Hey everyone. Here is a video version of this week’s blog. For links and such, consult the written format. Thanks for reading and listening!
I had another Disney experience last week. Someone heard I was in Florida and said something like, “You’re kidding! Rod and Gwen do not seem like Disney people.” I assure you, they are right. But I sure met a lot of “Disney people” while I was away. One nice family from Kent had a plan for ten days in the parks! Ouch!
I do not go to Disney for Disney. I go for five-year olds. We committed to take each grandchild to Disney when they turned five and I have not regretted that decision for one minute. I just got back from a trip with the half-Elsa and half-Minnie pictured below. This is the same birthday girl who was jumping with delight to see Elsa on her Festival of Fantasy parade float and whose birthday badge was spotted by her hero, who then mouthed, “Happy birthday” right at her! Papa got choked up.
I always learn a lot on my “field work” excursions out of my blue, Northeast bubble (where it is quite a bit colder, btw). This trip was no different. When I was not thinking about where to find restrooms in the Magic Kingdom, I was in wonder that this many people have enough money to do the wildly expensive Disney experience.
The economy did not send people to Disney
My new, unexpected, best pundit friend, David Brooks, recently gave me some reasons for why the parks near Orlando are so crowded. He says, “We’re enjoying one of the best economies of our lifetime. The G.D.P. is growing at about 3.5 percent a year, which is about a point faster than many experts thought possible. We’re in the middle of the second-longest recovery in American history… If you were born in 1975, you’ve seen the U.S. economy triple in size over the course of your lifetime. The gains are finally being widely shared, even by the least skilled….The median usual weekly earnings for workers who didn’t complete high school shot up by 6.5 percent over the past year.”
The “recovery” should be making people feel great, right? Bill Clinton was famous for having a motto that helped him win the White House: “It’s the economy, stupid.” He wanted to remember to maintain his personal sell out to capitalist bondage as he was helping to teach our children to sell their souls as well. His winning strategy has been key to all the political playbooks ever since. As a result, we are up to our necks in economic microdata and even prominent Evangelicals defend Trump’s inaction on the Khashoggi murder by suggesting the country needs to protect its business deals with the Saudi’s other magic kingdom rather than protest assassinations!
But Brooks accurately notes that the economy is hardly what normal people care about the most, Clinton notwithstanding. A few minutes on the bus to Disney will prove that people will spend whatever it takes to get what the economy has ruined: relationships. Disney has discovered how to package up the relationships people want and sell them to us. I think we might have an experience similar to the day we bought at a Disney park at Fern Hill Park. But it was exciting to have my little Elsa creating the “snow” (so she said) that Disney Hollywood pumped out for the “holiday” show. We need to be together.
Money is not, again, making us happy or holy
People have more money, for the moment, but they are far from happy. The economy won’t make you happy! Jesus did not add “Stupid!” But I suppose he could have. Because we humans, in general, have a history of being rather stupid when it comes to what we think will save us. The U.S. Empire promised our big, fat, rapacious, world-dominating economy would save us. But it seems Trump has finally convinced many people such a promise is as faulty as they suspected.
Brooks notes that “about 60 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country. Researchers with the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index interviewed 160,000 adults in 2017 to ask about their financial security, social relationships, sense of purpose and connectedness to community. Last year turned out to be the worst year for well-being of any since the study began 10 years ago. As the recovery has advanced, people’s faith in capitalism has actually declined, especially among the young. Only 45 percent of those between 18 and 29 see capitalism positively, a lower rate than in 2010, when the country was climbing out of the Great Recession.” That’s not a big surprise: college debt, gig economy, unpaid internships, hugely expensive health care, high housing costs, tax cuts for the rich – Thanks “economy!”
The crisis we feel is not just the economy (I will not add the contemptuous “stupid.” and if you hear it in your brain, you should resist). The bigger problem is the crisis of connection. The following has become common knowledge (except, maybe, in Congress). Brooks says, “People, especially in the middle- and working-class slices of society, are less likely to volunteer in their community, less likely to go to church, less likely to know their neighbors, less likely to be married than they were at any time over the past several decades. In short, they have fewer resources to help them ride the creative destruction that is ever-present in a market economy.” That’s the crisis.
