Monday, August 21, 2017

Jesus' Temptations and Competitors and the Church

The Church’s Temptations

The devil tested Jesus by offering him three (false) ways of being Messiah and, thus, three ways of being God’s people. Ways that would offer no challenge to satanic rule over the world. Ironically, each of these three entangle God’s people in colluding with devilish designs in substantial ways.

We begin here because this bad news or our collusion with the enemy sets a necessary negative foil for our reflections in this presentation.


Jesus was tempted to provide bread for the masses. He rejected this temptation by pointing to the primacy and sufficiency of God’s Word. Rebuffed by Jesus, that old snake continued to ply God’s people with the same temptation. “Give the people what they want! Meet their felt needs! Feed them! Clothe them! Satisfy their needs and wants. Even in church, present God as the great vendor of religious services who will service their every spiritual need! Make consumers of them! They’ll love you and flock to you. And bring their friends.”

Mike Breen points out the problem here:

The problem is at the end of the day, the only thing that Jesus is counting is disciples. That’s it. He doesn’t seem to care too much about converts, attendance, budgets or buildings. It’s about disciples. And, by nature, disciples are producers, not consumers. Yet most of our churches are built around feeding consumers” (


American Christians have been perpetual suckers for religious hucksters. We want celebrities for our pastors. We think that fame and notoriety are ways to secure the significance and security were all seek and need. We may disavow Joel Osteen’s theology but many of us still wish our church was big and famous like his. Such fame gives outsiders something desirable to consume. It is not surprising to find a consumeristic mentality hand-in-hand with a celebrity preacher.

Breen again pinpoints the problem:

“Many subtle things happen in people who desire to this kind of celebrity status: They can disengage community and isolate themselves, setting themselves up for moral failure. They can make decisions that are numbers driven and not always Kingdom driven. They can skew to a shallow understanding of the Gospel as opposed to a holistic one that leads people to discipleship. They can put the good of their church (their personal Kingdom) over the good of God’s Kingdom.” And their churches often enable them in these distortions.


It’s not news to any of us that America is a very competitive country. It’s almost considered the essence of life. Competing, acquiring, having – is the American creed. And when churches are competing with each other, no longer for non-churched people, but for other churches’ members (which is the case today), well, the devil has won big time! And any “growth” experienced in this manner will not be growth that enhances the Kingdom of God. Breen writes:

“So gifted and skilled is our enemy, so conniving is he, that he has convinced us that beating the people on our own team is victory while he stands back and laughs, rarely having to ever engage in conflict, protecting his territory. He is beating us with a slight of hand, with a clever distraction, turning us against ourselves.”

Consumerism, celebrity, and competition are one important way to indicate the shape of the malaise choking the life out of the American church. That’s the reality we face and why I say we’ve never experienced the church.

Jesus’ Competitors

Jesus also faced four major competitors to define Israel’s identity and vocation. One (Sadducees) chose to go along with Rome to get along in the world and carve out a comfortable and lucrative niche for themselves. Many of them were leaders in the temple and wanted to keep it from doing anything to tick Rome off and jeopardize their standing. They believed in the Bible, of course, Well, actually, they believed in the torah the five books of Moses. It trumped the prophets and writings. Allen Ross notes: “Josephus confirms that the Sadducees denied the resurrection, the immortality of the soul, eternal rewards, or the ‘world to come.’ The Sadducees kept their focus on the status quo of the nation of Israel in this world and not the next” (

Those who are not driven by a vision of a most desirable future will settle for a present that in some way grants a significance and security to the now that must be fought for and defended. A church that does not believe in the resurrection, that has not believed it in such a way as to bet their lives on it, can only be a “Sadducee” church. It will align itself comfortably with the powers that be and make sure the church never troubles those powers. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer well put it: “Christ overcame death as the last enemy . . . from the resurrection of Christ . . . a new and purifying wind can blow through our present world. If only a few people really believed that and acted on it in their daily lives, a great deal would be changed. To live in the light of resurrection—that is what Easter means.” (    )

Pharisees were local community leaders who had as their goal to prepare Israel to be the people God wanted it to be when he returned to liberate it from its bondage. Their name probably comes from a root meaning to “separate.” And that is what they wanted for Israel, a community “separate” from the pagan world. “Holy” as a community which focuses on the characteristics that marks it out as distinct from the rest of the world. This was how the Pharisees believed they ought to shape Israel to be a community fit for God to receive and use when he returned.

