Monday, August 12, 2013

On Being A Radical Christian

From the intro to Radical Religion: Faith Without Works Is Dead. 
See the end of this entry for ordering information.

Radical Religion: On James
Even before he arrived, the story of Jesus was already revolutionary. From the wilderness beyond the borders of proper society, the voice of a crusty, dreadlocked, dumpster-diving, home-made leather wearing activist-prophet shouted the first declaration of a new king for whom the entire order of the world would change.


John the Baptist cries out from the wilderness.

"The Kingdom of God is here!"

So begins the gospel of Mark, the oldest of all the accounts of the life of Jesus, and the gospels of Matthew and Luke, both of which are inspired by Mark's account. All three introduce their story of Jesus as a "gospel", in the original Greek an "evangelion", from which we derive the English words "evangelist" and "evangelical". But when these books were written, this word did not have the religious meaning we give it today. It had a political one.

This strange orator, John, and Mark, the first author who wrote of him were both part of many indigenous groups in Europe and Asia in the first century experiencing colonization and occupation by the expanding Roman Empire. As this juggernaut of a political force moved across the landscape, it would send ahead of its colonists special ambassadors who would spread the evangelion (or the “gospel”, often paraphrased in English as "good news") in the form of a declaration that this region was now in the control of the Roman Empire.

"Caesar is Lord!” these bearers of the gospel of the empire would proclaim. And with each new emperor in succession afterward, these ambassadors would come and declare again. They reserved the word "gospel" for these declarations, because only this word contained the full meaning of world-altering, system-shattering, joyful-eruption-producing news necessary to truly communicate the highest laudation appropriate to the emperor of all the nations of the known developed world.

It is with this powerful word "evangelion", that Matthew, Mark, and Luke first describe the story of Jesus. In this introduction they place the first words of this proclamation in the mouth of an outsider, crying out from the wilderness of a new Kingdom.

That is radical. That is revolutionary.

"Repent!" he cries out. Prepare yourself for a big change, he warns. To repent means to change the way we live our lives. For those comfortable and happy with the ways of the empire as they were, as they are, such a word is an offense. But for those who have hoped all their lives for something more, this word is not a warning, but a joyful invitation.

Good news! There is a new Kingdom at hand! The world as we know it has drastically, radically changed! We're under new management! The laws are different now!

In Luke's declaration of this glorious gospel, John declares that this gospel will make the valleys high and the mountains low. Rulers will be brought down, and the low shall be exalted. In all three accounts, we are commanded to make straight paths for the coming of the new order that will turn everything back to justice.

This forerunner-prophet-evangelist who declared the great change in all the corrupt empire from bottom to top was compared to Elijah. Like John, Elijah also lived outside of the empire of his day, entering only to approach the wicked king with finger pointed boldly toward him. With wit and authority and unvarnished truth he would expose the king's wickedness, and call him to repent of his injustice toward the citizens and the oppressed foreigners in his empire. Both Elijah and John spoke truth to power in their day. Like Elijah before him, John, the first evangelist, was also found in the court of the king, boldly calling him out for his wickedness and hypocrisy before all the people. For this, by the king in power in his day, John was executed by beheading.

After Jesus' execution as an insurrectionist and vindication by resurrection, his followers would spread over the empire and continue the evangelism that John had begun.

"Repent!" they cried. "Believe the gospel!"

"Jesus is Lord!"

The first sermon preached at the formation of the first Christian church boldly declared that all class, gender, and culture barriers had been removed from those who would accept the Kingdom of God, or those who would declare it. Young and old, men and women, all ages could receive and preach the coming kingdom, no previous experience or qualifications required (Acts 2). The Kingdom of God would instead be planted in the centre of a person's very being, and dwell inside them as the living Holy Spirit of God. By this living Spirit, any and everyone could know the way of justice required of citizens of the Kingdom, and by the power of God's Spirit alive within them, they would be empowered to live as the Kingdom required. No imposition by any outside authority, no human mediator of any level of supposed holiness need ever again come between any person and a direct, personal connection with God, their redeemer and true King.

Peter preached from the ancient prophesies, the same ones that said a day would come when the law would no longer be imposed from without, but instead written on the hearts of humankind. He preached during the feast of Pentecost, the traditional religious celebration of the day God gave the first law at Sinai. He preached to a mixed multitude made up from every nation, separated significantly enough that they didn't even share a common language. The Holy Spirit that lived in these early proclaimers of the world-changing gospel empowered them to speak in the languages of everyone present, breaking down any walls between people that would separate them from one another in the new Kingdom, as every wall had already been removed from between each one of them and their true King.