“And they are dying.” Last week, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy in the United States declined for the third straight year. This is an absolutely stunning trend. In affluent, well-connected societies, life expectancies rise almost as a matter of course. The last time the American mortality rate fell for three straight years was 1915-1918, during World War I and the flu pandemic, which took 675,000 American lives. And yet here we are — a straight-up social catastrophe.” It is a crisis of caring and sharing, led by the most immoral president ever and his collaborating Senate, characterized by a flood of opioids, guns and video games ready for purchase by eager teenagers.
The economy can’t sell us a solution to the crisis
Circle of Hope was designed as an antidote to the sociological, psychological and spiritual decay that even pundits are starting to talk about. Just call us a “tribe of covenant partners in Christ” and you can see, in every rarely-used word in that phrase, that we supply quite an alternative. As Brooks notes, many young people are bereft of the support structures they need to persevere in school and get the skills to help them survive — we provide them as a matter of course. The natural, organic system of our church provides the so-called “soft skills” that Brooks says the economy can’t locate: leadership, communication and collaboration. The society is awash in technical capacity but people can’t bring themselves to answer personal email (I know, I write them!). We can figure out how to program our phone-app-run thermostats but rarely listen to our voicemail, if anyone still records one. We are sold a lot of ways to connect, but many in the society are having a terrible time getting connected.
Brooks concludes by saying, “Conservatives were wrong to think that economic growth would lead to healthy families and communities all by itself. Moderate Democrats were wrong to think it was sufficient to maximize growth and then address inequalities with transfer payments. The progressives are wrong to think life would be better if we just made our political economy look more like Denmark’s. The Danes and the Swedes take for granted a cohesive social fabric [that hygge] that simply does not exist here.” The country is experiencing a lot of wrongheaded stuff! We all need a “cohesive social fabric” — but the “economy,” as presently dominated, won’t give it to us even if we fight for it, mainly because it is not interested in cohesion, society or even fabric, unless it is being sold by the bolt.
We know all that. We are among those people who are more alone than ever, as well, of course. We struggle to know our anonymous neighbors and have a tough time “volunteering” for our own church and sharing with our own covenant partners in Christ! We are not immune to the social catastrophe the “economy” continues to exacerbate. Lord save us! — the “economy” is dithering about whether it should sacrifice profits to save the world from climate change disaster!! We know all this and we are all this, to a degree. But we are also bravely on the front lines with whatever gifts we have to build an alternative.
OK, I was on the “front lines” in Orlando last week. The big disaster I faced was when they cancelled the last, giant show they had planned for 3000 of us, or so, because of technical difficulties. But, in the middle of waiting for that catastrophe to be announced by a pre-recorded message, I played a lot of rock/paper/scissors, with a giggling five-year-old. It’s not the economy, it’s the relationships. It is not the money, it is the love. It is not the magic kingdom of the American dream, it is the kingdom of God represented by normal people filled with the Spirit. Those truths are easier to hang on to when a child is hanging on to your hand or a cell mate is hanging on to their faith for dear life in your living room. There is an alternative being created in us every day.
What does it mean to love in an era when people have been reduced to “human resources?” I wish it seemed obvious to state that the culture of capitalism dramatically affects how people understand themselves and one another. But I don’t think it is obvious; thus, this blog post.
Is Capitalism the best system?
Not long ago I was watching one of the news channels and tuned in to an interview of a 90-year-old billionaire. He interrupted his young interviewer at one point so he could make sure to say what he wanted to teach. He said, “There is one thing everyone needs to understand. Capitalism is the best system. We tried communism, or at least some did, and it failed. We tried socialism and that does not work.”
The interviewer did not say, “What do you mean by ‘working?’ Are you talking about ‘achieving the most profit with as little expenditure as possible for the shareholders or owners of an enterprise?'” Instead, she just moved on, either swallowing what everyone has been taught or being afraid to contradict it.
I think 90% of the people who enter a Sunday meeting react about the same way as the interviewer every day. They spend the week moving along with capitalism and the billionaires who run it — and preparing their children to do the same. But are the goals of capitalism and the 1% the goals of Jesus? You can already tell that I am going to say “No.” But do I have a leg to stand on?
The secret philosophy that runs us all
Last April George Monbiot summarized his book for the Guardian. He identified the secret philosophy that drives what most of us do all week and infects what we do on Sunday, too. He says, Today’s capitalism
- sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations.
- redefines citizens as “consumers“ whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling.
