The art of rebellion

flowerChristianity began not as an institution, not even as a creed, but first as an event that had no proper precedent or any immediately conceivable sequel. In its earliest dawn, the gospel arrived in history as a kind of convulsive disruption of history, a subversive rejection of most of the immemorial cultic, social, and philosophical wisdoms by which the ancient world sustained its order. And the event that the gospel proclaimed was the resurrection of Christ, which was neither a religious event, nor a natural event, nor even an event within the history of religion, but a moment of interruption. According to Paul, it had effectively erased all sacred, social, racial, and national boundaries, gathered into itself all divine sovereignty over history, and subdued the spiritual agencies of the cosmos, the powers and principalities, the thrones and dominions, and the “god of this world.” It was a complete liberation from the constraints of elemental existence but also from the power of law. For even the law of Moses, holy though it was, was still only delivered, so says Galatians, by an angel through a human mediator, in order to operate as a kind of probationary ‘disciplinarian’ and had now been replaced by the law of love.

Thus Christianity entered human consciousness not first as a new system of practices and observances, or as an alternative set of religious obligations, but first and as apocalypse, the visionary annunciation of the Kingdom and its sudden invasion of historical and natural time alike. As René Girard liked to say, the nature of this apocalypse was profoundly irreligious in some sense. It was a complete reversal of perspective in the realm of the sacred, the instant in which the victim of social and religious order—whom all human wisdom has always been prepared to hand over to death as a necessary and so legitimate sacrifice—was all at once revealed to be the righteous one, the innocent one, God himself.

So, in its original form the gospel was a pressing command to all persons to come forth out of the economies of society and cult as they were known and into the immediacy of that event, for “the days are short.” And, having thus been born in the terrible and joyous expectation of time’s imminent end—its first “waking moment” utterly saturated by the knowledge of the nearness of the end—the church was not at first quite prepared to inhabit time except in a state of something like sustained crisis. There was not an obvious medium by which a people in some sense already living in history’s aftermath, in a state of constant urgency, could enter history again, as either an institution, or a body of law, or even a religion. It would take some time, some degree of adjustment of expectations, and perhaps a considerable degree of disenchantment, for so singular an irruption of the eschatological into the temporal to be recuperated into a stable order.

From the beginning, consequently, there has also been a certain paradoxical tension at the very core of Christian belief. In religious terms, accommodation with and adaptation of cultic forms was possible, even within as radically novel an association as the church; and this occurred in some ways just as a kind of natural pseudomorphism, a crystallization of Christian practices in spaces progressively vacated by earlier devotions, even as the church strove to generate new kinds of community within the shelter of the culturally intelligible configurations it had assumed.

This was, of course, inevitable and necessary. A perfectly apocalyptic consciousness subsisting in pure interruption cannot really be sustained beyond a certain brief period. The exigencies of material existence demanded that Christianity would in time have to become “historical” again, “cultural” again, which is to say “cultic.” But, as was also inevitable, the results of this accommodation between apocalypse and cult were frequently tragic, as we know from the history of Christendom. As a religion, Christianity has provided many guises by which the original provocation of the Christian event has been made more bearable to historical consciousness but also under which it has often been all but entirely hidden. The religious impulse has served as the necessary way by which an essentially apocalyptic awareness has also been conveyed through “fallen” time which has also frequently enough striven to suppress that awareness. The alloy, moreover, was probably always somewhat unstable. At least at times it seems as if the Christian event is of its nature something too refractory and volatile—the impulse to rebellion too constitutive of its spiritual logic—to be contained even within its own institutions. This, at least, might explain why Christianity over the centuries not only has proved so irrepressibly fissile (as all large religious traditions all, to some degree, are) but has also given rise to a culture capable of the most militant atheism, even of self-conscious nihilism. Even in its most enduring and necessary historical forms, there is an ungovernable energy within it, something that desires not to crystallize but rather to disperse itself into the future, to start always anew, more spirit than flesh or letter. As the proclamation of time’s invasion by eternity, and as the seal of finality upon the annunciation of the presence of the Kingdom among us, the gospel of Easter must remain within the limits of time we know, an event that is always yet to be fully understood.

(David Bentley Hart, “Freedom, Rebellion, Apocalypse,” 2015 Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture Fall Conference “For Freedom Set Free.”)

I pledge allegiance to…

keithgreennocompromisecoverThis is the cover over Keith Green’s 1978 album “No Compromise.” I love the freedom the guy is exercising by not bowing. This album rocked my world. I was 18 at the time.