This drive to make Israel “holy” in terms of separation from the rest of the world, Jesus turned on its head with his vision of holiness which sent his people into the world of unclean pagans confident that his touch of holiness through them would turn their uncleanness into cleanness and welcome them as God’s people too. No wonder he and the Pharisees kept bumping heads all the time!

A “Pharisee” church will be one that uses the rules to keep the people clear of the world and its lures and temptations. Its ministry will focus inward on serving the people already in the community. It provides many (too many) programs and activities that keep the people with others in the church rather than reaching to those outside. Holy Huddles are one name for churches that live this way. They often (though not always) privilege prayer, Bible study, and evangelism over doing works of mercy and justice in the world. What is important here is maintaining a clear line of demarcation between the church and the world.

“Essenes” believed the worship and service in the temple was so utterly corrupt that the only faithful response was to flee to the desert and set up community there to devote themselves to study and the practices that will make them ready for God when he returned. Here hope for world is set aside (it too is hopelessly corrupt) and only the arrival of the Messiah can help now.

No church today is really analogous to the Essenes in all its respects. But I suggest the “Spiritual but not religious” group may be the closest. They too believe the traditional church and religion are corrupt and immoral. They have left and begun to find their own way apart from organized religion. Sometimes they form groups of folks who are also seeking non-institutional, non-religious forms of faith. But many do not and pursue a personal and individual path. These folks have nothing like the highly disciplined communal practice of the Essenes. But in their judgment on the corruption of the religion of the institutional church there are perhaps some analogies.

Jesus had no interest in the Essene way. His way was “spiritual and religious.” While he pronounced judgment on the temple, and its coming destruction, he also proclaimed himself God’s new temple in whom people could now find all they sought from God. And his people in him were “living stones” (1 Pet.2:2) forming this new temple as his corporate body. Jesus intends his people be “in” the world (as a recognizable community or “institution”) at the same time as they are not “of” the world in their source, equipping, and outlook.

Finally, we have the Zealots or at least their precursors. Taking up arms is their answer to the problem of Israel’s Roman overlords and their idolatrous presence in the land. They believed that waiting any longer was unfaithful and their murder of Romans would incite their fellow Jews to emulate them.

Jesus rejected the way of violence at every turn.  His zeal burned every bit as hot as theirs for the liberation and purification of the land. But he understood something about God that they did not. God’s love for his people was but a prelude to his love for everyone and his desire to include them among his people. God is patient and prodigal with his love. Far beyond what humans would consider appropriate or proper. Jesus’ zeal, therefore, burned with a far longer fuse and a respect for others as beloved by God as well.

Zealotry in our time we call culture wars. Liberals, progressives, conservatives, and evangelicals all have been engaged in culture wars in our country over at least the last 30-40 years. While most (but not all) eschew physical violence, these skirmishes have clearly lacked the same patience and respect for opponents that Jesus did.

Jesus’ people are to share in God’s patience and respect for others. However, we engage our culture, the way of the culture war (as we know it) is not the way. We do practice a violence of sorts, but it is the “violence of love” (Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love). That’s Jesus’ way.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world

Last summer, researchers at the International Monetary Fund settled a long and bitter debate over “neoliberalism”: they admitted it exists. Three senior economists at the IMF, an organisation not known for its incaution, published a paper questioning the benefits of neoliberalism. In so doing, they helped put to rest the idea that the word is nothing more than a political slur, or a term without any analytic power. The paper gently called out a “neoliberal agenda” for pushing deregulation on economies around the world, for forcing open national markets to trade and capital, and for demanding that governments shrink themselves via austerity or privatisation. The authors cited statistical evidence for the spread of neoliberal policies since 1980, and their correlation with anaemic growth, boom-and-bust cycles and inequality.

Neoliberalism is an old term, dating back to the 1930s, but it has been revived as a way of describing our current politics – or more precisely, the range of thought allowed by our politics. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, it was a way of assigning responsibility for the debacle, not to a political party per se, but to an establishment that had conceded its authority to the market. For the Democrats in the US and Labour in the UK, this concession was depicted as a grotesque betrayal of principle. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, it was said, had abandoned the left’s traditional commitments, especially to workers, in favour of a global financial elite and the self-serving policies that enriched them; and in doing so, had enabled a sickening rise in inequality . . .

From an essay I'm writing on "Harry Potter and the Mission of the Church"

Opposing the church in our world is a foe of great power with its own design on world domination. Whether we personify this power in a devil figure or see it as an impersonal power or force is less important than recognizing the existence of malignant intent in the universe and its strategic plans to usurp God’s place in the world. I like to picture this power as an unholy trinity – Mars, Mammon, and Me. The undoing of our Hogwarts, the church, has its focal point in the primacy of the self, the power of “stuff”, and the efficacy of violence.