- teaches that buying and selling has its own morality that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency.
- maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
People are fighting about how to apply this philosophy in Congress right now. Will a generous version of today’s capitalism (like Obamacare) rule our healthcare or will a radical version rule (like in Trump/Ryan care)?
Monbiot says today’s capitalism fights any attempts to limit competition and labels any question of limits an assault on freedom. It teaches:
- Taxes and regulations should be minimized, public services should be privatized.
- The organization of labor and collective bargaining by trade unions are are market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers.
- Inequality is virtuous: a reward for being effective and a generating wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone.
- Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
You may have heard those last four bullet points preached from a pulpit somewhere (other than Circle of Hope). Or maybe you just know the viewpoint is assumed, a moot point, in your evangelical church. I have experienced both the preaching and the assumption. For instance, if a variant viewpoint is raised on the BIC-List (our denomination’s listserve), men will come out of the woodwork to reinforce those bullets, as if they were a 90-year-old billionaire interrupting some foolish youngster. They will even marshal the Bible to help make their point, even though everyone knows neoliberalism was not invented by Christians.
Last summer the pope explained this while on a flight from Krakow to Vatican City. He surprised journalists when he told them Muslim attacks on a priest in France were basically caused by neoliberalism. He said, “Terrorism grows when there is no other option, and as long as the world economy has at its center the god of money and not the person…This is fundamental terrorism, against all humanity.” At the time, Americans were in the middle of an election campaign, so they probably did not hear the Pope over all the hubbub about Trump’s tweets. Evangelical Christians were about to overwhelmingly vote for Donald Trump, the epitome of what neoliberal capitalism created since Ronald Reagan.
Are we actually pawns in the philosophy’s system?
What if we Christians, we who are bound and determined to follow Jesus in his suffering and transform humanity, become the unwitting pawns of capitalist deformation of humanity in the image of neoliberal capitalism? Our lives teach. The content of our dialogue sets the contours of the culture are always building!
Can a Christian merely exist in the pluralistic, postmodern capitalist landscape? Does capitalism offer a home for Christians? No. Without Christians creating an alternative, capitalism subjects everyone to its will. We still fundamentally believe, don’t we, that one cannot serve two masters? We might normally think about not serving Mammon within the framework of capitalism and consider how to allow Jesus to be the Lord of how we do capitalism. But what if capitalism is, in effect, the alternative god?
Capitalism makes desire an end in itself and diverts our desire from communion with God. That sin causes us to stray from God’s will and design for us. God’s design for us is to desire God and our true selves. Unfortunately, the economic modalities around us pervert that desire. We cannot serve both our capitalism-perverted desire and God’s desire. We must go back to God, which means rejecting the capitalist way. The two are incompatible.
We need to talk about this, because everyone who comes to our Sunday meeting is feeling desire. Assuming that their desires, dominated by capitalism, are healthy and not a cause of their general illness is wrong. If a person is constantly making a deal and can’t make a covenant with God’s people, if they are trained for desiring what they don’t yet have, if they protect their autonomy and freedom at the expense of their faith, should they not learn that comes from neoliberalism and not God, not even from themselves?
Capitalism creates homo economicus in its image. That being, by its nature, is:
- Not in community, not collective.
- Free to choose. Amidst millions of consumer options, we are free to choose what to do (of course, within the confines of capitalism)
- Driven by Insatiable Desire.
- Reduced to thinking Justice is only about fair exchange regulated by contracts and laws. In capitalism, social justice doesn’t exist because the market is beyond justice.
I think most people who read this far are probably trying to figure out how to be the alternative to what is killing humanity. When people come to the Sunday meeting they come as people condemned to being homo economicus. Is there a way out? If we force them to perform within that bondage, aren’t we preparing them to be consumed consumers? Couldn’t we condemn our children in the name of helping them?
Somehow, we need to risk acting according to the Lord’s economy that is
- Spirit formed
- Generous out of eternal abundance
After all this theoretical sounding writing, it may seem difficult to think about how to apply it. So will we just go back to being led around by the invisible hand and letting our faith be invisibilized by living under its shelter? Obviously, I hope not. Let’s keep exposing the powers for who they are in the spirit of today’s image of the atonement: Christus Victor. Jesus is our leader in that, present with us, every day.