We don’t venture into political or cultural commentary here as a rule, so this will be an exception. This Presidential election process was so divisive and exhausting, I couldn’t wait until Wednesday morning, Nov. 9, for it to be over. I looked forward to listening to election-free news! I was wrong. It’s not over. As I write, the results continue to manifest how polarized and fragmented we are. Not a few Trump supporters (the racists among them) sense themselves empowered and emboldened to vent their hatred. Given the nature of this empowering relationship they derive from Trump’s victory, I can’t imagine such violent racism will subside at all. Why should they? They have seized their time, their hour. Reciprocal examples of such violence on the losing side are so exceptional as to not be worth mentioning.

My interest in sharing my own feelings at this point is purely selfish – I’m thinking through my own ecclesiology, and writing is partly how I process and discover. What really is the Church? How really is the Church to exist in a fallen world? Not new questions by any means. There’s a single answer to both: the Church just is a particular way of being (in the fallen world). This election cycle and its consequences have me pondering that “way of being” relative to the world in which I (and my evangelical siblings) live, i.e., the American world – constitutional freedoms, rule of law, representative government, democratic process, etc.

Let me just rant for a bit by reworking some comments I recently made in a conversation about all this, then I’ll end by sharing a couple of conclusions.

The ‘Cyrus’ argument in favor of Trump is already old. Cyrus the Great was the 6th century (BCE) King of Persia, a pagan idolater, who was nevertheless used by God to end Israel’s Babylonian captivity and restore them to their homeland. Fair enough. I get that. God is always at work providentially to bring good out of the selfish and evil agendas around us. White evangelicals who view Trump in such terms, as I’m reading this line of defense, trust that God will work providentially to bring blessing on the Church and build God’s Kingdom by raising Trump up to secure anti-abortion Justices, forestall the pro-LGBT cultural agenda, perhaps protect the tax-exempt status that faith communities and their institutions enjoy. Other evangelicals who voted for Trump say the verdict is still out on whether Trump will be a Cyrus or just another Babylonian king who is bad news for religious believers.

This is where I struggle. It seems to me that:

  • IF God can use Trump in spite of Trump’s being an evil, racist, womanizing, bigoted, misogynist,
  • THEN why can’t God do the same with Hillary?

How is divine providence in this case a reason either to have voted for Trump or an explanation of his victory any more than it would be a reason to vote for Hillary or an explanation of her victory had she won (and she did win the popular vote by the way)?

In other words:

  • IF God can make a racist, bigoted, vile, misogynist, greedy, gluttonous, self-consumed, narcissistic philanderer like Trump a providential instrument of his purposes,
  • THEN God should be able to do the same with a lying, cheating, power-hungry, pro-abortion, tax-and-spend democrat like Hillary.

God’s sovereign, right? The ‘Cyrus’ argument works for Hillary as much as for Trump, which just means it’s not an argument for why God raised up Trump “instead” of Hillary.

These options bring me to an alternative biblical perspective on the election. I suggest Rom 1 (which I suspect evangelicals would be quoting had Hillary won) instead of passages about Cyrus the pagan setting God’s people free. Providence also gives us what we deserve as a form of judgment. And there’s no need to suppose both Hillary and Trump didn’t represent God “giving us over” (Ps 81.12; Rm 1.24-29) to what we have become (evangelicals included).

But aren’t we exercising our right and freedom when we vote? Aren’t we being guided in our choice by our values? Doesn’t that mean one of available choices represents God’s blessing and the good fortune and well-being of the Church?

No. None of those things follows. The fact that we had a choice between Hillary and Trump seems to me like King David getting to choose which particular form judgment God would send upon Israel (2Sam 24.13). You know the story. God is going to judge Israel. It’s not going to be pretty. But he gives David a few options and lets David choose which judgment it’s to be. Just because you have a choice, and your choice is in some measure good because it’s guided by your values, doesn’t mean it’s not ‘judgment’ – whatever you choose. There’s every reason to mourn when you get what you choose in such cases. That’s what we have here. Hillary would have brought it in one form. Trump will bring it in another.

Think about it: 4 out of 5 white evangelicals voted for Trump. I think that’s the news, not that Trump actually won. Given the high morals and values that evangelicals claim guide them, it’s interesting to note that 41% of white evangelicals thought Trump was “a good role model” and 67% of them thought he was “honest.”

Please just think about that for a moment: 41% of white evangelicals think Donald Trump is “a good role model.” Don’t race by that fact on your way to turn it into some defense of what evangelicalism really is. Those opinions are what we evangelicals (as a movement) really are. That is what we’ve become. Let it sink in. Own it. When you have, you’ll begin to ponder new answers to the question – What really is the Church and how is it really to exist in the world?

orl13_nocompromise

I can only guess why 4 out of 5 white evangelicals voted for Trump. It’s because whereas white evangelicals are dispositionally inclined to share Trump’s sins (racism, narcissism, lack of empathy for minorities, greed, to name a few) they are constitutionally averse to Hillary’s sins (giving LGBT folk the legal right to marry, being pro-abortion, taxing the wealthy to help the poor, to name a few) because, after all, as we all know, gay sex trumps all other Republican sins combined. No imaginable sin can be as horrible as loving someone of the same sex. You can subjugate, discriminate against, and objectify the already born, but not the unborn. You can systemically confine those living to a kind of living death, but you can’t systemically prevent the unborn from their opportunity to be as miserable, trapped, and objectified as their parents. After all, unborn blacks have every right to grow up in the world of white privilege their parents exist in.

