Posts Tagged 'Jesus'

So this is Christmas (War is Not Over)

Today is one of the days in the church calendar that I most appreciate – the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. During the 12 days of  Christmas, there is a day to remember that the birth of the Prince of Peace threatened the Roman Empire so much that it resorted immediately to the tool that marks every empire – violence. With a lust for power and control, King Herod ushered a decree that baby boys under the age of two be massacred, in hopes of killing the one who was deemed to be the true King. It was a state-sponsored infanticide, thousands were murdered, and the Holy Family fled as refugees.

As I’m writing this my nieces and nephews are squealing with delight as they run around and play with each other. The two youngest are under two years of age, and I cannot imagine the horror of an army coming around and murdering them in cold blood. (Later,  at the dinner table, I was discussing this article, and my dad asked why the “Holy Innocents” are so “Holy”. My 9 year old nephew wondered if it was because being holy is being set apart for God, and these infants died instead of Jesus, so they were set apart in heaven. Genius.)

My appreciation of this awful day might seem a little masochistic, but after the peace and beauty and joy that we’re all supposed to feel at Christmas (and I do often feel and love these things), I like being thrown back into the reality that for most people in the world, life is completely cruel and marked mostly by suffering. Because it’s authentic.

As I speak, violence is rising in the South Sudan and the newly formed country is quickly deteriorating – with hundreds of innocents slaughtered in the past two weeks and a friend of mine having to evacuate the country.

Sudan People's Liberation Army soldiers drive in a truck in Juba, Wouth Sudan, December 21, 2013.

Sudan People’s Liberation Army soldiers drive in a truck in Juba, Wouth Sudan, December 21, 2013.

The number of Syrian refugees continues to rise well over the million-mark.

Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border.

Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border.

Disaster is still wide-spread in the Philippines after the horrendous typhoon.

Children hold signs asking for help and food along the highway, after Typhoon Haiyan hit Tabogon town in The Philippines

Children hold signs asking for help and food along the highway, after Typhoon Haiyan hit Tabogon town in The Philippines

The empire of globalized capitalism consumes its slave-labour victims year by year.

Clothing garment factory in Bangladesh deemed "slave labour" "Against God" by Pope Francis

Clothing garment factory in Bangladesh deemed “slave labour” “Against God” by Pope Francis

In my own country of Canada, First Nations people were ruthlessly slaughtered and are still being perpetually thrown aside on their own land, their “reserves” more like majority-world countries, and their commitment to stewarding their land well by resisting the oil pipeline pushed by the settler state is ignored.

Charles Heit, a Gitxsan First Nation member opposed to the $5.5-billion Enbridge oil pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia port of Kitimat warms himself beside a fire at a camp outside the Gitxsan Treaty Office in Hazelton, B.C., on Thursday January 12, 2012.

Charles Heit, a Gitxsan First Nation member opposed to the $5.5-billion Enbridge oil pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia port of Kitimat warms himself beside a fire at a camp outside the Gitxsan Treaty Office in Hazelton, B.C., on Thursday January 12, 2012.

This day provides the opportunity to cut out all of the bullshit that sometimes comes with Christmas – the other-worldly angelic joy, the commercialism of it all, the pretending that Christmas has saved us all – because it hasn’t…yet.

The Massacre was the introduction of what Christ was up against in his lifetime, and it is what we are up against in ours. For Christ there was a violent empire that when challenged, would not hesitate to kill and destroy all in its path, and the same is true for us. The penalty for following this Prince of Peace into the darkness and the suffering will ultimately threaten the empires that rule today (if we are doing it right), and hell hath no fury like a threatened empire.

So what to do?

As Anne Lamott says in her new book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, “we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering.” She continues,  “we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross [like Mary], and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us….To be honest, that sucks. It’s the worst, even if you are the mother of God.”

Presence and solidarity with those who are suffering, without any cute platitudes like “God’s plan is perfect” — which only makes things worse — is hard, but it’s so essential and a good place to start.

But then what? Lamott continues

Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it. We clean up beaches after oil spills. We rebuild towns after hurricanes and tornados. We return calls and library books. We get people water. Some of us even pray. Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice. The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope. The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbour, organize an overseas clothing drive, and do your laundry…we live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky.

Or, we can do something equally dramatic, and go be present with those most suffering in our world, and work with and for them in whatever way you are gifted and able.

For as my seminary professor of Ethics of Wealth and Poverty once said, every act of social justice (or simple kindness, in my opinion) is a foretaste and foreshadowing of the coming Kingdom of justice, peace, and flourishing for all.

So today, we remember. We educate ourselves, and others. We lament. We are present with the suffering. We get stitchin’.

But first, we let go of all of our sadness and meager attempts to God. From the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Amen.

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Solidarity, Resistance, and Liberation: Why Christians Should Occupy

This article was originally written for the Et Cetera, the newspaper of the Christian graduate school I attend here in Vancouver, Regent College. I was responding to an article entitled “Why I Will Not Occupy Vancouver” written by a friend of mine, where her concerns about the movement were outlined: the protesters are costing taxpayers too much money, the movement is too complex and confusing, and those involved should do something more useful like “occupy a job” and/or volunteer at a soup kitchen or teach literacy to kids. This is my response.

