Thursday, August 31, 2017

Jesus’ Big Ideas

In Jonathan Pennington’s virtue-ethics-based approach to the Sermon on the Mount, the finest example I have seen of a virtue-ethics approach (see The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing), seven big ideas in the Sermon are sketched. (These in addition to “blessing” and “perfection.”) These amount to Seven Big Ideas of Jesus, especially if one approaches Jesus through the lens of the Synoptic Gospels (with an emphasis on Matthew!)
This is a good discussion of the Sermon’s “lexicon” or “dictionary.”
In light of an overall reading of Matthew as well as the emphasis of the Sermon on human flourishing, it makes best sense to interpret dikaiosyne in Matthew not as imputed nor as something only God does, but in its natural ethical sense of what is expected of Jesus’s disciples. In short, it is “doing the will of God” (7:21, 24; 12:50; cf. 6:10; 7:12; 18:14; 26:39, 42), that which is required to enter the kingdom of heaven (5:19-20; 7:21). …
Yet at the same time, as Lee Irons rightly notes, while Matthew is not talking about Pauline justification, his ethical construal of “righteousness” is a “righteousness that rests upon the redemptive-historical and eschatological reality of the coming of the kingdom in the person of Jesus. This is what makes it the higher righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees. In the words of Roland Deines, it is ‘Jesus-righteousness’ (90).

Psalm 137: The Beautifully Dangerous Psalm

Psalm 137 is rarely ever used in worship. Why? Because it is a dangerous psalm.  But we need to read it, study it, and listen to the voice of anguished rage.  Because God is listening to those voices as well.
I remember the first time I heard this music from Godspell.  What a beautiful, mournful song, I thought to myself.  And I know I’ve heard those words before . . . “On the willows there we hung up our lyres.”  Such beautiful, haunting words.  Where have I heard them before?  And then it hit me – Psalm 137.  But I noticed that the song’s lyrics stopped short of the last verses of the Psalm:  “Happy will be the one who does to you what you did to us, O Babylon.  Blessed will be the one who dashes your little ones, your babies against the rock.”
What an awful image!
It’s hard to believe a Psalm like this is in the Bible.  It is so violent!  It speaks of killing babies, of all things.  This is a far cry from Jesus’ words of forgiving your enemies and those who persecute you.
This is raw, uncensored hatred and desire for revenge.  Most people don’t even realize this Psalm is in the Bible.  In fact, a previous version of the ELCA hymnal, The Lutheran Book of Worship, even censored out this psalm altogether from its collection.
Why?  Because it is a dangerous psalm – a beautifully dangerous psalm.
So why is Psalm 137 in the Bible?   . . .

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Mark 1 (2): 1:3-8 Mark and The Lord of the Rings

Now that we have gotten a fix in the last post on what Mark thinks the “good news,” the gospel is: an account and announcement of how Jesus of Nazareth has brought God’s plans for Israel and humanity, his eternal purpose, to its culmination and successful climax. That’s the story he tells in all its peculiarity and grandeur.

Let me posit an analogy that can help us keep both the peculiarity and the grandeur of that story in mind. Remember the three parts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy? The Fellowship of the Ring (FR), The Two Towers (TT), and The Return of the King (RK).

-FR shows the formation of an implausible community tasked with an impossible deed.

-TT dramatizes the perils and the possibilities of the struggle to finish their task.

-RK pictures the “impossible possibility” of the task completed and the afterlife of the community.

I suggest these three categories map pretty well on to the way Mark composed his story of Jesus.

-chs.1-7: Jesus gathers an improbable group of followers and tasks them to follow him on his journey to announce and embody the kingdom of God. Let’s call it the Fellowship of the Bling. Jesus’ community is as ambivalent, confused, and unfocused as Frodo and the gang of FR.

-chs.8-10: Let’s call this section The Two Ways. The towers in Tolkien test the courage, perseverance, and capacity for discernment of the Fellowship of the Ring. The Two Ways are a similar gauntlet Jesus leads the disciples through in these chapters.

-chs.11-16: This section obviously mimics Tolkien’s tale and is “The Return of the King” as well. It narrates the climax and victory of Jesus and gives brief glimpse of the community’s afterlife.

 I will illustrate along the way with examples from the Tolkien’s trilogy.

