to rid itself of a disappointment. Jesus entering Jerusalem in a Messianic fashion (or at least in a Judas Maccabeus fashion), was followed by Jesus refusing to embrace political revolution.

All three institutions seek (earthly) power to perpetuate and extend itself. Jesus made it clear, however, that his Kingdom (reign, institution) is not of this world.

In many a Christian sermon, it is said that we are guilty of Jesus’ death because we live a life of sin. Some extend it further, noting that many (most?) of us would have joined in the execution if we were there (as angry pious religious folk, patriotic citizenry, or disenchanted revolutionaries).  It could be taken further still, that our pet institutions would likely have behaved little better than did the institutions in AD30. Our institutions are driven by the same forces today that Jesus rejected, and still rejects.

It is good that Jesus cannot be seen in Religion, in Government, or in Political Action. A Jesus who could be seen in them deserves to be disappointing to people who desire something more than this world offers.

Jesus is seen in contrast. Jesus contrasts self-righteous religious leaders. Jesus contrasts weak-willed self-serving politicians. Jesus contrasts power-hungry revolutionaries. Jesus even contrasts his followers… a naive and cowardly lot.

On Easter Sunday, Jesus reveals who He is, but on Holy Saturday, Jesus reveals who (and what) He is not.