I would like to begin by thanking my friend BJ Bruder for her article last week that outlined why she would not Occupy Vancouver. On one level, I can identify with her frustration that the movement seems to be so complex and confusing that it is hard to pinpoint the purpose and “effectiveness” of the protest. I can also understand her suspicion that some of the protesters seem to be members of a privileged class who have the luxury of not having to work in order to camp out downtown for days at a time. How would it be justifiable that a student of privilege would protest the economic system that benefited his or her own wealthy family? This is a good question worth considering.

Her article presents an opportunity to consider an answer to this and other good questions. What exactly is this movement about? What is the purpose of a protest? Should Christians protest? If so, why?  If not, is charity work a better use of one’s time? Why or why not? Could there be good reasons why “able-bodied” or “privileged” people would join the Occupy Movement other than that they nothing better to do?

Starting with the last question, I would like to answer yes. There are three reasons I can think of, and they happen to be the title of a Regent course I took last summer: “Solidarity, Resistance, and Liberation: The Way of God in the World” taught by Dave Diewert in the Downtown Eastside.

First, Solidarity. As Christians we are called to not only think of ourselves, but to stand alongside those who are weak, suffering, and outcast. In the incarnation, God chose to leave behind his place of comfort and privilege and be born as a poor, homeless refugee in order to stand alongside those who were poor, broken, and oppressed. Moses chose to leave behind his life of luxury in Pharoah’s palace and act in solidarity with his people who were enslaved – though granted the violence was not the best means. Still, he chose not to ignore the Hebrew’s plight of slavery, and when God called him from the burning bush, he returned to his own people to liberate them from oppression in Egypt. Paul cast off his life of privilege–enjoying comfort as a Roman citizen–in order to suffer persecution with his fellow Christians. The Occupy Movement is a chance for all people–including those who are privileged–to stand alongside those who are the worst victims of economic and political policies that put the power in the hands of banks and multinational corporations while essentially eroding true democracy.

For BJ to suggest that the “privileged” protesters should “occupy a job” merely buys into the core problem that is being protested. The sentiment betrays the notion that “for a person to be of any value, they have to be economically productive citizens. They need to contribute to the economy, to the bottom line, to what makes our society tick” writes Andrew Stephens-Rennie on his blog Empire Remixed. He goes on, “And yet. And yet, isn’t this precisely the point? Isn’t it precisely the point of these protests that our government, banks and major corporations have crucified human dignity with their unwavering emphasis on an economic bottom line ignorant of human suffering?” God calls us to be more than economically productive, he calls us to love. My friends Dan and Trista, who both have jobs and are part of Occupy Vancouver, have chosen to work less and live in community, sharing many assets in common with others, so that they can spend more time and resources being active in their wider communities. They work in solidarity with those who are suffering in order to dream up and live into another way of being.

Second, Resistance. As evangelicals, it is easy for us to only think of resisting evil in terms of personal morality. We must resist the temptation to lie, gossip, judge others, and view pornography. All these things are necessary to do, for they can be destructive to both ourselves personally and to our communities. However, thinking of morality in these ways alone betrays a radical individualism that stems from a modernist way of being in the world, and is deeply unbiblical. In Scripture, we see the prophets repeatedly condemn Israel for structural evil and national immorality. Israel, as a nation, broke the covenant, oppressed the poor, and ignored the practices of jubilee. The Occupy Movement brings to our attention the structural sin of our global economy – a system that benefits the wealthy minority (the 1%), giving them power to make decisions that negatively affect the majority (the 99%). We must prophetically resist the systems and structures of power that dehumanize and oppress. God brought Israel out of Egypt, a economic powerhouse dependent on human slavery, and into a new way of being in the world, based on principles of equality, jubilee, and shalom for all people. We too are to resist Empires of injustice and live into another way of being, based on Kingdom principles of justice, compassion, and love.

BJ has argued that it might be more useful for people to volunteer, doing positive things like teaching literacy or working at a soup kitchen. While these are acts of mercy, they are only band-aid solutions and do not address the core issues that create illiteracy or homelessness. As Christians we are called act justly, which is about working for social change. It’s like coming across wounded people at the bottom of a cliff and working only to tend to their wounds, while more and more people are falling off the cliff. You can set up a hospital and bring in more doctors, which would be good acts of mercy. But eventually someone must go up to the top of the cliff and find out who or what is causing the people to fall off the cliff! This is the difference between charity and justice. Charity would be following BJ’s suggestion of working at a soup kitchen. But soup kitchens have been around for thousands of years, and nothing has changed. The Occupy Movement (along with community development-based initiatives like Jacob’s Well and Just Potters) –  is about addressing the core problems with our society that cause people to need soup hand-outs in the first place, and giving them some dignity by working together with them for lasting social change.