The King’s Arrival Heralded (1:2-3)

God had told Israel that he will come to rescue his people from exile and that he will send a “messenger of the covenant” (Mal.3:1) to prepare his way in a composite citation of Isa.40 and Mal.3 (though referred to only as Isaiah because he is the more prominent prophet). We already know that Mark’s story is about Jesus so our ears immediately perk up when we hear a prophecy about God’s coming to his people heralding his story.

The term “way” is a key term in Mark, especially in what I am calling the “Two Ways” section (8:27; 9:33-34; 10:17, 32, 36, 52). While the way is a way of life to be practiced, in this first occurrence it is not this ethical aspect that is to the fore. Instead, the stress here is that this way is God’s own way of deliverance and rescue. This focus colors all the rest of the references and should not be eclipsed by the ethical aspect (though the ethical is surely there if subordinate). When we find the way mentioned in Mark we must always remember that we are participating in God’s and Jesus’ way not a way of our own devising or wisdom. The focus remains on God’s initiative and direction. This will be important to recall when the story takes the strange twists and turns it will (see esp. Joel Marcus, The Way of the Lord, 29-47). Whatever comes Mark assures us through this scriptural cite will be the work of God’s will and wisdom.

Focus on God as active and redeeming is a hallmark of Tolkien’s tale as well. Indeed, Fleming Rutledge notes: ”Tolkien understands God in the biblical sense, not as the object of the human quest or journey, not as the goal of human moral striving or human religious activity, but as the active subject, calling and sending, independent of the creation but always ways engaged in redemptive activity on its behalf” (The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien's Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings, Kindle Location 69-70).

The King’s Herald Arrives (1:4-8)

The prophesied herald of the Lord appears suddenly in the story. He’s in the “desert.” Jewish ears hear two nuances in this word. It referred both to a demonic haunt and place of danger and also the place where God meets his people to renew and reconstitute them (Hos.2:14). Probably both senses are intended. This moment inaugurated by this figure in the desert is fraught with promise and peril. The promise is God’s readiness to intervene and lead a New Exodus out of the River the people first crossed to enter the land under Joshua with echoes of Exodus sounding loud and clear.

A New Exodus was a treasured hope of Israel. It was among the fondest hopes of the Jews. When an Elijah-like figure, John the Baptist, appears at the river preaching baptism and repentance, well, the Jews took notice and came running to find out what was going on.

And what was going on in John’s baptism?

“What was it for? It was for “repentance” and “the forgiveness of sins.” The Jews who came out to John were not “repenting of their sins so they could be forgiven and go to heaven when they die.” They were repenting of both personal and national sins. As Jews they were repenting of their Jewish national sins. And why? So that YHWH would return His presence to them…so that they could have a king again, be a great nation again, and finally be God’s people to rule the world. The significance of the Jordan River should be obvious—they were symbolically passing over the Jordan River, ready to “take possession” of the Land and the promises of YHWH. It was their symbolic “New Exodus” declaration” (

A new and decisive moment in God’s subversive counter-revolutionary action to reclaim and restore his creation to his creational designs was launching. John the Baptist was its herald and in the Jordan River he was enlisting all who would submit to the baptism that marked their readiness for the struggle.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Five Non-Negotiables for White Folks In Pursuing Reconciliation

“Racial reconciliation” is all the rage. Increasingly, younger white Christians are professing their desire for unity across ethnic lines. Christianity Today recently ran a piece noting the growing tendency of white evangelicals to recognize the systemic nature of racism and to desire to do something about it. However, for white folks, racial reconciliation is often treated as one more “add-on” to self-identity, a means to “presenting” a favorable public persona. Being “for” racial reconciliation becomes one more proverbial “feather in the cap.” White folks often don’t engage in the hard, humbling work required to pursue a just reconciliation, but instead we engage with others on our own terms, which is not reconciliation at all. When we recognize the need for the decentering of white identity, we grow uncomfortable and revert to familiar patterns that reinforce mechanisms of social control and white privilege.

Pursuing reconciliation requires the peripheralization of whiteness. This does not mean that having white skin is inherently sinful or that appreciating historically “white” cultural particularities is necessarily problematic. However, this is not the way white identity has functioned in modernity. Since at least the days of colonization, whiteness has been presented as the universal “good.” In this sense, “whiteness” names a way of being in the world, a sociopolitical order that is best understood as idolatry. Pursuing reconciliation demands that the altars of whiteness be cast down and its high places laid low.