The message and movement springing from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is necessarily radical. His execution as an insurrectionist by Roman Empire is alone enough to recognize that the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth was in direct opposition to the violent ruling powers of colonialism, imperialism, and power through fear. After living his life among and for the marginalized and the oppressed, his life was followed quickly by a fast growing group of community building radicals, living outside the mainstream in generous and just communities built on love. They shared all they had commonly, gave generously to the poor, and were willing to die as they followed the footsteps of their Messiah King.

Christians are called to be activists, actively living for a more just world, actively resisting the injustice of the powers of this age, because we are followers of Jesus. Being a Christian means we’ve accepted the Holy Spirit, the seed of the Kingdom of God planted into our hearts by faith in Jesus. We’ve been set free from sin, and set free to demonstrate the Kingdom of God here on earth, now. We participate in God’s work in the world. Sometimes, that will mean active resistance to the injustice in the world. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable.

     In the spirit of this exact sort of resistance I have often found myself in direct practical opposition to agents of unjust power. Through our small church’s efforts to know and support our neighbours and foster community in our neighbourhood, we came to know a mother and her son living on the same block where we gathered. We knew her story, that her ex-husband had been using manipulation and power games to abuse and oppress them. One of his methods was to manipulate the police with any excuse to convince them to search their home, harass her, or even have her arrested. She told us stories of abuses she’d received at the hands of some of these officers. So when I saw from the window of our church that a police car was parked in front of their house, I walked onto the sidewalk to observe and record what I saw. I walked up the sidewalk to the police car until I was close enough to touch it, stopped, pulled out my mobile device, and took notes. Though our neighbour was not home, I recorded extremely inappropriate and rude conversation between the officers as they walked to the door of the house and back to the car. They called the woman names, and joked crassly about what it was like to arrest her. All of it was loud enough that I could have heard it from the window of our church had I opened it, but they weren’t keeping their voices down even with me standing right there in front of them. Before they got into their cars, they approached me and demanded I answer some questions about our neighbour. With knees shaking, I refused, as was my right. They asked my name. I did not give it. I asked for their badge numbers, which they did give me. Six months later, my notes were used as evidence in a trial in which one of those officers lost their job for misconduct.

     I believe that this act of resistance was the right thing to do. More than that, I believe that it was a Christian thing to do, to resist oppression in solidarity with the oppressed. This is what it looks like to be a Jesus Follower.

Christian resistance looks different than the world. We are not rebels in our resistance. Rebellion is sin. This makes a very narrow path when we find ourselves needing to resist oppression. We resist, but we do so with honour and respect and submission to God’s authority. Jesus was not a punk or anarchist. Jesus is King of Kings. Therefore, we are not rebels. We are followers of the king, living in resistance to those “authorities” that rebel against his Just Kingdom.

We have a rich tradition of resistance in the history of the Church, and many throughout the world continue in resistance today. Not every Follower of Jesus has had the privilege of white, North American, 21st century Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a hero of mine, was a German theologian and pastor living in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. He actively resisted the Nazis within Germany, speaking out against the Nazis and even helping in an underground plot to have Hitler assassinated. He was executed shortly before the end of the war.

The most I’ve done is march against Nazis, and I wore a mask (which is now illegal in Canada, as of June, 2013). Twenty-four Nazi protestors took the public train from the South end of my city into the centre of town to hold a "White Pride" rally. On the same day, over two hundred people met in my neighbourhood to celebrate the UN "International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination". I was part of the second group. Upon hearing that the first group had been sighted, we took to the streets, literally stopping traffic as our mass moved toward the downtown core.

The couple dozen Nazis had only been able to demonstrate for a few minutes when our group arrived, causing them to flee back into the subway from whence they came. The police did not allow anyone from our antifascist group to follow the Nazis into their hole. For the next few hours, the handful of underground Nazis continued to ride back and forth under the city’s business section, occasionally coming up for a few minutes at a time before being sent back into the ground by the huge Antifa group like so many Whac-A-Moles. They never did get to have their rally without interruption.

We, however, got to have plenty of sunshine and exercise on a cool Spring day. Onlookers honked and cheered for us like a parade wherever we went. It's probably the best reception I've ever seen for a crew as punk and diverse and strange as ours. For the safety of my family, I masked up and disguised my appearance for this event. Choosing and then donning my full-coverage, all-black outfit in preparation for confronting Nazis made me feel like a superhero.