Which brings me to my third reason, Liberation. Brian Walsh, author of Colossians Remixed and Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in an Age of Displacement, said this weekend at the Beyond Homelessness: The Church and Affordable Housing Forum, that as a society, we need a better story that the one we have been living for the past couple hundred years. The story of neo-liberal capitalism is essentially mean-spirited, radically individualistic, and has obviously not worked to “lift all boats” as its proponents promised it would. We need a story that is centered around bringing all people home – that is, to a place of belonging, relationship with God and others, and access to the resources all need to be involved in home-making. Our society, centered around the idol of the American Dream, has essentially rendered many people homeless, and not only physically. Many who have physical houses to live in are homeless in the sense that they feel isolated, depressed, overworked, and feel no attachment or responsibility to the place they live in and the people who live there. They long for something more. They long for a sense of home.

As Christians, we are to live into a different story, a home-making story. The story that started with the great home-breaking of all time (Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden, and out of right relationship with God and each other), and ends with the greatest home-coming of all time (reconciliation with God, others, and all of creation). Through this story, we are called to be people who embody home-making, by building community with our neighbours, by caring for our creational home and a specific place within it, and by finding our true sense of belonging and home in God. This includes justice, for as Brian Walsh said, “justice is a society where home-making is possible for all.” This is true liberation, and this can be our reason, as Christians, for participating in the Occupy Movement. It is a chance for people to get together and dream, and talk, and believe that another world, another way of being, is possible.

Sound too idealistic? It can never happen? That’s what the cynics said about the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, or the Apartheid movement led by Desmond Tutu, or the Independence Movement in India led by Ghandi. I believe that we don’t have to settle for the ways things are. I believe in social change, and not only so that we can see God’s kingdom, as we pray, “on earth as it is in heaven,” but also as an act of eschatological hope. Every act of social justice is an anticipation, a foretaste, of the truly just future that is to come. A future in the New Heavens and New Earth where there will be no more tears, poverty, or oppression, but enough resources, community, and love for all.

I would like to extend an invitation to BJ and all others who would like to me to go down to the Occupy Vancouver site this weekend. Perhaps by actually meeting the people who are acting in solidarity and resistance for the purpose of liberation, we too will be inspired to dream up a new way of being in the world. Come with us, those who are curious, those who are cynical, those who are tired, those who long for another way. Come as an act of eschatological hope.

Searching For Don Knows What

At the risk of sounding like a hipster, I liked Donald Miller before he was famous, and now––thanks to my friend Amy––I fear he’s selling out.

First, my true-blue-fan cred: I met him 3 years before Blue Like Jazz was published. Great guy. He came to speak at a Summit College reunion at my childhood camp in Huntsville, Ontario (Summit was a one year outdoor adventure/Bible/leadership program that I did after high school). I liked his talk so much––about how we carry around needless baggage like giant rocks in our hiking packs (a talk well suited for us outdoorsy folk)––that I bought his first book called Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance (later released as Through Painted Deserts). As I read though this journal about his road trip from Texas to Oregon in a broken-down VW van, I remember thinking this guy is wonderful. He had such a unique, laugh-out-loud funny, comforting voice, and told so many great stories, that I was sad when it was finished. I later I lent it to a boy I liked, trying to impress him with the fact that I read cool stuff, and never got it back. Which sucks because in addition to being a great story, that first cover was way better than the re-published one.

I was ecstatic when Blue Like Jazz came out 3 years later and gobbled down every delicious, witty, insightful morsel. Continue reading ‘Searching For Don Knows What’

God as Mother: Julian of Norwich and Our Language for God

The following is a paper that I wrote for my Christian Thought and Culture class at Regent College. It was a challenging and rewarding topic to research. And my prof, Iain Provan, liked it – enough to give me an A! 🙂 Although he was not completely convinced by my argument. Hmmm, what do you think??

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‘Who is like Yahweh’…judge, king, warrior, father!
‘There is none like Yahweh’…artist, gardener, doctor, mother, shepherd!
There is none like Yahweh, who lives inside a rich, open, generative rhetoric, whose character arises from daily life, and who refers back to daily life in governing and sustaining ways. (1) -Walter Brueggemann

All language we use for God is analogous and inadequate; there is no perfect metaphor that would sufficiently capture all there is to know about the multi-faceted nature of our indescribable God. In addition, language is not static; it has morphed over time to reflect changing culture. Because God uses our own language to communicate something to us, God naturally accommodates God’s ways and ideas to use language and images that we are familiar with within the limits of our particular culture and place in history.(2)  In this paper I would like to focus on this latter aspect of the language we use for God: accommodation. I will argue that just as God chose to accommodate to a less-than-ideal patriarchal Hebrew society by revealing Godself using masculine imagery and language, God also chose to accommodate to certain 14th century medieval concepts of motherhood and medical physiology to reveal Godself, using maternal imagery and language, to the English mystic Julian of Norwich. Julian’s portrayal of God as Mother should then serve as an example to contemporary Christ-followers that as culture and language morphs over time, for better or worse, God will continue to accommodate to our own cultural perceptions in order to meet us where we are at. Some will argue that this issue raises several concerns, including whether or not we are permitted to ‘invent’ language for God, and while I am sympathetic to them, I believe they are unwarranted and can be eased by a deeper understanding of the nature and purpose of our language for God and its relationship to changing cultural contexts. Continue reading ‘God as Mother: Julian of Norwich and Our Language for God’

Subversive Sexuality: Why Sexual Sin is a Social Justice Issue

“Recently, the younger generation in the Church has been so focused on issues of social justice – poverty, inequality, oppression  – that it has forgotten the dangers and damages of sexual sin.” –  Iain Provan, Old Testament prof, Regent College

At first this statement offended me. I was sitting in a lunch-time open lecture on Old Testament ethics, and I remember thinking that the wider Church, as I have witnessed it, has NOT been focusing on issues of social justice as much as it should. And how could such a personal, behind-the-doors choice like ‘sexual sin’ – whatever that entails – possibly be as dangerous and damaging as forgetting the poor?