Here are 5 practices in which white folks must engage if we are to seriously pursue reconciliation:

1.    We must repent for complicity in systemic sin.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Mark 1 Where Would a Gospel Begin? (1:1)

Israel in exile heard these words through the prophet Isaiah:

How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

The “good news” Isaiah announced as promise Mark proclaims as fulfilled. Fulfilled in Jesus Messiah, Son of God. In fact, he apparently created the genre of “gospel” as an account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfilment of God’s story with Israel and the world.

The word “gospel” refers to an announcement of an event that changes things in the wider public world. That’s what it meant when the Romans used this word to announce a great military victory, the accession of a new emperor, or the birth of an heir to the sitting emperor. Mark believes that the world has been changed by who and what happened through this Jesus.

In this statement, the title to his gospel, Mark tells his readers the “time” they live in. Greek had two words for time. “Chronos” (chronology) was linear time, minute after minute, week after week, and so forth. History as chronicle. What Henry Ford famously described as “just one damn thing after another.” But there was also “Kairos” time. Filled time. Time pregnant with meaning. A day of reckoning of some kind. A time of waking, being “woke,” as we say these days.

“Beginning” and “Messiah” (“Christ” = Messiah) are the two clues Mark gives for us to tell time accurately. In the story he tells of an obscure Galilean peasant crucified as a traitor by the Romans he finds the high point and decisive display of God’s plan for the world. A plan Jesus has enacted bringing a new state of affairs in the world to be. Public change, political change, personal change.

What has happened Mark alludes to with the word “beginning.” This good news has to do with a “beginning.” Again, we have an allusion to the Old Testament, perhaps to its most famous and first verse: “In the beginning God created . . .” Some deny this and claim the “beginning” means only the onset of the ministry of Jesus. Like the translation in the Good News Bible: “This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It began as the prophet Isaiah had written . . .” But might there not be more in “beginning” than a historical marker? Might it allude to “the” beginning as well, to Gen.1, and draw in the resonance that this “beginning” in Jesus grows out of and embodies God’s “big picture” plan for the word?

Calling Jesus “Messiah” points in this direction in my view. It ties Jesus to the whole history of God with Israel and with the world. Messiah in much of Jewish thought in Jesus’ time was the special agent God would send to rescue them from their oppressive overlords, drive them out of town, rebuild the temple, and restore Israel to its premier place among all nations. This Messiah would rule both Israel and the world. It’s this story from which he emerges and in which he enacts (for more on this story see the “Preface to God’s SCRM Story”).

Mark ends his title with “Son of God.” This term used in this context means more than its use to refer to Israel’s human kings and less than the Second Person of the Trinity of Christian theology not had not yet developed. Cranfield is probably right to suggest this refers to Jesus’ special sense of relation to the Father (Mark, 55) as we see later in this chapter at his baptism. “Son of God” will develop into more as the church reflects on it in the early centuries of its life but historically it means that Messiah, a human figure in Jewish thought, when applied to Jesus takes on more than human (but not less than human!) resonances. We will note these resonances as we meet them and that way see how Mark fills out this title.

In short, in Jesus a new day, new age, new creation has dawned! Because it is the new age of God’s fulfilling his gracious plans for all of us and everything, it is truly “good news.” And that’s what Jesus Christ means to Mark. The story about him and the good news he came to proclaim and live out converge in its retelling. It is both Mark’s words about Jesus and Jesus’ Word to us from God.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Evangelizing Metaphysics

by Peter J. Leithart 8 . 25 . 17

For much of the past century, theologians have busied themselves reconceiving the doctrine of the Trinity. Taking cues from Adolf von Harnack, some complain that the lively God of the Bible was domesticated by the fateful triumph of “classical theism,” which imprisoned the Triune God in the static, ahistorical, impersonal categories of Greek philosophy. Heidegger captured the mood: No one, he famously said, would want to pray, sacrifice, sing, or dance before Aristotle’s unmoved Mover.

Classical theists have been making a comeback of late, insisting that the tradition is better than detractors claim and that the supposed innovations have been unhelpful at best, heterodox at worst.

Both sides are half-wrong, or, more charitably, half-right. The classical theists are right about the tradition: Trinitarian theology isn’t an Athenian captivity of the Church. The innovators are right that the concepts and formulations of Trinitarian theology have been and can be refined.

It’s best to follow Robert Jenson here. . .