I’m not suggesting that a vote for Hillary doesn’t implicate one in her failures. Where Hillary supporters call upon God and gospel to defend her as “the” Christian vote, the same marriage of faith and State exists. But let’s not flatter ourselves; we are after all simply choosing the flavor of our judgment.

I suppose I’m mostly grieved over evangelicals’ failure to perceive how completely irrelevant and vacuous their moral voice has become in American society. In terms of being a prophetic voice of conscience to the world, evangelicals have no moral credibility.

Let me end by sharing a couple of convictions that appear clearer to me as a result of this election season:

First, I think Christian believers who vote at all are necessarily complicit in the sins and failures of those they vote for (whomever they vote for). To participate (even democratically) in a political system by definition implicates you systemically in that system – for good and for evil. When you pick up a stick, you pick up both ends. I don’t know where I’ll come out on this, but I’m contemplating the effects upon faith of such participation at all. I don’t see how we live fully within the redeeming power of our truest identity as Christ’s Body in the world and then forge alliances between that identity and any State. I’m not convinced such participation doesn’t necessarily erode our faith, compromise our identity, and undermine our mission.

This means something has to be said about ‘how’ the Church speaks prophetically and morally about systemic injustice, racism, poverty, how we present a ‘way of being’ in the world that is ‘the world to come’. I’m considering the possibility that this ‘way of being’ precludes (for me) participation in those structures, at least participation that reduces my ‘way of being’ to a binary choice between options which that system determines, and that this is just another way to say the Church doesn’t require the State or its apparatuses to be who and what Christ calls the Church to be. ‘Voting’ is apparently one way of contributing your “voice.” Perhaps there are other ways to speaking, ways of being a “voice” which are better than (and in the end compromised by) filling in the State’s ballot. I think by and large evangelicals just view the State (reforming it, cleansing it, legislating it righteously) as their “Temple,” believe they are its priests, and – now – see Trump is their Cyrus. That’s not a viable way to be the Church in the world for me.

Second, I can’t in good conscience put my hand over my heart and pledge my allegiance to the Republic. I’m coming to see that part of the ‘way of being’ in the world which I understand the Church to be involves certain exclusive allegiances to Christ which are impossibly collapsed into any political agenda or platform. There’s so much to say here about the “already-not yet” nature of God’s re-creation of the cosmos in Christ, and the Church’s role in that. I can’t say much here, but I don’t see how my pledging my allegiance to the State is compatible with properly pledging my allegiance to Christ. Does that mean I don’t value constitutional freedoms? Not at all. I do value worshiping, believing, and speaking my mind freely. Does it mean I wouldn’t sacrifice to protect or secure those freedom? Not at all. Do I not love and appreciate a State that recognizes those freedoms? I do. Will I ‘pledge my allegiance’ to that State? Well, what’s meant by such allegiance? What’s involved in it? Here’s what I’ll pledge: I pledge to love, serve and remind the world in which I live of one thing – Christ is Kyrios (Lord) and allegiance to him trumps (no pun intended) all other allegiances. If the State is OK  with that, we’re good. Unfortunately it is the nature of the State to be intolerant of such arrangements.

Christianity as Community

imagesIt’s becoming increasingly clear to me that an individual’s enjoyment of Christian identity and mission (that is, of being Christ’s body missionally present in the earth) is not possible apart from communal existence. And by communal existence I mean a community whose individuals are defined by community, not a community whose ‘community’ is just the sum of its individual parts. Forgive me for being less than clear. I’m still settling in.

I also have a growing conviction that evangelical faith inherently militates against the formation of Christian identity because evangelicals define faith and identity so individualistically. The ‘Church’ for evangelicals seems to be more of a ‘group of individuals’ whose faith and salvation are self-contained from beginning to end within each of the individuals that comprise the group. ‘Faith’ and ‘salvation’ turn out to be only contingently related to being the ‘Church’ as a place where I express, not where I am impressed, and this may be why evangelicals as a rule don’t think there are any authorities outside the individual on matters of faith and interpretation, which in turn partly explains why we evangelicals reinvent the Church every generation or so. We are in some ways the ultimate identity crisis.

Can evangelicals transcend this dysfunction inherent to their ecclesiology? I believe so. But it takes time and work because the more an evangelical turns to history for an understanding of a truly communal formation of faith, identity and mission, the more at odds he’s likely to find himself with present evangelical expressions of it.

(Picture here.)