I was raised in a church whose youth group stressed the dangers of ‘sex, alcohol, and partying’ and totally neglected teaching me that being a follower of Christ was more about living a radically alternative lifestyle to that of our dominant culture – a life of community, simplicity, compassion for the weak and marginalized, and fighting against the injustice in our world.

But I’ve learned since my youth group days that there are WAY more Scriptures that talk about poverty and injustice than sex and alcohol. Jesus himself said that he would separate the true followers from the false ones by how they treat “the least of these” (Matthew 25). Continue reading ‘Subversive Sexuality: Why Sexual Sin is a Social Justice Issue’

The Empire is Among Us (and Jesus is Luke Skywalker?)


“What the hell is ‘The Empire’?” I kept asking myself and my friends, bewildered after every Theology of Culture class with Brian Walsh this past September. He mentioned it in nearly every class, saying it had “captivated the West’s imaginations” and we all needed to “subvert” it. I was incredibly confused. After making the same “Like does he think it will strike back??”  lame attempt at a joke with each friend, we’d then get into a passionate discussion, trying to decipher what he meant. It’s “the Man” that is begging to be damned, it’s “the Machine” that is to be raged against, it’s “the Matrix” that is to be decoded and exposed. Or as my roommate Rob (who has worked with B. Walsh for years) would say with a half smirk, “hehehe, good question. I don’t even think he knows anymore.” While I knew intrinsically that I would be inspired if I could sort out in my brain all that I was learning about this new (to me) approach to interpreting the Scriptures, I was too afraid to ask such a simple question to my professor. He seemed to assume we all knew just what he meant when referring to this culturally packed word. After sheepishly gathering up the tiniest amount of courage, I asked him what it was, and received a rather brilliant, enlightening explanation. All which made perfect sense for a whole 3 hours, until I fell asleep, thinking giddily to myself “Jen, you should totally write this down! You get it!” The next morning, when I tried to explain to my counselor that I’d had a breakdown-turned-breakthrough, all I could enthusiastically spurt out was some mumble jumble about “the powers that be” and “not flying away to heaven.” Feeling somewhat defeated, yet utterly resolved to sort this out for my own personal sanity, I spent several hours on the website Empire Remixed, which, for the purpose of this assignment [for B. Walsh], I’ve decided to review as a cultural product.  Hopefully, by the end of this paper, and yet another frantic phone call to my classmate Dave Krause (who has been claiming repeatedly than B. Walsh is his best friend), I will have this all figured out.

According to Andy Crouch in his book Culture Making, a good way to learn about a culture (like ours, circa 2009) is to ask five questions of a cultural product it creates (such as Empire Remixed). The first question is, “What does this cultural product assume about the way the world is?” First, the website Empire Remixed assumes by its very medium that there’s a certain demographic of people, largely located in the West, that seek information through a networking of computers called the “internet.” People pay for access to this pool of information and are able thereafter freely post and respond to ideas. By the content of the ideas on Empire Remixed, one would assume that its creators believe that there’s an empire that is currently in power, that it’s distorting reality and controlling the masses, and that it needs to be rethought, reverted, and ultimately redeemed. The creators of the website are thus warning others who are reading their ideas about the dangers of this empire and are posing an alternative to being subject to it. However, freedom of speech is very present in this culture, even though it is supposedly under the rule of some evil empire! So what exactly is the nature of “The Empire”?

Well, an empire is, according to Wikipedia (another internet-based information source – obviously revealing the fact that I’m currently writing within the same culture), “a strong, centrally-controlled nation-state” but it can also refer to “a large-scale business enterprise (i.e. a transnational corporation) and a political organization of either national-, regional-, or city scale, controlled either by a person (a political boss) or a group authority (political bosses).” So, “The Empire” is essentially made up of several power systems and structures (political, economic, cultural and/or social) that are dominant in our world today. This would include (but is not be limited to), Western-style capitalism that creates all sorts of global injustice, the ideology of consumerism, the politics of greed, corruption and power, the destruction of the environment, and the media that portrays these systems as natural, woman as objects, and sex as merely a commodity.

