31.10.03

Developing a Faith big enough for the World

It is a frightening thing, from the perspective of a man such as myself with a background of protestant separation of religion and politics, and the comfortably personalized and individualized, and thus reduced, version of the Gospel, to watch as my faith grows and becomes inextricably connected with social, political, and global issues.

It is a frightening thing, from the perspective of a man such as myself with a white middle class North American background, to watch as my views of money, of life, and what it really means to have a good life change so drastically.

Is the full gospel of Jesus Christ really that he died, took my sins away on the cross so that I could be saved? Does it not include that, important as it is, but also much, much more? Doesn't the gospel proclaim that Jesus lived (we always have an answer to why Jesus died, but besides to give us some good moral teachings, why did he live?), died on the cross, rose from the dead, and is now Lord of All (capital A All), with all that implies about our values, about worldwide and systematic issues of love and justice, mercy and judgement, forgiveness and repentance?

I sometimes think that Jesus must gaze on our world, and at the very least shake his head in wonder at all we Christians do and think in His name, if he doesn't outright shudder, cry, and shout in anger. We give money to a good organization once and a while, salving our conscience, telling ourselves that we have done our duty. All the while we ignore the radical call that Jesus actually placed on our money. We run our lives around our jobs, around our income, and forget that Jesus pointed out that it is impossible to serve both God and Money. We might pray for the poor, maybe give a little, maybe not even consider them since our personal salvation is taken care of, we can get back to getting ahead in the real world. Meanwhile Jesus gives us the parable of the sheep and the goats, where those let into the kingdom are let in solely on the basis of their acts of compassion, sacrifice, and generosity to those less fortunate. And that's just a start on a personal level.

What about the systems we support? We live in a society that has idolized technology, and we do it to. Technology will solve all our problems; it will take time, but just wait. Yeah, lots of people are poor right now, and lots of people starve, but when we get more efficient at collecting solar energy, and when we tap into the oil under the oceans, then we will be able to feed those people, and everyone will benefit off of this technology. Personally, I though God was going to renew the earth... but I guess he doesn't need to, we've got it under control. Of course, that's a pile of BS. Its the same crap we've been fed for the last hundred years or more, and quite frankly, it is uncertain at best how much things have really improved. Undeniably, technology has brought benefits: better public hygiene, more food, more and larger dwellings, more consumer goods, faster mobility, wider access to ideas. But who enjoys these? And is the progress really helping everyone, or anyone?

Those who enjoy these benefits the most are those who already have an economic advantage. The rest of the world gets a little bit, but the trickle is certainly tiny, since we do everything we can to minimize it. Even those who do get to enjoy these technologies and advances, what is it getting us? Stress levels are at an all time high, there are more therapists that in any day before now. How can we enjoy anything when the pace of change is so fast that it takes all of our energy to lose a step each day? We still manage to watch TV every night on a set the cost of which is greater than most workers in this world make in 3 months, or 3 years. But do we enjoy it? Most of us don't really even know how to do that anymore. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer; yeah, a few developing countries have taken jumps, not nearly as many as was hoped earlier this century, but enough that we can keep the myth alive. Meanwhile first world companies outsource more and more, leading to a shrinking middle class in those first world countries. And the tradeoff is done in such a way that we don't even see it until it is to late, in fact we support it the whole way. Lower tech societies have always bled to provide the material for higher tech societies, and the trend continues there to. But the gospel of inevitable progress does not, and cannot, admit its casualties, or its failures.

I turn to the bible, looking to Jesus for an example, and realize that this is the place it all started. Memorizing parts of first John, doing a study of James, re-reading the sermon on the mount and the sermon on the plain, familiarizing myself with the old testament prophets, all this and more has led me to where I am now. Combine that with Wright's ability to put Jesus teachings right into the middle of Jesus own day, Thiselton's philosophical hermeneutic that has opened my eyes to the foreign horizon of the bible, Brueggemann's radical view of some Old Testament writings, and I was bound to get in trouble. Then let's read Richard Foster's "Freedom of Simplicity" and the last nail goes into the coffin of my private faith with a resounding bang.

Wealth and resources have never been equally distributed, and probably never will be... Except in the church in Acts. Greed, selfishness, and desire for power have always run the world, whether it was a Capitalistic system that is explicitly based on these (see Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations") or Communism which tried to deny them... Except in the life and call of Jesus, as well as some of his followers. All of our attempts to eliminate poverty, our gospel's of the inevitable progress of mankind, or of the saving efficacy of technology, have failed, and I wonder how long we will continue in our naivete? Perhaps we need to learn a lesson from Jesus, who as far as I can tell never tried to eliminate poverty. He tried to eliminate wealth.

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