Faith, Freedom, and Folly

“We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.” ― Stanley Hauerwas Reflecting on the Fourth of July, and in particular the way that the church has to often become a political prop of the state, these words from Hauerwas echoed in my head. Actually, a great deal of the book Resident Aliens were echoing through my head. We have become so tied up in the national identity that it is nearly impossible to distinguish the servant of God from the servant of Caesar.

Take, for example, Dr. James Dobson. He recently visited the border and spewed a lot of partisan talking points slamming those terrible liberals and praising Trump. The most disturbing part of his piece was likely the last paragraph. “Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it, and it could bankrupt the nation. America has been a wonderfully generous and caring country since its founding. That is our Christian nature. But in this instance, we have met a worldwide wave of poverty that will take us down if we don’t deal with it. And it won’t take long for the inevitable consequences to happen.”  (https://www.drjamesdobson.org/about/july-newsletter-2019) What then is the culture of a Christian? It is a fair question, especially as threatens it according to Dr. Dobson. Does this sound like a disciple that sees clearly the cost of discipleship and is willing to pay the cost? Doctor Dobson saw terrible human suffering and his solution, long term, is to support building a wall to keep that suffering out and away from us. This is not me confusing politics and faith, it is Dobson. Faith says that no matter the politics of a nation, when confronted with terrible human suffering, we alleviate it. Period. Full stop. The same Christ that fed thousands with a little is Lord and head of the church, and we have a lot more resources than He did. The solution is to find ways to alleviate the suffering, not ways to ensure we no longer have to see it. For those of you who think this is some sort of leftist rant, allow me to refer to Hauerwas again. “That which makes the church “radical” and forever “new” is not that the church tends to lean toward the left on most social issues, but rather that the church knows Jesus whereas the world does not. In the church’s view, the political left is not noticeably more interesting than the political right; both sides tend towards solutions that act as if the world has not ended and begun in Jesus.” ― Stanley Hauerwas  There is nothing in Dr. Dobson’s solutions to the situation at the border that resembles Jesus. Even though he expresses compassion for the plight of the people there, he is unwilling to do anything about it save for isolate him from it. That is not the message of Jesus. Not by a long shot. 

This Fourth of July, many people celebrate the military troops that serve. This year there will be a display of military power in the Washington D.C. celebration it seems. Again, let us refer to Hauerwas. “what good is a peace movement that works for peace for the same idolatrous reasons we build bombs—namely, the anxious self-interested protection of our world as it is? Christians are free to work for peace in a nonviolent, hopeful way because we already know something about the end. We do not argue that the bomb is the worst thing humanity can do to itself. We have already done the worst thing we could do when we hung God’s Son on a cross. We do not argue that we must do something about the bomb or else we shall obliterate our civilization, because God has already obliterated our civilization in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus.” Is it right that we celebrate the Pax Americana in the first place? It’s a question worth asking, especially our motivations in doing so. If Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace, and He stood in stark contradiction to the Pax Romana, does Christ not stand in contradiction to the Pax American as well? Never mind that there is not peace and tranquility in the world because of America, and the opposite may be true. “The Church really does not know what mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, Pilate permitted the killing of Jesus in order to secure both peace and justice (Roman style) in Judea.”  (Hauerwas) Sadly, many of our churches will celebrate the Pax Americana today.

On this Fourth of July, many of us will celebrate the freedom to assert and choose nearly whatever we like. Few of us will reflect on the horrible abuses that have resulted from it. A church that celebrates the freedoms that we enjoy as Americans without simultaneously teaching not only about the responsibility of choosing wisely, but also what choices are Godly, is contributing to the problem, and is only perpetuating the tyranny that personal desire brings. “Rather than helping us to judge our needs, to have the right needs which we exercise in right ways, our society becomes a vast supermarket of desire under the assumption that if we are free enough to assert and to choose whatever we want we can defer eternally the question of what needs are worth having and on what basis right choices are made. What we call “freedom” becomes the tyranny of our own desires.” Many churches today will celebrate the tyranny of personal desire when they think that they celebrate freedom.

“The church is not to be judged by how useful we are as a “supportive institution” and our clergy as members of a “helping profession”. The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor.”  Again Haeurwas is correct, and again he is ignored by entirely to many Christians and churches. When the church supports partisan agendas, embraces secular holidays, and focuses on political agendas, it may be a church, but it’s god is the state, not the Creator of the Universe. Many churches will celebrate their god today, but it will not be The One True God of the scriptures. As William H. Willimon put it, “The Bible’s concern is not if we shall believe but what we shall believe.”

As the charges of tribalism abound, the church, particularly in America, must reject such charges. “We reject the charge of tribalism, particularly from those whose theologies serve to buttress the most nefarious brand of tribalism of all—the omnipotent state. The church is the one political entity in our culture that is global, transnational, transcultural. Tribalism is not the church determined to serve God rather than Caesar. Tribalism is the United States of America, which sets up artificial boundaries and defends them with murderous intensity.”  We can not support earthly empire and at the same time support the Kingdom of God. Dual citizenship is a myth in the Kingdom. You serve God, or you serve Caesar. It is a celebration of freedom today, but so many do not feel free in this nation. “Free is not how many of our citizens feel—with our overstocked medicine cabinets, burglar alarms, vast ghettos, and drug culture. Eighteen hundred New Yorkers are murdered every year by their fellow citizens in a city whose police department is larger than the standing army of many nations. The adventure went sour.”  If you are celebrating without doing anything to eliminate the suffering of others that leads to bondage, if you are celebrating freedom without doing anything about spreading the message of freedom from sin and death that the gospel contains, then the woes to the pharisees are your burden to bear as well.

While many churches will celebrate freedom today, the church is not what she should be by and large, especially in America. The one freedom that we all should celebrate however is the freedom in Christ to transform our churches not into service industries, political props, and self help centers, but into the Bride without blemish that Christ desires. A good start is to form the church into what Hauerwas says she should be. “We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”

 

 

 

 

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