According to the creators of Empire Remixed, the nature and ways of The Empire are diametrically opposed to the nature and ways of God, the Creator of the World. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, are taken captive several times, and live in exile under the rule of either the Babylonian, Syrian, or Roman Empires (or others). The Israelites, commanded by God to live a distinct life that would separate them from the surrounding peoples, lived in exile under the control of the Babylonians, Syrians, or Romans (plus others). All empires not only had political and economic control over the Israelites, but they influenced their way of thinking, worshiping, and essentially their very identity. They became idolatrous, greedy, and conformed to the destructive mindsets and practices of their captors. They became people of the empire. The prophets, over and over throughout the centuries, came to call the Israelites to repent for taking on the idols and practices of the empires, and to remind them of their true identity, that they are the people of God.  According to Brian Walsh, when Jesus came, his entire life was lived in subversion to the Roman Empire, pointing the Israelites to reclaim their true identity and place in the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom turns the power structure of the empire on its head, by proclaiming that those who want to be first must be a servant of all, and that love, mercy, and justice should take the place of idolatry, greed, and oppression. By dying on a cross, the execution style used to maintain pax Romana, Jesus humbly surrendered his life to the violence of the Empire. But through his resurrection, he ultimately defeated the power of the Empire, ushering in a new era of everlasting peace and rule of a new empire – the Kingdom of God. He thus opened up possibilities for all to out their true identities, as the reconciled people of God, devoted to Kingdom principles.

According to Empire Remixed, there are many parallels that can be made between the Israelites who lived in exile, struggling to live as the People of God while under the powerful influence of the Empire, and modern Christians who currently live in a society that is controlled by the unjust practices and destructive, identity-distorting messages of globalized capitalism. During an interview with Empire Remixed in May 2006, N.T. Wright said that, “the Western economic structures, mostly located in, or based in, or at least in cahoots with the United States, have actually achieved without territorial conquest the same kind of hegemony over the rest of the world that in past days people achieved through precisely territorial conquest.” This is a rule that depends on greed, cut-throat competition, and oppression of the poor in order to maintain power that is held by a miniscule minority. Its rule depends on its subjects to buy into consumerism, the myth of progress, and selfish individualism in order to preserve pax Americana. It’s a rule pervades every area of people’s lives, threatening to steal their loyalties away from the one true Lord of the World, Jesus, and the one rightful empire – The Kingdom of God. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

Thus, The Empire needs to be “remixed.” Andy Crouch’s second question to ask of a cultural product is, “What does it assume about the way the world should be?” First, the website assumes that Christ-followers should have an alternative to blindly following the ways of The Empire. There is a better way, and it starts by “remixing” the elements of the old way. In choosing the word “remixed”, the creators of the website also assume that it’s readers will understand the reference to the widely practiced technique of remixing music. To remix music is to change up the different elements of a song – to hear it again with a totally different perspective, a sought after “new and improved” version of the old. So, “remixing” the Empire is taking its elements, its distorted and dehumanizing mindsets and practices, and turning them on their heads. How does this look, practically speaking? A litany written by creators of Empire Remixed called “Amidst the Powers – A Benediction,” beautifully suggests that we should “dethrone the powers by redeeming them.” What does this look like in everyday life? The litany goes on:

If the powers render you homeless, build homes.
If the powers reduce sexuality to a commodity, enter into faithful covenant.
If the powers rob you of your children, then take them back.
If the powers create domination, then embrace sacrifice.
If the powers despoil creation, then plant a garden.
If the powers take away your wealth, then give away freely.
All of this is ‘kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.’

Thus, Christians should be continually subverting the Empire by starting with an element it throws at them, “remixing it,” and redeeming it by living out it’s intended Kingdom purpose. To remix the element of homelessness, therefore, is to build homes. To remix the destruction of creation is to plant a garden. To remix greed is to be generous, to remix consumerism is to live simply, to remix selfish individualism is to love and serve your neighbor. All of this is, “kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight,” a reference to the lyrics of Bruce Cockburn. In referring to the musician, the website also assumes that prophetic voices can be heard through modern musicians. Thus, God is still speaking today – giving the same old message, granted – but using contemporary artists as a medium to reach a new generation.

The third question to ask of a cultural product is, “What does it make possible?” Empire Remixed makes it possible for thousands of people, in 94 countries across the world (as of Oct. 11, 2009), to have access to (what it’s creators believe) is an alternative, prophetic vision of the world as it should be, as lived under the authority of Jesus. The subtitle of the website is “rethinking everything,” and that it attempts to do. The website contains articles written by several different contributors that journal their struggle to understand how to think about and live out the Kingdom of God in their current cultural context. There are many personal entries about the writers’ thoughts on conducting relevant ministry, Christianity and homosexuality, speaking the truth, the gender of God, depression and suicide, the economy, simple living, social justice, current issues in the news, and the modern prophetic voices of various musicians, authors, and artists, just to name a few topics. But there aren’t only articles. The creators of Empire Remixed have hosted events that have given flesh to their ideas and conversations. Author and theologian N.T. Wright was invited to speak, play music, and dance with (maybe?) all who were willing to crowd into a Toronto nightclub for the opportunity to be inspired by his ideas and engage him in conversation. Activist and author Shane Claiborne, founder of the Simple Way, was also invited to speak about what it means to radically live out the Kingdom of God among the least of these in our society. Other musicians and, including Martyn Joseph and Marva Dawn, have all been invited to play and speak, all contributing to the ongoing discussion about how exactly to “remix the Empire.”