We had to start talking about money. We were not meeting the goal we set. Drat.
For a church, organizing people to give money to support their life together and mission can be painful these days. In general, the Church is so into the ways of capitalism (where EVERYTHING is “monetized”) that it is hard to tell a megachurch from a big box store, sometimes. Meanwhile, many people are totally turned off to any mention of money or financial obligations clogging up their personal space — if Jesus is saving them from anything, it MUST be the constant barrage of oppressive advertising that demands a purchase every five seconds. They are totally wrong about this, but if the church is asking for money, it looks suspiciously like everything else trying to rob them.
Joel Osteen and Rick Warren are reportedly worth $40 million and $25 million respectively. So I think people can be forgiven if they think Christians are in it for the money — there is a lot of evidence to support that. I don’t know about Joel and Rick, but that is a lot of wealth, guys!
So our pastors and other leaders are very tempted to just keep their mouths shut. If you just TALK about money, people can get nervous. Not everyone, of course, but certainly those who are not sharing are likely to get agitated. But here I am about to talk. I need to say SOMETHING, since I think people are not respecting themselves and others if they do not share what they have like Jesus shared the life of God with them.
So here are three facts about sharing money I think everyone, especially radicals, should consider.
Sharing centers the focus
For the next few weeks, Thursday is TOP TEN of 2014 day. This is the #10 most read post. In July, I tried to sympathize with people who are having a tough time with our radical ideas about attending to the sins of the world — like the oppression, violence and apartheid in Palestine.
Were the pundits were right and the “Black Friday” holiday was toned down a bit this year? I am praying that fad dies. God has answered my prayer many times, it could happen.
Maybe the 1% have stratified income so much that it is impossible to be as gluttonous as the general populace once could be. Or maybe we have already been sold so many internet connections that “Cyber Monday” is what I should be praying about, now — I’m not sure. I can only hope that one day capitalism can lose its grip on the Baby born in poverty, who was soon to be the Refugee, and then the Executed. My hoped is always stoked at Christmas time.
Homo Economicus’ engines are also stoked at holiday time. The holiday points out the competition for how humankind is going to see themselves. Will it be “Child of God?” — that probably still owns the hearts of most of my readers. But “homo economicus” probably gets a majority of our attention.
“Homo economicus” is how the proponents of a capitalist view of the world see the nature of a human being and human desire. When one relates to God she is formed from the heart out. Likewise, capitalism forms a particular kind of human, one that relates to the environment in certain ways – like they rush to stores on Black Friday in response to a trumped-up frenzy.
There are many aspects of homo economicus that might be so normal to most of us that we would not even consider them topics to think about. But if we are going to celebrate Christmas, it might be wise to think about them. Let’s just try one on today. (Is “try one on” just another of a zillion shopping metaphors we use to define our reality?).
Above all things, “homo economicus” is an individual. There is nothing generally wrong with that — being a secure, capable individual is a good thing. Jesus is certainly in favor of the dignity of the individual – especially when it comes to individuals coming up against oppressive systems (like sin, death and evil!). What capitalism does not tell you when it lifts up the individual is that it is also an oppressive system that makes you an individual in its own image. It teaches us that if we do anything that is collective or if we feel that being part of a community is a given we are surrendering our freedoms to make voluntary associations built upon individual choice.
So lets start there. Here are three of capitalism’s assumptions about being an individual that wreck Christmas.
1) Homo economicus assumes he or she is autonomous
They think they are in charge of all choices and responsible for all judgment. They think no one is born with any innate or involuntary ties to community, including their family.
So when God, who is in charge and responsible, chooses to be born into a family and forms a radical community, that’s a challenge for homo economicus. The capitalist tribe (but don’t call them a collective) is working hard to erase the incarnation by changing the character of the holiday to meet their perpetual economic interests. I don’t think it is a plot or anything, or even conscious; it is just what they do.
Capitalism encourages creativity and self-expression over obedience. Thus the poor are always told to create their way out of poverty according to the rules of the economy. If they are disobedient – won’t create themselves and stay dependent, or if they subvert the laws that protect the economy, they are punished. Tom Peters says, “We are all CEOs of our own companies: Me, Inc.” as if that is just a reality.
So when John the Baptist, our Advent person of the week, refuses to compete with Jesus and tells his disciples “I must decrease and he must increase” that seems kind of crazy. He’s obviously giving away the brand he made and de-creating himself – at least according to homo economicus.