How to Make Fun of Nazis


August 17, 2017

For decades, Wunsiedel, a German town near the Czech border, has struggled with a parade of unwanted visitors. It is the birthplace of one of Adolf Hitler’s deputies, a man named Rudolf Hess. And every year, to residents’ chagrin, neo-Nazis marched to his grave site there. The town had staged counterdemonstrations to dissuade these pilgrims. In 2011 it had exhumed Hess’s body and even removed his grave stone. But undeterred, the neo-Nazis returned. So in 2014, the town tried a different tactic: humorous subversion.

The campaign, called Rechts Gegen Rechts — the Right Against the Right — turned the march into Germany’s “most involuntary walkathon.” For every meter the neo-Nazis marched, local residents and businesses pledged to donate 10 euros (then equivalent to about $12.50) to a program that helps people leave right-wing extremist groups, called EXIT Deutschland.

They turned the march into a mock sporting event. Someone stenciled onto the street “start,” a halfway mark and a finish line, as if it were a race. Colorful signs with silly slogans festooned the route. “If only the F├╝hrer knew!” read one. “Mein Mampf!” (my munch) read another that hung over a table of bananas. A sign at the end of the route thanked the marchers for their contribution to the anti-Nazi cause — €10,000 (close to $12,000). And someone showered the marchers with rainbow confetti at the finish line.

The approach has spread to several other German towns and one in Sweden (where it was billed as Nazis Against Nazis).

Thursday, August 17, 2017

We Need a New Republic

By Daron AcemogluDaron Acemoglu is a co-author with James A. Robinson of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. , Simon JohnsonSimon Johnson is the Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan School of Management. He is also a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C.

August 15, 2017

Most Americans tend to believe that they’ve lived under the same form of government, more or less, since the country was founded in late 1700s. They’re mistaken.

It’s true that there have been important continuities. The American conception of what government should and should not do is deeply rooted in clear thinking at the start of the republic; the country has long preferred limited government and effective constraints on capricious executive action. But this persistence of core ideas (and the consistent use of the same buildings in Washington, D.C.) obscures the dramatic changes that have taken place within the governing institutions themselves.

In fact, formidable challenges at the end of the 19th century were met by fashioning a transformation so thorough it could effectively be deemed a “Second Republic.” This new republic came with significantly different economic and political rules — and, as a result, enabled the American system to survive and even thrive for another century. Today, faced with serious economic and political dysfunction, we are in need of another round of deep institutional renewal: a Third Republic.

The conditions that brought about the first transformation of American society are strikingly similar to those we see today. At the root of the problems confronting the United States by 1900 was a wave of innovation that sped up growth. The direct benefits of these new technologies accrued to a few, while many others became more uncertain about their economic future.

Early in the 21st century, we have reached a similar phase; the latest technology enables the offshoring of many of the manufacturing jobs that had previously been the mainstay of the middle class, or automates them out of existence. And we witness newly extreme concentrations of economic power, which are again making our politics less genuinely democratic.

There are differences too, of course. The modification of the American republic early in the 20th century would not have been feasible, for instance, without the Civil War, which tore down slavery. Still, there are lessons to be learned.

The prime driver of reform at the end of the 19th century was the progressive movement, itself a reaction to the accelerating technological change and the rise of oligarchs. If America as we know it — or, even better, a renewed, reinvigorated version of it — is to survive for yet another century, it will have to replicate the progressives’ achievements. The first task will be to understand the degree of improvisation which accounted for those successes.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Why slippery slope arguments should not stop us from removing Confederate monuments

The inside track on Washington politics.

August 15 at 10:28 PM



Following the violence in Charlottesville, Va. that was sparked by plans to remove the Robert E. Lee statue, cities across the country are stepping up efforts to pull Confederate monuments from public spaces. Cities across the country are stepping up efforts to pull Confederate monuments from public spaces. (Reuters)

Following the violence in Charlottesville, Va. that was sparked by plans to remove the Robert E. Lee statue, cities across the country are stepping up efforts to pull Confederate monuments from public spaces. (Reuters)

This past weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia arose from a gathering of racists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists, whose ostensible purpose was to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Over the last several years, efforts to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces have gathered steam because more and more people are coming to realize that government should not honor people who principal claim to fame was fighting a war in defense of the evil institution of slavery.