The fourth question to be asked of a cultural product is, “What does it make impossible (or difficult)?” First, Empire Remixed makes it difficult for the uneducated in the ways of “empire talk” to understand what they mean by “The Empire!” No where on the site is there a clear and concise definition or explanation, and any reference to empire is extremely, extremely vague. While writing this paper, I asked several people who know of the site what they thought the definition of “empire” was, and I got very different answers (see the first paragraph again). Even Dave Krause, one of the contributors to the site, couldn’t explain it without going on for an hour! (I finally gave him a pen and told him to write it down in 5 minutes or less, and he still took 15!) For a group of people that are concerned about the majority of political and economic power being held by the top 1%, it is ironic that one must have access to a certain small number of books and theories (mostly written in English and published in academic circles) in order to be enlightened enough to be able to understand the true nature of the world’s invisible exile.

Granted, essentially the idea of empire is as old as the scriptures, but in the circles I grew up in, we were talking about it using different language. I’ve been hearing all my life to “love not the world, nor the things in the world. For if any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15). “The world” was always explained to me as the mindsets, practices, and ideologies that set itself up against the Kingdom of God. I was taught to thus not be selfish, jealous, or unkind, but instead to have the “love of the Father in me” which would mean being selfless, content with what I had, and caring to my neighbors. However, the language of “the world” has lost its meaning to me in the last few years, and to a culture that is also sick of clichéd religious jargon, a new spin (a remix, if you will) on an old concept might not be a bad idea. Thus, Empire Remixed makes it difficult for religious folk to use the same old language without become irrelevant to the culture around them.

The last question to be asked of a cultural product is, “What new forms of culture are created in response to it?” Empire Remixed has sparked many discussions, both on and off the Internet, about how exactly a Christian is to think, live, and follow Jesus in our current cultural context. There have been discussions surrounding the nature of The Empire (like this paper, for instance), negative impacts it has had on the world, and how exactly we are to go on, worshiping the Redeemer and actively participating in the redemption of all creation. The events hosted by Empire Remixed that has included lectures, discussions, music, art, and food, all in the context of a community, have also been created in response to it, all as attempts to “kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”

Empire Remixed is definitely a product of our times. In a prophetic voice and through the accessible medium of the internet, the contributors describe reality as they see it (we are living in an age where the complex web of power structures have captured our imaginations and distorted our very identity), warn all of the dangers and distortions of this reality (consumerism, individualism, injustice and the commodification of sex, etc., will destroy you and the world) and offer a hopeful alternatives as followers of Jesus (Remix the Empire! Live redemptively. Know that your identity rests in being people of God). The website opens up possibilities of “rethinking everything” and allowing thousands of people from across the globe access to the discussion. Although its precise explanations of empire are vague, the ideas it publishes are refreshing, enlightening, and just plain inspiring. Which is a heck of a lot more than I can say for the fifth episode of Star Wars.

(This was my first assignment for my *Theology of Culture* class, written last September. It’s funny to look back now, I’ve learned so much and have taken two more classes with the same prof, Brian Walsh. Hands down the man is brilliant, and continues to inspire, confuse, and challenge me to this day. Oh – and I got an A!)

Sabbath Economics: Becoming Human in a Progress-Driven Age, Part III – Jesus, Jubilee (Debt Cancellation and Redistribution) and Everyday Practices

Jesus and Jubilee

(See Part II for an expanded definition of “Jubilee”)

It was the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, in his classic work The Politics of Jesus who pointed out that Jesus was at his core a Jubilee practitioner.(1)  Luke’s gospel is organized around Jesus’ proclamation of “good news for the poor” (Luke 7:22, see 14:13, 21). What could be better news for real poor people than debt cancellation and land restoration? Likewise, a Jubilee gospel is usually bad news for the wealthy (as the Magnificat’s proclamation that God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53, see Mark 10:22). Though the evidence goes far beyond these texts. Sabbath economic principles lay at the heart of his call to discipleship and his ministry, and was at the centre of his conflict with the religious leaders.(2)

At the heart of Jesus call to discipleship was the command, “leave and follow” (Mark 1:18-20, Luke 5:28). Both Levi and Zaccheaus were expected to leave behind their oppressive economic ways in order to embrace Jubilee liberation through redistribution. Jesus promises that whoever leaves “house or family or fields” (the symbols of the basic agrarian economy: site of consumption, labor force, site of production) will receive the same back “hundredfold” (Mark 10:29-30). Discipleship meant leaving behind the seduction and oppression of the debt system for an economy of enough for everyone. In this new economy, which Jesus calls the “Kingdom,” there are no rich and no poor, as the rich by definition “cannot enter” it (Mark 10:23-25). His radical restructuring was based on a downward mobility, where the “first shall be last, and the last shall be first” (Mark 10:31) which was at it’s heart a Jubilee ultimatum.(3)