     I believe that it was right and good to be part of this demonstration, even in the face of potential violence at that event or the risk of targeted attention by Nazi gang members afterward. I believe that on that day, dressed all in black, I was demonstrating my faith. Should the need arise for another such demonstration in my city, I will join again. I will intentionally mask up again, just as I did last time, for the protection of me and my family, even though it is against the law.

These stories may seem extreme, but we can all choose to live differently than the stream of the majority culture that flows always in the direction of greed and selfishness. Maybe you’re able to start with how you spend money. We wear disposable clothes now, because we’ve made it normal to want to buy new clothes every few months. In doing so, we are complicit in the oppression of people on the other side of the world on both ends of our purchase. Many of our inexpensive clothes are made by slave labour. Once we wear them out (and we do wear them out, because they’re junk), we have nothing to donate to poor people in developing countries who have become dependent on our second hand clothing. This is a real, serious problem. Today’s clothes go to the third world as industrial rags, instead of as clothing for people who need them, because they don’t last. However, the politics of “ethical spending” can just as easily be nothing but a way to ease our conscience if it goes no further. Not everyone has the same privilege to easily decide where and how their money is spent. Living God’s Just Kingdom now goes beyond us. It is shared in community. We can get to know our neighbours. I recommend throwing a block party, and blessing everyone with a pot luck, sidewalk chalk, and fun music. As we get to know the needs of those around us, we can educate ourselves in how to organize alternative communities of justice (like churches, support groups, or unions) that can speak out in unity, a prophetic voice declaring the arrival of a new world.

     Like John the Baptist, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like the early Christians, like Jesus, we are invited to join a tradition of joyful, celebratory resistance that declares its praises to the one true King, and grows defiantly through the cracks of the old world as it crumbles down from the inside out.

Text taken from the introduction to Radical Religion: On James - Faith Without Works Is Dead by the Pirate Pastor.

To order the book, please email Payment can be received online through Paypal or Interac. Please send $10 Canadian plus adequate shipping (50 cents in Canada, or your own estimate for other destinations).

The next mailout for online purchases will be September 10, 2013.

The second two books in the Radical Christian series, Radical Pastor and Radical Freedom, are scheduled to be released before the end of the year.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

James 2:14-26 - Without Action, Our Faith Is Useless

James 2:14
What good is it, my brothers,
if someone says he has faith
but does not have works?
Can that faith save him?

         In James chapter 1, the writer challenges us to have integrity. If we claim to follow Jesus, our beliefs must be rightly matched to our actions and our speech. The path of faith in Jesus is a narrow one, walked humbly beside the most vulnerable, sharing in their resistance to oppression. If we are to do this well, we must be well disciplined to watch our speech and actions. Those who resist are watched closely. We dare not sabotage our witness to the truth of God’s justice. However, James’ description of faith manifest does not stop with integrity alone. In the second chapter of James, the writer goes much further, saying that faith that remains nothing but mental ascent, not demonstrated in speech or action, is actually not faith at all. The example of the uselessness of such invisible faith is also given in our relationship to the poor.

James 2:15-17
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

          This is the heart of radical religion. Jesus did not live and teach a new organized religion. Jesus demonstrated a new way to be human, the true way to be human, and this is the path that James is describing. To simply mentally ascend to a set of beliefs about Jesus, or to insist on endless discussions of theological minutia, and not demonstrate radical life change that seeks to restore the order of the world to justice and love is a perversion of all that Jesus represents. What a waste of time it is if we are seeking to tell the world all about Jesus only to invite them to warm a pew. The spirit of the slaughtered Saviour cries out for Christians to get off our butts, change out of our pretty clothes and get our hands dirty building communities of justice and love among the poor and oppressed. Some of us Christians need to be saved from church. We’re so easily certain that we’re the righteous chosen few that we often can’t be bothered to even learn our neighbour's names. How often do we find ourselves among the poor or marginalized? These are the very people with whom Jesus identifies.