3) Homo economicus thinks he or she owns their body and its capacities and have no obligations to society to use themselves in certain ways.
Homo economicus is not an individual like a hermit, they are an individual like a predator looking for someone a bit further down on the economic food chain – or they are at least trying to get to the IPhone 6 before someone else while supplies still last. They have been taught that reality is looking out for oneself. Like Michael Novak bleakly describes, these individuals “wander alone, in some confusion, amid many casualties” on the “wasteland at the heart of democratic capitalism [that] is like a field of battle.”
Our friends had a die-in at the Eagles game last night — at the Eagles game, the scene of the society’s exalting of battle all for the entertainment of those who can pay — the perfect capitalist event. They looked a lot like baby Jesuses, laying out in the cold, being jeered by disappointed, many drunk, game-losers. They were prophesying; demanding that black lives matter. They were like God in Jesus, laid in a tomb to break the power of sin and death, subjecting divinity to the indignities of humanity. In the incarnation God takes on a body and then completely submits that body to the good of others. That is how a child of God is fully himself or fully herself. We are not submitted to evil forces and so surrendering our individuality, we are individuals full of the obligations of love.
I can only hope that Black Friday dies. Maybe the U.S. Americans will tire of being in a traffic jam of self-interest every time they leave their doors or log on. Already my friends tell me they are sick of social media because everyone seems like the CEO of ME, Inc. and it is tiresome to be subtly (or not-so-subtly) manipulated for someone’s self-interest every time you look at Facebook.
Many of my friends hate Christmas for similar reasons. I think they hate the Christmas stolen by homo economicus and turned into a capitalist holiday. If that’s you, please don’t hate Christmas and don’t hate the people who probably don’t consciously know they are ruining it any more than you consciously thought of them as having a philosophy. Jesus is still wheedling his way into some manger-like situation waiting to surprise them with the fact that they are saving their lives and losing them.
When capitalism organizes your money, it undermines community. Worse, when capitalism channels your desire it warps prayer. The main things our church may be lacking the most right now are money and prayer. There is a good, macro reason for that lack which we might not even notice: we are in the grip of the invisible hand.
Let me say right off the top, in case you don’t read too much further:
1) We cannot sustain community without sharing money. Practically, we have made commitments as a group that require money, of course. But more profoundly, if you opt out of contributing to the whole you diminish it, even mock it, name it unworthy. You put a hole in our mutuality. Give ten dollars or a tithe, but stay in the game with us. We could lose the game.
2) We cannot keep praying if we let the Jesus-free economy deform our desire. Practically, if the consumption-driven economy drives you, you have another god. If you have stopped praying because, in reality, your “needs” are met by your place in the economy and your desires are driven by the market, you look like a foreigner in the Kingdom of God. Pray one minute or make praying your vocation, but connect with the Spirit. You could die. And the church could die with you.
What is capitalism again?
Capitalism was identified in the 1700’s by the likes of Adam Smith and others as an economic reality in which the “market” is not something that is extra to your life, it is in the center of your life. For centuries, markets were places where you could go trade for something you could not produce yourself. Now markets are the only means you can obtain anything. We always hear about the “free” market, which means the market, as an abstraction, aspires to be free from external constraints and obstacles. By this time, not only is the market central to everything, but everything is also subject to the rules of the market. The market is free, but we cannot be free from the market.
There are many schools of economics. The one that has been steering us since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, followed up by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, advocates the complete marketization of life. It is all for overcoming obstacles and inefficiencies brought on by the so-called “welfare state” and increasing the integration of the globe into one market. This school is, in a sense, “anti-government” since governments interfere with the invisible hand. But its proponents are usually for small, lean governments that have strong militaries to face threats to the market.
Did you miss this debate? While you were growing up, the invisible hand of capitalism firmly took over your territory. It is global and it has armies. For instance, during the recent downturn, the 1% we talk about took advantage of their opening to gain world domination; now a huge percentage of global wealth is in their hands. The triumph of the invisible hand — a reality most of us don’t even recognize — might be why we don’t share like we could and why we might even be discouraged in our prayer. Yet the church needs sharing and praying more than ever if it is not going to be ground down even more by this powerful force.
