Speaking of all of this in changed contexts
None of the context specific words of Jesus, actions of humans and events of history past are repeatable for us in some unusual historical replay but if we take seriously Jesus’ words and hold that they are to have some normative significance for those follow after him and wish to make his words core to church praxis, being as faithful to them as best we can, wherever and whenever are, is a clear priority.
Yet have we not done so well at getting pissed off at Jesus for his comments on money as he challenged the injustice creating, ideologically compromised, leading-Israel-to-destruction elite class?
Have we not done so well at getting so damn rich ourselves, or enjoying the benefits of our ludicrously wealthy nations, that we can no longer not be complicit in serious economic and political injustice throughout the world, as we buy almost anything?
Are we not so ideologically compromised, to what Walter Brueggemann has dubbed “technological-therapeutic-militaristic-consumerism,” that as a church we nearly cannot conceive of our existence outside of western democratic neo-capitalism, regardless of where it takes us?
(Have we not spent our time passively accepting or even justifying wars, often with patriotic zeal? Have we not embraced democratic capitalism’s definition of each persons ‘free and equal right to making their own fortune,’ despite how this does not correlate to the conditions of its creation and maintenance at home (that link is to the US problem of the moment, which I see as in some way archetypal of the West) and abroad? Have we not remained silent as people are increasingly commodified (e.g. the bots that recommended “you” stuff you like on Amazon) and understood in terms of what we can get from them or politically broken down into particular ‘constituencies’ and interest groups to be targeted?
The best bit of course is that we go to war for our economic rights, afraid they will be taken from us. This is often with people we have hurt to gain our privileges in the first place. National violence and unrest are also linked intrinsically to economic disparity, as those who can’t compete either feel they must climb the social ladder (which will never be easy) or wallow at the bottom acting out in desperation, as our comfort is so intimately connected to their misfortune.
In all of its crudeness, this is our dominant ideologies at play. Is our complicity as churches and citizens undeniable? I thought not.)
In light of this Stanley Hauerwas underlines one of the key question pointedly,
How is it that we who are Christians got so rich? And even more, how has our being such led us to misread the gospel as essentially an apolitical account of individual salvation, rather than the good news of the creation of a new community of peace and justice formed by a hope that God’s kingdom has and will prevail.
Missing the point
When I hear people, particularly young people, freak out and get up in arms at the thought that Jesus may take issue with their complicity in disparity and injustice maintaining economic systems and practices, I am saddened because they have not realized or been taught exactly what it is they are a part of – specifically in regards to the church.
They are a part of a political movement that possesses a critical imagination, which aims to call into question, not mirror, the dominant economic and political ideologies and structures of the world through use of its own beautifully expressive and vocal heritage.
They are part of a political community that proclaims justice, peace, goodness and truth as defined by God in Christ, embodying these values to the world so as to represent the poor, the starving, the oppressed and the marginalized; not merely to care for them as casualties of the system but on top of that to challenge the policies and values that are responsible for their condition in the first place. (This latter element is essential, for it would not do for us as we bring aid to a suffering people to be thoughtlessly and ironically participating in practices that create those same suffering people – that would be the most awful kind of twisted, therapeutic hypocrisy.)
The rage of the young I have encountered also serves to underline the deficiency of our understanding of ‘salvation.’ It is not simply about individuals praying a prayer and believing something about God and Jesus. ‘Salvation’ for Jesus had to do with surviving 70CE and entering into the community of followers dedicated to practicing the ethics of the kingdom of God as he spoke of and embodied them, before and after 70CE; all of this occurring within the wider eschatological framework of ultimate rescue expressed in enjoying resurrected life in the renewal of all things.