Defenders of Confederate monuments sometimes try to argue that slavery actually had nothing to do with the Civil War and secession. This theory is undermined by the Confederates’ own explanation of their motives, including those in the Southern states’ official statements outlining their reasons for secession, which focus on slavery far more than any other issue, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who famously said that “slavery . . . was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution” and that protecting it was the “cornerstone” of the new Confederate government .  . .

Monday, August 14, 2017

Trump Is Not the Problem

His election is the consequence of a crisis that’s been brewing for a long time.

August 8, 2017

Like it or not, the president of the United States embodies America itself. The individual inhabiting the White House has become the preeminent symbol of who we are and what we represent as a nation and a people. In a fundamental sense, he is us. It was not always so. Millard Fillmore, the 13th president (1850–1853), presided over but did not personify the American republic. He was merely the federal chief executive. Contemporary observers did not refer to his term in office as the Age of Fillmore. With occasional exceptions, Abraham Lincoln in particular, much the same could be said of Fillmore’s successors. They brought to office low expectations, which they rarely exceeded. So when Chester A. Arthur (1881–1885) or William Howard Taft (1909–1913) left the White House, there was no rush to immortalize them by erecting gaudy shrines—now known as “presidential libraries”—to the glory of their presidencies. In those distant days, ex-presidents went back home or somewhere else where they could find work.

Over the course of the past century, all that has changed. Ours is a republic that has long since taken on the trappings of a monarchy, with the president inhabiting rarefied space as our king-emperor. The Brits have their woman in Buckingham Palace. We have our man in the White House.

Nominally, the Constitution assigns responsibilities and allocates prerogatives to three co-equal branches of government. In practice, the executive branch enjoys primacy. Prompted by a seemingly endless series of crises since the Great Depression and World War II, presidents have accumulated ever-greater authority, partly through usurpation, but more often than not through forfeiture.

At the same time, they also took on various extraconstitutional responsibilities. By the beginning of the present century, Americans took it for granted that the occupant of the Oval Office should function as prophet, moral philosopher, style setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and—last but hardly least—celebrity in chief. In short, POTUS was the bright star at the center of the American solar system.

As recently as a year ago, few saw in this cult of the presidency cause for complaint. On odd occasions, some particularly egregious bit of executive tomfoolery might trigger grumbling about an “imperial presidency.” Yet rarely did such complaints lead to effective remedial action. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 might be considered the exception that proves the rule. Inspired by the disaster of the Vietnam War and intended to constrain presidents from using force without congressional buy-in and support, that particular piece of legislation ranks alongside the Volstead Act of 1919(enacted to enforce Prohibition) as among the least effective ever to become law.

In truth, influential American institutions—investment banks and multinational corporations, churches and universities, big =city newspapers and TV networks, the bloated national-security apparatus and both major political parties—have found reason aplenty to endorse a system that elevates the president to the status of demigod. By and large, it’s been good for business, whatever that business happens to be.

Furthermore, it’s our president—not some foreign dude—who is, by common consent, the most powerful person in the universe. For inhabitants of a nation that considers itself both “exceptional” and “indispensable,” this seems only right and proper. So Americans generally like it that their president is the acknowledged Leader of the Free World rather than some fresh-faced pretender from France or Canada.

Then came the Great Hysteria. Arriving with a Pearl Harbor–like shock, it erupted on the night of November 8, 2016, just as the news that Hillary Clinton was losing Florida and appeared certain to lose much else besides became apparent.

Suddenly, all the habits and precedents that had contributed to empowering the modern American presidency no longer made sense. That a single deeply flawed individual along with a handful of unelected associates and family members should be entrusted with determining the fate of the planet suddenly seemed the very definition of madness.

Emotion-laden upheavals producing behavior that is not entirely rational are hardly unknown in the American experience. Indeed, they recur with some frequency. The Great Awakenings of the 18th and early 19th centuries are examples of the phenomenon. So also are the two Red Scares of the 20th century, the first in the early 1920s and the second, commonly known as “McCarthyism,” coinciding with the onset of the Cold War.

Yet the response to Donald Trump’s election, combining as it has fear, anger, bewilderment, disgust, and something akin to despair, qualifies as an upheaval without precedent. History itself had seemingly gone off the rails. The crude Andrew Jackson’s 1828 ousting of an impeccably pedigreed president, John Quincy Adams, was nothing compared to the vulgar Donald Trump’s defeat of an impeccably credentialed graduate of Wellesley and Yale who had served as first lady, United States senator, and secretary of state. A self-evidently inconceivable outcome—all the smart people agreed on that point—had somehow happened anyway.