We cannot sustain community without sharing money.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
In God’s economy, sharing is motivated by the desire to create community because that is elemental to God’s desire. The work of the cross joins us to Christ as his body. Former motivations from the world system that drove us are healed. We are freed from self-absorption, obsession with our own interests, and fear of scarcity — our desire is turned outward in humble vulnerability and generous service to and with others. Jesus demonstrated that love as God shared life with us, even to the point of death. That’s the basis of the new economy in Christ — unless it is not.
A good half of us have a terrible time sharing because we are still consuming church like a product and are still too afraid of our own present or prospective poverty to share. Lack of sharing kills the church. It is not so much that the church needs a lot of money to survive. We can survive as the church at all sorts of levels. What is important is this: when we don’t share, we do not subvert the anti-sharing of capitalism and we worship the invisible hand by default. We become individual marketers in competition for scarce resources, we become individualized products selling ourselves daily. We become mere pawns in the 1%’s market pretending that our freedom to buy a new gadget or buy the monetized thoughts of the internet is actual choice.
We cannot keep praying if we let the Jesus-free economy deform our desire.
You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God (James 4:2).
All economies are based on desire. Capitalism has mastered the art of making everything about desire, what we want and don’t have. Long ago, James rightly prophesied that such misplaced desire would cause nothing but conflict. The recent, ongoing U.S. wars have proven James right in a large way. They are all about our desire for revenge, desire to be protected and our desire for oil and our “way of life,” aren’t they? Did anyone ask God about that? “Asking God” does not mean getting God to give us what we can’t get in the economy. It means being part of a new economy based on God’s generosity, being in full communion with the one true God and putting the invisible hand in its place.
Many of us have a secret. We stopped praying long ago because we believe the bible of capitalism when it says that education and hard work will get us what we desire. We don’t have time to pray because we are at work or at school. Our schedule barely leaves time for our families, much less some alternative economy. We are content to have a privatized faith, a leisure time faith that we visit a couple of times a month at the Sunday meeting. Our desire is deformed. It is so conformed to the way the world is post-Reagan that we believe it when people say it has always been this way, only now it is better.
I get a sinking feeling some days that we are going to lose the battle. As alternative as Circle of Hope is, as radical as some of us are, as amazing as our thinking and acting really are, the forces sometimes seem stronger. The post-9/11 generation is so scared. The institutions are so much bigger than they were before the attack and before years of warfare, homeland security and recession. Are we still a circle of hope? — or is that just a brand name, now? If we don’t share and we don’t pray, if we don’t do what the church really needs right now, what are we?
God rescues me when I am sinking in such thinking, just like he pulled Peter from the sea that time. Paul also said in Romans 5: Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. And James also said in James 4: God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Whether we share and pray or not, God’s grace is greater. That grace has made us and will keep drawing us toward home.
Why can’t we care about much of anything beyond getting through this week?
I suppose a few of us feel some crushing guilt when we hear such a question. A few of us effectively screened out questions like “Why don’t you care?” a long time ago; we exempted ourselves, because we don’t want to feel guilt anymore. It crushes us.
Ideally, we think of ourselves as caring people. If we are Jesus followers there is quite a bit of pressure to care about others. I think most of us think we are doing OK at meeting the standards. We are probably more caring than other people — especially Israelis who are creating an apartheid system in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinians like Hamas who would sacrifice their whole people for their ideology.
You probably are more caring than they are, and I like to think I am too. But let’s face it. When it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian tragedy the vast majority of us have just barely heard about what is going on — that’s true even though our own church people have been talking about it regularly for over two years. We didn’t read a blog post, we didn’t go to the movie, we didn’t read a newspaper or listen to a broadcast. What’s more, we did not pray about it; we did not figure out how to give money to help suffering people; we did not support others who care more than we do; we did not protest to our elected officials who fund the whole thing; we did not demand an end to weapons production and distribution, etc. If we care at all, why don’t we do something?
Gwen was marveling at a Tupperware pitcher the other day. Someone gave it to us for our wedding and it is still working well. Other pitchers come and go, but the sturdy little Tupperware goes on and on — which, I suppose would be a good reason to trust Tupperware. The corporation would be delighted if you formed a love relationship with your plastic pitcher and the business behind it.
