A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Politics of Holiness and Hospitality: Can "Make America Great Again" Be a Christian Position?-- Jesus

In the first post I picked up on the Old Testament theme of Israel’s calling and witness for the sake of the world. It is not the only narrative thread that runs throughout the Old Testament. But what is critical for our purposes is that it is precisely this storyline that Jesus draws on for his ministry. Just like Jeremiah before him, Jesus will criticize his fellow Jews for failing to be a light to the nations, but first the context must be set in understanding what Jesus was doing when he called his twelve disciples.


That Jesus called twelve disciples was no accident. As Israel consisted of twelve tribes, so Jesus gathered around himself twelve men to take his message of his work to the world. It was a powerful symbolic act in which Jesus was making the extraordinary claim that in his ministry he was reconstituting the people of God and its mission of witness to the world. What Jesus was doing was much more than calling a few guys to save souls. He was announcing the revolutionary movement in which God was at last making good on his promise to secure deliverance for Israel and offer that same salvation to the Gentiles as well. The disciples were to be the light to the nations, to bear witness in word and in deed that the God of Israel was going to save the world. In calling twelve disciples, Jesus was not hitching his mission to any other earthly nation; he was creating his own. That nation would later be known as church.

Why did Jesus feel the need to reconstitute Israel in his own ministry? It was because he believed that his own people had failed to do so, and he blamed the religious leaders, the guardians of Israel’s covenant.

For Jesus, one of the biggest failings of his people was the decision not to reject violence but rather to utilize it as a tool in an attempt to bring in God’s Kingdom. Like Israel of old they had picked up the ways of the nations and thus became like all the other nations. Jesus insisted that God’s people could not be a light to the nations if they insisted on beating the nations over the head. On more than a few occasions, Jesus refused to be taken off and made king by the people in order to lead a revolt. For Jesus, the end did not justify the means; the true end of what God wanted for his people could not be achieved apart from a certain means. The world's ways of power and coercion were not to be the ways of the church. Tom Wright notes,
From [Jesus’] point of view, Israel at that time was making a pretty poor fist of being the light of the world. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries were hot-headed, zealous would-be revolutionaries. Was that the way the kingdom would come? Was that how to be the light of the world?... Jesus' answer was an unequivocal No (Wright, The Original Jesus, p. 49).
Thus, as Jesus seeks to remake the people of God through his followers, he is clear to them as to how they are to operate among themselves.
So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
Jesus’ words must be understood in their larger context. Jesus is offering more than a lesson on how the disciples should relate to one another within the operations of the church community. Our text also signifies the posture that the followers of Jesus must take as they fulfill the will of God in the world. Mark sets the context for this particular teaching of Jesus:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory" (Mark 10:35-37).
James and John are asking Jesus to put them in the two most powerful positions in God’s Kingdom-- after Jesus, of course. In effect, the two brothers want Jesus to appoint one of them as the Secretary of State and the other as the Secretary of the Treasury. They are thinking of the exercise of power in terms of how all the other nations exercise power. They assume that God’s Kingdom will operate accordingly as well. In other words, the Kingdom context of this particular teaching in Mark 10 means that Jesus is not only giving his disciples instructions on how to behave toward one another as they live as God’s people, but the posture they are to take toward the world as they bear witness to God’s Kingdom.

Jesus, of course, embodies the Kingdom mode of operation throughout his ministry, even refusing to employ the methods of the nations in order to save himself from the horror of the cross. Indeed, Jesus' cross and resurrection revealed the power of the politics of witness over the power politics of the nations.

The late John Howard Yoder states, in what has become a classic passage in many Christian circles:
But the answer given to the question by the series of visions and their hymns [in the Book of Revelation] is not the standard answer. "The lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power!" John is here saying, not as an inscrutable paradox but as a meaningful affirmation, that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history. The key to the obedience of God's people is not their effectiveness, but their patience (13:10). The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and other kinds of power in every human conflict; the triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God's people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection. (John Howard Yoder: The Politics of Jesus 238.)
The central point is clear: the cross of Christ is not only what God has done for the world, but it is also the model of how Jesus' people are to be in the world. When Christians emphasize only the former, they remove the cross as the central focal point of Christian ethics. The cross is that standard for the nation called church, which is why when any individual Christian or any congregation hitches their future to making any nation (America or Canada or Germany or...) great again, they are guilty of doing just what the prophets of the Old Testament condemned and what Jesus could not tolerate of his own people Israel... so much so... he reconstituted a new people, a new nation in his ministry. In making any earthly nation great again, Christians are attempting to undo what Jesus started two thousand years ago; and they are engaged in a losing struggle against their Savior because Jesus himself reminds us that the gates of Hell will never prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18).

Jesus' new nation was a people where one's race made no difference. Jesus was clearly welcoming of the outsiders during his ministry-- Samaritans, Romans, and all Gentiles. God's people had sadly embraced stereotypes of "those people" and Jesus told parables and reached out to "those people" in order to counter such caricatures. Once again, the holiness of God's people is inextricably tied to their hospitality toward even the enemy, which is the main point of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

There is no doubt Jesus would do the same today with Mexicans, Syrians, Egyptians, Iranians and all those who are viewed with disdain; and his words to his followers who have embraced such stereotypes would be quite harsh. The Good Samaritan would become Mexican, the Roman Centurion would be the captain in the Iranian army, and the healing of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman would be the child of the Syrian refugee fleeing her war-torn homeland.

After Jesus' ministry Paul, the greatest Christian theologian in church history will explicate in more detail this new humanity in writing to his churches. That is the subject of the next post.

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