Harry Potter and the Mission of the Church

(I have shamelessly stolen this approach and some of its main ideas for this piece from Chris Crass,” Expecto Patronum: Lessons From Harry Potter for Social Justice Organizing,” Sunday, December 15, 2013, Truthout)

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is far more than a work of young adult fiction. Like Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, her Potter stories encode a way of being she promotes. It’s not the Christian vision underwriting the Lewis and Tolkien tales. But neither is it antithetical to it. Rowling’s vision seems to reflect the kind of secularized Christianism that used to order life in the West. I say
“used to” because of late He Who Must Not be Named and his Dementor and Death Eater minions are shaking the already rickety foundations of that secularized Christianism.

They are the antagonists that threaten Rowling’s similar world in the Potter stories. And that attack is focused on Hogwarts, the wizarding academy whose magic powers are ranged against the unholy trinity just named. Hogwarts is among various wizarding schools which populate the “world beyond the everyday world,” the muggle world in the stories. Though the wizarding and muggle worlds are to be kept separate, Voldemort’s attack and takeover of Hogwarts, however, compromised that buffer and evil magic begin to destabilize the muggle world.

There’s a certain similarity here between a Christian view of the world and Rowling’s. And many observers identify the weakness of the church as a key part of what is weakening the foundations of our world. Sam Speers at New City Commons lists the factors in this weakening including, “the waning cultural influence of churches and other virtue-forming institutions (and, too often, the silence or inarticulacy of American churches in times of moral crisis).” His colleague Emily Gunn describes the cost of such weakening:

“the only response to daily rituals of dehumanization is to combat them with daily rituals of dignity. It will be impossible to respond well to extreme moments of racial hatred and nationalist delusion—and when those moments come, we must respond—if we do not immerse ourselves in the daily task of respecting our neighbors and our enemies, insisting on their dignity and our own.”

The world of muggles and wizards goes through a crisis similar to our own world in the stories. Infernal powers attack the most important site of resistance to their designs: the wizard school at Hogwarts. This bastion of resistance to the machinations of Voldemort for total power requires the defeat of Albus Dumbledore, the great wizard and headmaster at Hogwarts, and his work to resist Voldemort centered at the school. I suggest that the church is a fair analogy for the role Hogwarts plays in Harry Potter’s world.

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.

I want to explore some ways I see Rowling’s Potter epic suggesting ways for the church to effectively resist the Voldemortian attacks on its integrity and identity by the unholy trinity. But first a quick look at the kind of world Voldemort wants:

-a classist society based on socially accredited biological differences.                                      -criminalize those on the margins and divide classes based on ethnicity and politics.                                                                                                     -those at the top claim to be the defenders of the way Tradition and the Natural Order have constructed the world.                                                                                                                                  -Use fear and hate to weaken the bonds of human connection while simultaneously uniting those at the top.

That’s a pretty good description of our world too, don’t you think?


Part of (d)evil’s work is to get inside our heads and distract and divert us from faithfulness to God. If we attend to these distractions and diversions we will find ourselves far from where we want to be and far from who we want to be. While we never fully and finally ward off these attacks, we can make progress. When Harry is paralyzed by thoughts Voldemort used to distract and divert him, suggesting how similar the two were, Dumbledore comes to his aid whispering to him “Harry, it isn't how you are alike, it is how you are not."                                                 Harry then sees his family and tells Voldemort, "You're the weak one, and you will never know love or friendship. And I feel sorry for you."  

Wise mentors and genuine community are two resources God has given us in the struggle with our Voldemort. Further, our experiences of being loved both heal and strengthen us to act from love. It is our essential difference from who we were and how we lived that constitutes our witness. As MLK, Jr. noted, it is the community that generates this difference: "Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives."               


Dementors were among Voldemort’s chief minions. Greatly feared, these creatures were armed with the power, as Professor Lupin explains, to "drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them . . . every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life." Harry and his friends have one weapon to defeat and repel Dementors with: A Patronus Charm. This entails summoning a protective guardian in the shape of an animal that can rid one of their Dementors. These foul beasts guard prisons. They seek to imprison us in our fears or prevent us from breaking out of them. Our Patronus emerges out of our deepest, fondest memories, one rooted in love.

We can parse this process in a number of different ways depending on our particular experiences. I find one of mine in a little used but quite remarkable passage in 2 Peter 1. The writer there lists a number of virtues all of us would like to mark our lives: faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. If, however, these marks of growth and maturity in Christ do not mark our lives, this lack comes from one simple (or perhaps not so simple) factor: “For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins” (v.9.) I still recall with joy and tears the day I realized how fully, completely, and unconditionally God has forgiven me in Christ.