Jesus also displayed this new Jubilee-centered economy of grace as the one who had authority to forgive sins, or debts. Although “sin” (hamartia) and “debt” (opheileema) are different words in the Greek, there are several indications of their semantic and social equivalence. The Lord’s Prayer according to Luke says “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). Also, throughout the New Testament the same verb (aphiemi) is used to “forgive” sin and “release” from debt. We see this correlation in Luke’s version of the story of the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus prefaces his forgiveness of the woman’s sins with an object lesson about a creditor that forgave debt (Luke 7:41-43). Matthew makes the same connection with Jesus’ exhortation to forgive sins “seventy times seven” – a clear illusion to the Jubilee “seven times seven” of Leviticus 25:8.  (4)

Jesus also asserted his authority to interpret the true Sabbath practice as one that humanizes us in a world where so much of our socioeconomic practices are dehumanizing. When Jesus instructed his disciples to help themselves to field produce, the religious leaders were angry because they were working on the Sabbath. But their legalistic view of the Sabbath was a perverted one. They thought that humanity was created to observe the Sabbath, But Jesus justified it with a story about the right of hungry Israelites to food regardless of social conventions (Mark 2:23-26). Then comes his punchline: “The Sabbath was created for humanity” (2:27). This reinforces the Sabbath as part of the order of God’s good creation (Genesis 2:2-3), and it’s purpose to restore us to our originally intended just, peaceful, and equitable ways.

Jesus also proclaimed that poverty is not natural but is the result of human sin, specifically the Israelites’ failing to obey God’s commands of Sabbath keeping and Jubilee. When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus with oil in Mark 14, the disciples protested, saying that they could have sold the oil and given the money to give the poor. Jesus responded with “the poor you will always have with you,” (v. 7) which was a mirroring of the statement in Deut. 15: 4-5 that “there will be no poor among you…if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord, being careful to do all that I have commanded you” – as long as they were faithful to God’s commands to keep Sabbath and Jubilee practices of debt-release, freeing of slaves, letting the land rest, and redistribution. They of course failed to do these things, and so Jesus is saying to the disciples that there would always be poor among them, because they will always be unfaithful. However, to say that we must forget this concept because we have always failed to live up to it, as many in the church say today, is to say that we should also forget about trying to love our enemies or sexual fidelity, as hardly anyone in the church practices these commands either!  (5)

It was these subversive economic teachings that got Jesus in trouble with the religious authorities, who were the ones benefiting from the current economic structure. Jesus undermined the dominant socio-economic structure by declaring good news to the poor, warnings to the rich, expectations of redistribution by those who had oppressed, demonstrations of debt forgiveness to all, and a true interpretation of Sabbath – that in its practice we become more human -who we were created to be. Jesus declaration of the Kingdom as a place where the “last will be first, and first shall be last” was enough to convince the religious and political authorities that if they didn’t have this man crucified, they would all lose their positions of power and wealth if the people were intent to make him the King of the Jews.


From Biblical Principles to Everyday Practice

For those who insist that the principles of Sabbath Economics must remain relevant today, we have a lot of hard work to do. We must diligently use our creativity to come up with ways of working, living, spending and consuming that proclaim to those around us that we believe another world is possible.

According to Matthew Colwell, author of Practicing Sabbath Economics and Julie Clawson, author of Everyday Justice, there are a number of things that individuals, households, and entire communities can do to take small steps towards a more faithful counter-formational response to God’s call to be a Sabbath people. The following seven steps are based on the “Sabbath Economic Covenant” developed by Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, an ecumenical organization focused on economic and spiritual discipleship. The covenant is a simple tool for applying the biblical theme of Sabbath economics to daily practice, inviting people to commit to changes in seven economic areas. Some steps to consider: (6)

1. We must invest our money responsibly. We must make sure it is held in Socially Responsible Investments (SRI) that screen out predatory lending, war profiteering, and other unjust economic practices. Better yet is to invest in Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that make capital available to the poor and to undeserved communities.

2. We must look at our credit cards and how we use them. Many banks practice predatory lending practices, we can learn about our banks at www.responsiblewealth.org. More eco-friendly credit card options are available today such as the Salmon Nation card from Shorebank Pacific, a bank committed to environmentally sustainable community development (www.salmonnation.com). Since owning a credit card comes with it the temptation to overspend, it might be a good idea to construct a “credit card condom,” a paper sleeve placed over the card that says “Do I really need this?” or “Can I afford this?”

3. We must get organized in our giving. We must evaluate the organizations that we donate to, and ask which ones most reflect our values and priorities. Sabbath Economics begs the specific question: “Are we giving to organizations that locally and globally promote an economy of sufficiency, ensuring that the poor and hungry have enough?”

4. We must take steps towards a greener lifestyle. Evaluations of our ecological footprints can be done at www.myfootprint.org. Transportation choices can have a huge impact, so if possible bicycling, walking, taking public transportation or limiting / avoiding unnecessary travel can help. As for food, local and organic is always best – purchasing food from a local farmer’s market through a community supported agriculture program, or through a community or self-tended garden. Avoid foods that contain excessive packaging, and following the old mantra, “reduce, reuse, recycle” remains helpful. Composting food scraps as well cuts down on garbage and will break down easier and not clog landfills.

