As some of you know, Jennifer and I have been rambling a bit, staying with friends and seeing the country. We’ve been in Eastern Texas for a while, and last Sunday took in a worship service at a church in the small East Texas town where we live.
I won’t say where, or what church, save that it was a small, local, non-denomination, politically and culturally conservative church in the small town where we are staying outside Austin.
The pastor was a confident speaker, and began by showing his largely mainly white audience slides of various and Sundry buildings in Rome. He pointed out the crosses everywhere, even in the Coliseum, where Christians during the time of the Roman Empire huddled in fear that they might be arrested, tortured and thrown to the animals. Christians had no power, no influence, no standing, were a tiny, persecuted minority in the Roman Empire. Yet, within 300 years (and thanks to the declaration of “Emperor Constantinople”), Christianity became the official ruling faith of that very same empire.
“How?” the pastor asked?
Because Christians had an ethics grounded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-16 seemed to be the text he was preaching on; there was no reading, just praise music and whatever moved the pastor to preach), an ethic which stressed being “poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, mercy, being pure in heart, peacemaking, and being persecuted.” Because the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.
More importantly, such people are “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.” When the culture becomes pagan, corrupt, based on “might makes right,” it is the call of the church to save the culture be being salt. There was a fascinating subtext here, and I suspect this sermon would never have been delivered in this way, using imperial decadence and power in such an up front way, had George W. Bush been president. But the pastor said nothing overtly political, at least nothing partisan.
Because Christians are the meek, persecuted “salt of the earth,” the pastor said “You have no standing politically, but you are the last stand.” To save the culture of death and make it a culture of life. (My phrasing, not his.)
At this point, he got his most overtly political. Condemning the recent deal to raise the debt limit, he said that all this empowered Christians to say “Enough is enough!” and to take a stand. The “ethics” of the Sermon on the Mount led to this, he said. This is Christian love in action. (Again, not his phrasing.)
Along the way, he did give some advice for daily living. That the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount begin in our daily lives, in how we live our lives at work, in school, wherever. But we did this not so much to show God’s love, but to do our part in the larger work on reclaiming the Empire and saving the society.
“Because it’s not about us. It’s about who gets the glory,” the pastor said.
Because the final goal of all this ethical action is take control of the Empire. Christians did it once, they can do it again, the pastor said. And to make being Christian respectable again.
The world wants to listen to what Christians have to say, he concluded. But the question for us is: are we going to act in a way that fills the world’s hunger and answers the desire to “make us believe,” or are we simply going to act in such a way that says we just “make believe.”
It was a culturally conservative sermon from top to bottom, one that spoke to the anxieties and fears of some reasonably well-off white Texas Christians, one that didn’t challenge them or invite them to participate in God’s actions in the world. Because aside from “creating an ethical system,” God doesn’t act at all. There was no saving Grace, no love, no sin (except in the culture), just a call to work to redeem the world. (The closest the pastor got to acknowledging anything like grace was noting that, “Some of us are messed up. But God is bigger than your mess!”) Because the saving work of God remains undone, and the call to discipleship is simply a call to organize the world the way God demands and finish God’s work of salvation.
While this approach is a problem I have with conservative Christianity, particularly cultural conservatism, this kind of sermon and this kind of thinking — God sets out an ethics that empowers us to act to (effectively) finish God’s salvation for the world — is not merely a conservative problem. It’s why I don’t like much of Liberal or Progressive Christianity as well. (Walter Wink wrote about redeeming “the powers” in a book I found annoyingly self-righteous and just plain deluded.) It privileges human action over anything God has done. It takes the ethics of the Book of Esther and places them front and center, and not what God speaks through Moses to the Israelites at sea as they witnessed Pharaoh’s army advancing upon them:
And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14)
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הָעָם אַל־תִּירָאוּ הִֽתְיַצְבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַת יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת־מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם לֹא תֹסִיפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ יְהוָה יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישֽׁוּן׃ פ
This theme, “watch what God will do for you today, God will fight for you” is echoed throughout scripture — water from the rock, manna from heaven, Joshua defeating Jericho merely by tooting of a trumpet, Gideon’s 300 to conquer the Midianites, David’s defeating Goliath with a rock (read what David says right before he tosses the stone), Elisha’s increasing the widow’s oil or battling the prophets of Baal, gathering the exiles from Babylon, other examples I’m certain I have forgotten. It is central to Israel’s experience of its relationship with God. It’s even, I believe, the unstated words of Calvary, to those of us who gaze upon our awful work on Good Friday — Fear not, Stand firm, behold the saving grace God is working for you today.
This is not an ethical system. It is… well, I’m not sure what it is. Shared mystical experience, maybe. But it isn’t an ethical system. We who God calls aren’t given an ethical system, not really. The Torah is not an ethics, but an attempt by God to show us — God’s people, not humanity — what it means to live in relationship with God and with each other given that God has called us together as a people. If pressed, I would admit this IS an ethical system (given that ethics is inescapable), but my problem here is that ethics as we do them don’t need or require the relationship with God. They make man the focus, and human action the focus. And as in the Book of Esther, God is not necessary. You don’t need God when you have ethics. You don’t need God when you have culture. You don’t need to stop, to wait, to watch, to be silent. You need to act. Now. Or all is lost.
(If I am sensitive to this, it is because this approach to the human calling is the Islamist approach. God has called humanity, particularly Muslims, to finish saving the world, organizing the world, in the way God wants it organized, so that virtue may be maximized and the opportunities to sin reduced or eliminated.)
To be salt is to trust that we are preserving the world even if we aren’t sure how. That we are light, shining brightly, even if we have no idea what that means. To trust, as Abram trusted, that God will make us a blessing to the world, even if we have no idea what that means or how it will happen.
Human action is not the point of the Bible story. God’s love for Israel, for God’s people, for the world, is the point of the Bible story. We can live into that love, or not, and some form of it may conquer the empire (Thomasite Christians did not conquer India, and Nestorians did not conquer China), but whatever ends up ruling — whatever ends up “redeeming” the powers or the culture — is only a shadow of that saving grace. As long as we live in that moment between Eden and Eschaton, we will only experience that grace sideways, in scattered brilliant moments where God’s grace meets us and overwhelms us and includes us in God’s already completed salvation for the world.