A lot of people do trust Tupperware-like operations. You might know that Tupperware was among the original direct sales organizations that sprung up after World War 2 — Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise gave women something to do after the men came back from the front and told them to go back to the kitchen. Now they have about 2 million people who sell products worldwide. Individual, entrepreneurial capitalism is like the new American dream which comes complete with a post-Christian religious-like philosophy [addictive Tupperware propaganda here].
The method is so ingrained in our society that a lot of people seem to think the church is, essentially, a Tupperware party. You invite a bunch of people, show them your stuff while eating appetizers and try to parlay your relationships into a Jesus sale. People have certainly criticized Circle of Hope because their friends don’t want to come to our Jesus party and buy Jesus. They want to improve the product. That’s if they even want to be involved at all. Plenty of people would rather die than be involved in direct sales!
It is hard to describe the church outside of some economic metaphor, since our imagination for forming society in the United States is almost completely subsumed under how our economy works and what rights and laws are commensurate with making it doable and just. Half the time on the BIC Listserve the men (mostly) of our denomination are talking about politics as if the church has a big stake in the economy of the United States. I think we can do a lot better than merely debating just how crazy the recent Senate vote on watered-down gun laws was (although, Lord knows, the prophets need to turn up the volume). I think we can do better than integrating into the economy.
Intent holds us together
At least I don’t think we have much to say about society until we have a church. The church is how God does his work and demonstrates the life we have received. Here is a great teaching from the Bible that briefly sums up what the church is all about:
[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10).
If you want to sell something, sell that!
Better yet, swear off economic metaphors for describing God’s people altogether, for a while. Because the church is not an economy in the popular, “consumer/free-market capitalism” sense. We are a people who God rules and through whom God reveals the character and purpose that creates us. We ARE a people in which someone can be included. We DO God’s purpose of revelation by which we include ourselves in the destiny of the world, whether it invites us to the party or not.
We don’t need an organization to work out Ephesians 3:10-11. And if the organization we adopt is modeled on consumer capitalism or American political theory, we’d be better off without one! We live out God’s purpose as individuals and in the course of daily life. We should organize our time to do that. The Spirit of God is in us and God is expressing life and love through each of Christ’s followers. But if we want to make ourselves known to the powers and provide a place for people to be included, it is pretty arrogant to think we can do that on our own. And since God’s intent is to work through the church, not just you or me, we should see ourselves as agents of the church, not as a church of me, myself and I. Because God has built each of us into the church, Circle of Hope is organized into cells and into teams. Our cells organize into congregations. Our congregations organize into a network. Our network is part of a denomination and is connected worldwide in creative ways.
What holds it all together? I focus on the word INTENT in Ephesians 3:10. God’s intention is the creative spark that again and again forms the body of Christ and animates it. And God’s intent is met with our similar intent, sparked by God’s Spirit in us making all things new. We hold together by the covenant that makes us a people and the agreements that make us doers of the word in so many ways. Our covenant, in particular, is what makes us more than a Tupperware party. We don’t hold weekly meetings to convince our members to buy another piece of the collection. We are all the “owners” ourselves and we present to others the person of Jesus, not a product; we call for relationship, not self-actualization through endless “freedom of choice.”
The leaders of the men’s retreat were working out our presumption of covenant love throughout the weekend. They took an audacious risk by making their small groups painstakingly diverse, crossing all congregations. Then they went even further by making dyads that were randomly selected by the small group leaders. Then they had these pairs doing intimate, spiritual things. They demonstrated a huge trust in God’s presence in the body. The had a huge faith that individuals would experience God’s truth and love and intentionally follow God’s lead. They assumed they could trust the small groups to include everyone. They trusted the dyads to do spiritual things. They presumed a covenant life and didn’t even allow for too much individual anonymity. I’m sure a few people were blown away, so far out of their comfort zone and over their capability that they are still reeling from it. But I did not hear anything about that yet. What I have heard is story after story of being moved, connected and inspired — and formed into a people as God intended.
Our destiny is to make God’s heart and God’s ways known to the world, to live out the eternal purpose of God made known in Jesus. Our destiny is not merely to keep deciding what we want to do. It is not to keep inviting people into sales events that presume they are merely meant for deciding what they want to do. We share God’s purpose. We are each someone valuable to God, and what we do has meaning beyond our capacity to choose. We are a people through whom God intends to work out his life and purpose, and what we accomplish has eternal ramifications. We have a God-intended destiny, and it defines how we take our steps together.