Jesus Radicals Blog 2005-2017
By: Brett Gershon
Within the last year, we have witnessed a tremendously significant political upheaval in the United States that has been galvanized by the emergence of a strong white identity-politics. A recent article published in the Huffington Post discusses how while the past several decades have been characterized by a white majority who has operated largely unaware of its whiteness, a strong sense of white identity has been slowly building as people perceive the dominant status of whiteness to be threatened. Those who now occupy seats of power have expertly manipulated the fears of the average white person to believe that their collective interests are at odds not with the upper-crust of capitalist society, but instead with racial and ethnic minorities.
Simultaneously, as the white middle-class retreats more deeply into the insularity of white identity-politics, a growing Christian culture that views the Trump presidency as a means to “bring heaven to earth,” is becoming increasingly intertwined with whiteness and its compulsion to fear the racialized other. As people of color continue to fight for their very lives, it is whiteness that impels us to perceive Black struggle to be an affront to our own existence and cling to whatever political foothold we have to preserve ourselves. This is as true of the so called “Alt-Right,” supporters of the Trump presidency, and other conservative leaning White folks as it is of the White liberal who proud of their “open-mindedness” and "commitment to diversity" is quite comfortable in their existence at the center of our social world and when challenged as such will often dive into histrionic fits of White fragility to shield themselves. But what does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say to us as we are tempted to strengthen our borders and embolden the social and political lines that have been drawn around us? To answer this question, I pause amidst this Lenten season to reflect upon the central story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and ask what this story has to say to the construct of race as it is being employed in the service of power today.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. For many Christians, it is a season of repentance.
I’ve been thinking a lot about repentance lately, since I’m writing a book on repentance. I’ve become increasingly aware of the inability of our culture to embrace repentance. By “our culture” I mean white western culture–particularly as expressed in the United States.
We are enmeshed within a cultural ethos that looks forward. We assume that progress will resolve the problems of the past without requiring us to embrace lives of repentance. We learn history, but when we notice injustices in the past, we are urged to move on–to consume the information–but must not dwell there. To dwell in the past is seen as anti-social. However, repentance means coming to terms with the past–to not only own our complicity and relationship with past (and ongoing) wrongs, as well as return to those stories that should shape us as followers of Jesus Christ.
By: Brian Miller
“I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled.”
These are the words of a man on a journey of descent. It is not for us to judge whether these words are real or not—or where this descent will lead. The life of Tiger Woods over the last number of months illustrates the universal principle for the human situation, that if we want to experience healing and hope, our journey requires descent. Either we humble ourselves and choose descent, or descent chooses us (because of our own choices).
Our gospel lesson calls us again to embrace descent. Luke’s gospel situates the narrative of the temptation of Jesus directly after the “mountain top” experience of his baptism. Now, full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is led into the wilderness. Somewhere in the course of a forty day fast, Jesus became famished. Jesus is utterly human. He is weak. He is vulnerable. He is dependent on the Holy Spirit. The devil comes to him.
Jesus, turn this stone into bread… Jesus, turn this tax return into the good life… Jesus, bless me and expand my territory–my right to buy and use my way to happiness. And while you are at it Jesus, why don’t you take care of the bread problem. You could have such an effective ministry as the Son of God if you would just solve the bread problem in the world. And besides, you look a bit hungry yourself.
The first temptation is framed around the most basic issue of human life—bread. This first temptation (and the other two) are based on a false premise—that Jesus needs to prove he is the Son of God. Jesus is concerned about the bread problem in the world, but this is not the way it will be solved in his kingdom—by miraculous acts of stone into bread. His kingdom IS about bread—both physical and spiritual, but it will require an alternative way of thinking about bread.
Bread is the source of life. Every culture, every system, every ideology tells some story about bread and our relationship to it. Capitalism teaches us how to make bread (or anything) and sell it for a profit in the market. Socialism attempts to artificially control the bread market so that all will have an equal amount. On the streets, you do whatever it takes to turn stone into bread. Each of these approaches to bread provides a different way of thinking about our relationship with bread.