5. We must practice simplicity and ethical consumption. In Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning note, “Though they see only a fraction of it, Americans consume 120 pounds – nearly their average body weight – every day in natural resources extracted from farms, forests, rangelands, and mines.”(7)  They also note that if the whole world were to consume at the level of North Americans, we would need at least three additional planets to support it. We must therefore consider ways to limit our consumption to more sustainable levels, and when we do consume, to do so ethically. Julie Clawson in her book Everyday Justice defines ethical consumption as “the application of our moral values and ethical standards to our consumer habits.”(8)

We will still need to be consumers, but instead of being implicit about the unjust practices that are happening to get stuff made for us, we can attempt to redeem the process by living by a more consistent ethic. William Cavanaugh talks about how a symptom of consumerism is not attachment to things, but rather detachment – we use and discard at an every-increasing rate, and we are detached from the means of production and the people who are doing the producing and manual labor.(9)  If it is out of our sight, it is out of our minds. It is important then, for us to inform ourselves about where and how our coffee, chocolate, oil, and clothes are coming from, under what conditions they are being produced (or grown or extracted) and choose to purchase fair trade, used, or locally produced items, or else engage in the making of things we need ourselves. The two books I’ve mentioned in this section are a great start for informing yourself about these things.

6. We must take steps toward greater solidarity with the poor and the marginalized. There are many kinds of trips of exposure or “reverse mission” trips designed to help groups of people connect with and learn from people who are living in poverty. Organizations such as Witness for Peace, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the Center for Global Education all provide such opportunities. For more local solidarity options, consider moving into a low-income neighborhood, or into an intentional community (such as the one I live in now) that seeks to build relationships through soup kitchens, refugee or homeless shelter work.

7. We must observe a Sabbath discipline in our daily, weekly, monthly and/or yearly rhythm. Taking time out of our busy schedules to stop working, reflect on our lives, rediscover peace, contentment, and gratitude, and to simply enjoy and delight in the goodness of God’s creation can be an extremely counter-formational discipline that point to our desire to serve the God of Creation instead of seductive and destructive god of Mammon.

Individual and household economic actions such as these are no substitute for the necessary work of public action and political advocacy. We must all make our voices heard, in the public square, that we will not support unjust government policies that favour the rich and make life unbearable for the poor. We must make it known to our government that economic growth at all costs should not be our number one priority, but rather we support an economy that factors in ‘pre-care’ policies, as Goudzwaard describes. But these practices are a vital complement to the larger political work, reinforcing and amplifying our public witness. They are simple, everyday expression of faith that will be a light to others that we believe in a better way. They are ways to “say to the darkness, we beg to differ,” as Mary Jo Leddy says.(10)

Conclusion

The church must no longer ignore the theological implications of our economic practices. For those of us in the West, we must own up to the fact that we have and do still contribute to the idolatrous ideology of progress through our desire for constant improvement, for more and better stuff, and through our need to prove ourselves through our overly-productive and chaotic work practices. We must recognize that we have ignored the practice of Sabbath for too long – we have neglected to cultivate postures of peace, gratitude, and delight in creation, we have neglected to remember our liberation from slavery so that we could practice non-oppresive self-restraint and equity, and we have neglected to practice Jubilee debt forgiveness and redistribution that were so central to the covenant relationship between God and the Hebrews and also to the teachings and subversive practices of Jesus. We must continue to educate ourselves and others about Sabbath Economic practices and take the steps necessary to proclaim with our lives that our allegiance is not with the idol of Mammon but with the God who is restoring all of Creation, and in doing so, we become more human in the process.

Me canoeing near Peterborough, Ontario

Peace all, and thanks for reading.

-Jen

___

Endnotes

1 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, (Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s, 1972).
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 All steps are from Matthew Colwell, “Practicing Sabbath Economics,” Sojourners, May 2008.
7 John C. Ryan and Alan Thein, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, (Northwest Environmental Watch, 1997),p. 5.
8 Julie Clawson, Everyday Justice, (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2009), p.26.
9 William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2008), p. 50-51.
10 Mary Jo Leddy, Say to the Darkness ‘We Beg to Differ’, (Lester and Orpen Denny’s, 1990), cover.


Bibliography

William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Julie Clawson, Everyday Justice, Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2009.

Matthew Colwell, “Practicing Sabbath Economics.” Sojourners, May 2008.

Marva J. Dawn, Living the Sabbath Wholly, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

Bob Goudzwaard, et. al., Hope in Troubled Times, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.

__________, Aid for the Overdeveloped West, Toronto: Wedge, 1975.

__________, Beyond Poverty and Affluence,Toronto: U of T Press, 1995.

Mary Jo Leddy, Radical Gratitude, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002.

__________, Say to the Darkness ‘We Beg to Differ’, Lester & Orpen Denny’s, 1990.

Bill McKibben, Enough, New York: Owl, 2003.

Ched Myers, “Jesus’ New Economy of Grace,” Sojourners, July-August 1998.

__________, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, Washington, DC: Tell the World, Church of the Savior, 2001.

__________, “Sabbath Economics: The gift must always move.” http://www.chedmyers.org

John C. Ryan and Alan Thein, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, Northwest     Environment, 1997.

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.

Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s, 1972.

Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, Toronto: Anansi, 1998.


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