Community is essential. There’s no way to be Christian alone. We need each other as we have already seen. And we also need an institutional embodiment of this community. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or highly formal. But it does need to be organic. Hogwarts, and the Order of the Phoenix illustrate this in Potter’s wizarding world.

Every movement has a life and that life needs to take on a form and shape to sustain itself. We can’t start with the form unless it is highly elastic. Organic institutions or forms have five characteristics. They are

-nourished by and are the primary place where new and existing participants experience the counter-narratives which constitute their call, identity, and vocation in their world. In Walter Brueggemann’s words, they share and savor dangerous memories.

-partakers of the mystery of life that sustains them. Baptism and eucharist are the forms of partaking that sustain the church. A dangerous presence lives at their heart.

-even as their boundaries form and shepherd the life they share the life within pushes them to transgress those boundaries perpetually incorporating a wider cross section of people than they have before. This ongoing rhythm of establishing/transgressing boundaries is ingredient to the life of God’s people. This constant integration and reinterpretation of the boundaries builds the beloved community which serves as a prototype of God’s design for human life. The church, then, is a dangerous demographic that breaks boundaries and taboos and remains endlessly open to new life and the gifts of others (Michel De Certeau).

-dangerously different not pliantly domesticated to the word around them. The community is immersed in the daily life of their context and in the crucible of that life learn the ways to help and serve others, to become a “church for others” following Jesus who is the “man for others.”

-Finally, they remember their saints and martyrs. “At the end of the Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore challenges everyone at Hogwarts to ‘Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.’"

We are struggling in our culture at present with the meaning of monuments and remembering the past. The capacity of the people of God to remember truly and well the people worthy of it and the lives is a gift we must carefully cultivate in our congregations and share in appropriate ways with our world.


The life and mission of this community is based on gifts. The apostle Paul lists the fivefold gifting of leadership God gives his people in Ephesians 4: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. These folks curate the life that grounds and nurtures the people to discover and express their gifts in serving Christ.

In Harry’s world it is Hermione Granger who demonstrates the importance of giftedness. For she is the “pastor” par excellence in the stories.

Harry, and to a lesser degree Ron, exhibit apostolic and prophetic gifts and it is Hermione who turns that energy into building a movement rooted more broadly in the hopes and dreams of the Dumbledore supporters at Hogwarts. She understands that the struggle cannot be simply Harry against He Who Must Not be Named. That’s how he sees it most of the time. But Hermione is often able to integrate his passions and exertions into a larger movement for freedom and justice. Without her Harry would never become who he needed to be to truly defeat Voldemort.                                                                                                                       

She demonstrates the power of leading with others, rather than over them. “Hers is a leadership based in respect earned through years of building positive relationships, providing support and encouragement and consistently acting in a principled way” (Chris Crass).

As a muggle-born, an outsider, Hermione leverages that experience when she defies intimidation by the house of Slytherin. Further, she uses the knowledge gained as an outsider to motivate and bring others together in a united front Hermione shows the best strategic thinking in the group and routinely sees connection and draws accurate conclusions about what is going on and needs to be done.-Hermione routinely manifested the best big-picture thinking of what's going on, knows who can be counted on, and knows how to bring people together                                                 
Hermione’s “feminist” leadership is a refreshing portrayal of the riches of leadership with others. Rowling has crafted a powerful and integrated picture of a richer kind of pastoral leadership that exceeds what we tend to see as “male” or “female” and can thus service as inspiration for all those of us who aspire t

Thursday, August 24, 2017

What Moderates Believe

David Brooks AUG. 22, 2017

Donald Trump is not the answer to this nation’s problems, so the great questions of the moment are: If not Trump, what? What does the reaction to Trump look like?

For some people, the warriors of the populist right must be replaced by warriors of the populist left. For these people, Trump has revealed an ugly authoritarian tendency in American society that has to be fought with relentless fervor and moral clarity.

For others, it’s Trump’s warrior mentality itself that must be replaced. Warriors on one side inevitably call forth warriors on the other, and that just means more culture war, more barbarism, more dishonesty and more dysfunction.

The people in this camp we will call moderates. Like most of you, I dislike the word moderate. It is too milquetoast. But I’ve been inspired by Aurelian Craiutu’s great book “Faces of Moderation” to stick with this word, at least until a better one comes along.

Moderates do not see politics as warfare. . .

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.