What does Jesus say about bread? Jesus says that one does not live by bread alone. Jesus says it is not so much about the bread, but about the word of God—the framing story through which we make sense of our lives and the world. The Gospel of the Kingdom is about a different way of being in relationship with bread.
So much violence in our world…within ourselves has to do with living in framing stories which establish a distorted relationship with bread. Both with Jesus and with the physical things which are necessary for human life.
So we don’t depend on Jesus to turn stones into bread to solve the bread problem of our world. Jesus, in his Kingdom, calls us to share our loaves and fishes…or pennies.
Second temptation: Glory and Authority in exchange for Power…
Jesus, here are all the kingdoms of the world. I will give their glory and all this authority to you… Jesus, here is a list of candidates we need to get elected so your kingdom can come… We have the right candidates in place, the media outlets, the organization to go all the way this time. We have included all the Christian churches in the communication blitz. It’s all set up for your kingdom to come this election…if you just worship me.
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
The devil shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world.” I’m pretty sure this included the United States of America. Jesus rejects the temptation of bringing his reign in the clothes of the emperor.
For much of church history, those who claimed the name Christian have acted as if Jesus got this one wrong. Christendom tried to baptize the state and the way of the sword. We have rejected the way of the cross. We have even thought we can put scripture on our weapons. This is not new. This is all from the same playbook. I’m just not sure it’s the playbook of Jesus.
The second temptation is about worship. It is a question of whether we will worship the way of empire—which is always power over. Or, will we worship Jesus, who embraces the way of the cross as the way to bring the Kingdom. Do we recognize the political implications of our worship? Our worship is not an escape from the real world. Quite the opposite, it is a way of coming to grips with an invasion of another life from another world into the present age.
Walter Brueggemann says it so well:
“The lectionary is unrelenting in its narrative about another life in another world, the one that God wills and gives. Readers are endlessly in the process of deciding, always yet again, for the alternative, refusing the seductions of the ‘belly’-propelled regime.” – Sojourners, February 2010
So this place we are meeting is an embassy of the kingdom of Jesus. Through our baptism, we are made citizens in the kingdom of Jesus—which is a revolution of cross-bearing love. We are given credentials and invited to live as ambassadors of reconciliation. This is our primary identity as disciples. This is what ourbaptism means. This is what it means to be a part of covenant community. This is why it is so important to gather together for common worship—so that we actually are discipled—formed—into this alternative life.
How does our common worship center us in a different narrative and equip us to “always yet again” decide for the alternative narrative which rejects the temptation to go after the glory and authority of the current age as a way of bringing the Kingdom of Jesus?
Third Temptation: Market-driven Christianity
Jesus, why don’t you go up to the temple and throw yourself off. God will protect you. That’s what the Bible says… Jesus, you need to make a name for yourself. How do you expect to have a successful ministry, if you don’t do something spectacular…something to draw a crowd…a following. Jesus, this is just the kind of thing people are looking for. We could really market this. Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Jesus does not opt for the gimmick—jumping off the Temple. Jesus is not driven by ego, or the need to make his ministry appealing to the masses. He is not about putting on a good show.
Jesus rejects the temptation to extract the Good News of the Kingdom from ordinary life to the artificial medium of religious antics. His kingdom represents a descent from market-driven Christianity into the messiness of crowds where there are unclean spirits. He calls us to descend with him from our illusions of invincibility and entitlement to the earthy…ordinary way of crosses, suffering-love, humility and repentance.
It is appropriate that our gospel reading on this first Sunday of Lent centers around Jesus fasting. Did you see the question in the Saturday paper?
Say What (Sat. paper) question/responses: If you had to go a week without technology what would you miss the most and why?
The fasting discipline of Lent helps us follow Jesus in resisting the temptations all around us. So hear this invitation from The Book of Common Prayer:
I invite you in the name of the Church (Jesus), to self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
Like Jesus, may the fullness of the Spirit sustain us as we are led into the wilderness—in our lives and in the world. This too is part of the journey.
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