          James gives two examples of outsiders in this passage that give better examples of faith in action than any shiny toothed pastor that would dare preach that the evidence of right belief is a rich, comfortable, or undisturbed life. The first example is of Abraham (James 2:21-24), who was an outsider until explicitly called by God in Genesis 12, a call to which Abraham demonstrated his faith by his obedience. God had promised Abraham that he and his wife would have an heir (Genesis 15:1-6). God specified that the first son born to the two of them, Isaac, would be that heir. So, when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son on an altar (Genesis 22:1-19), Abraham’s belief in God’s promise was tested. If Abraham’s belief was nothing but mental ascent, it would not lead to action (Hebrews 11:17-19). James tells us that it is because Abraham took action that his belief was actually faith. And thus, James divides the two. A stated belief that remains an exercise of the mind is meaningless. It is not faith. It has nothing to do with Jesus. When what we believe becomes demonstrated in our action, then and only then does it become faith (James 2:22). Such action that flows from faith in Jesus will always be costly, for it will be spent on justice for the very needy.

          The second and more dramatic example of an outsider demonstrating faith in action is the story of Rahab, the prostitute (James 2:25-26). Though she was not one of the religious faithful, ethnically descended from the family line of Abraham, or even morally righteous according to the religious law, James counts her story alone with Abraham, the father of faith, as his example of faith demonstrated. The example of Rahab is excellent also because it is a story of resistance (Joshua 2:1-21). Before Joshua’s army has their famous battle against the city of Jericho, two spies are sent into the city ahead of them. While there, they visit the home of Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute. She tells them that she believes that their God is the true one, and asks them for protection. Her words may have been meaningless but for when they were put to the test. When two agents of the authorities come to Rahab’s house, she hides the Israelite spies, and then lies to the soldiers in order to protect them. James says that this action, resistance to authority that would likely have been judged treasonous, was a righteous act of faith.

          Like Abraham and Rahab, our faith must  result in action. Faith without activation by measurable works is no faith at all. Hebrews 11 lists both Abraham and Rahab with a host of other examples of people of faith, every single one being an example of some action they took. Every example of faith is measurable. If we have no evidence that we believe something is true, it is not faith, it’s just mental ascent, and it is utterly useless. Faith doesn’t just go further than some mental ascent to a correct set of doctrines. Faith is in a different realm entirely.

On The Myth Of Certainty And The Christian Witness

I used to think agnostics were cowardly. I've changed my mind. "I don't know" is actually a very brave thing to say, and from it I think my Christian and atheist friends both have something to learn. “Believers" and "unbelievers" can both exist on a spectrum. Not every atheist is an "anti-theist". Not every Christian needs to be "certain". I think we do ourselves a disservice to demand certainty in realms of faith, and misunderstand one another when we assume it of others.

I also think that this is part of what James was talking about when he said "faith without works is dead". If someone must insist that they are 100% absolutely certain that an all loving redeemer God exists and knows them, and then lives a life that oppresses and abuses others, then that mental ascent means literally nothing, no matter how hard they try to prove otherwise to themselves or others. However, someone who is attracted enough to the story of Jesus Christ just to try in faith to live as though it is true, evidenced by their life lived in sacrificial solidarity with the poor, the widows, the orphans, the outsiders, immigrants, the oppressed, resisting corruption even to their own harm, I think this looks more like true "faith" than the certainty of the fundamentalist.

Christian apologists seek to defend our faith with reason. However, no reasonable foundation can protect against, for one example, the disillusionment created by the unchristlike behaviour found in the church. Church abuse is a far stronger argument against the gospel than problems arising from reasonable arguments against our faith.

Rather than seeking to defend the certainty of beliefs that cannot ever be empirically proven to be true, we should seek to display the truth of our faith in our actions. We don’t need to be afraid to admit some degree of uncertainty while continuing to believe and act upon our faith. I think this is more honest and rich a faith perspective than viciously defending all our assumptions as though they are certainties, as we often encourage one another to do in the church. This defensive position is a practice that comes from The Enlightenment's narrow new definition of truth, not from a true value in our tradition. Our just and loving actions speak far more loudly than our reasoned defenses.

I am not 100% certain about the gospel sometimes. Nevertheless, I hope that God continues to move me more toward a true reflection of Christ, in love and justice and mercy. And I will continue to act like this is so. This is my faith, my radical true religion in action. I will continue to live in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, boldly speaking up for justice when they do with wisdom and humility, and seeking to live my life sacrificially to see communities of love and justice grow, like lush gardens of hope in direct resistance to the machine of empire. I believe this is what it means to follow Jesus.

Click the image to read the entire series
This is the final entry in a series of blog posts that will soon be published as a book called "Radical Religion: Faith Without Works is Dead". This blog entry is made up of the gathered last paragraphs written during the books last reqrite. The book will be available on August 11, 2013, and can be ordered from this website.

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