So when Jesus says to Zaccheaus “today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus says this because Zaccheaus had saw the goodness and truth of Jesus’ business, and had committed himself in response to giving half of his possessions to the poor and was willing to repay each person four times more (how much did Z-man have to his name!?). How does salvation enter into this? We should perhaps understand this within the immediate historical context Luke emphasises; ‘salvation’ is Zaccheaus escaping the twisted lifestyle and poisonous ideology of the rich and powerful that would lead Israel into the political meltdown and in turn finding actual, continued life beyond 70CE in the blessed community that survives with God’s blessing to heal the world both now and in the then to come.
It is in this sense that there is a deeply participatory element to salvation in which, as a people of faith, we embody, and aid the liberation of the world into, the new world God is bringing here – if we do not participate in the rescue or actively work against the liberation, it is surely more than certain that we have not been ‘saved?’
If our faithfulness is disconnected from, and to every extent disinterested in, seeing God’s new world impact and ‘save’ the here and now, favouring the preservation of the status quo through capitulation to economic and political ideals not grasped by God’s will for the world; in which we trade God’s promised novelty and restoration for our control which so often ends up producing “the same old shit all the time,” can we not say that our ‘faith’ may garner the same opinion the elite class of 1st century Israel earned from Jesus as he spoke so vehemently against them, in the hope of shocking them to change?
When our buildings, clothes, technology, food, use of money and more all have the potential of being in some way linked to an imbalance and exploitation of others so as to benefit our wealth, comfort and power and our reaction to this is not to repent of our complicity; begin to creatively seek and generate alternatives; and to realize that we must decry the politics that make it so, then we must be open to the charge that “our salvation is in doubt,” as Hauerwas puts it elsewhere, because at that point we it is beyond likely that we have not been compelled by the God who hears slaves cry and comes as a man to die among the poor and victimised.
The good news is of course that any and every point we are invited out of the narrative we have created and into a better story. With this we should recognise that forgiveness ever and always carries an inherent condemnation of an action or attitude as wrong – but with that condemnation comes the words that say “the story is not finished, you may begin to write something new.”
As such, while our gaining and usage of wealth is tainted by a deeply flawed system, that functions because of our involvement, and which is responsible for many wrongs, we are loved and forgiven with all of that crap, and invited out beyond the divine judgement that systems bears into full participation in a story that compels us to live in more just, equitable and selfless ways as we make it our own.
At bottom, this will require seeing that Jesus had very serious issues with rich people and responding in acknowledgement of our complicity in recapitulating those problems, and in turn repenting – not flying of the handle in outrage at the very idea that Jesus might have a problem with us.
Here the need for the church to take up its role in effectively a community in enables followers of Jesus to faithfully embody the values of the kingdom together in the world, so as to to embody an actual alternative to the dominant ideological visions of contemporary Western society.
This space, which should enliven reflection, critique and engagement, can be seen to be vitally important and timely when the go to reaction of many Christians to the suggestion that the wealth we enjoy might be unwarranted and sub-Christian, is one of outrage and offence taking.
Our role as Christians is to be present, as communities, among the poor, oppressed and marginalised and to allow our ethical, economic and political alterity to lead us to discern and question the very policies, values and conditions that are responsible for producing such conditions.
Churches are communities of resistance in a world that defines it’s economic and political commitments with out recourse to the story the Bible tells. Churches do not help cultivate and sustain adherents to capitalism and democracy, they feed imaginations that learn to see economics as God sees economics and politics as God sees politics; which we hold was embodied in Jesus when he announced the kingdom and let us peer into it for 3 years.
Churches aim to be faithful to this event and strive to anticipate it – this is what makes us an alternative because what we anticipate is new, what we anticipate is hope, what we anticipate is liberation (regardless of whether governments and policy makers want anything to do with it) – this aim is, of course, all the harder (and all the more necessary) when we discover that we are part of systems which produce conditions similar to those which God is mobilised to free slaves from and enters as man to rupture in death and resurrection.
May we become the rupture. May we anticipate the novelty. May we cultivate imaginations that dream to see the kingdom come on earth as in heaven, and where the first are last and the last are first.