What a Real Prophet Does

Andrew Perriman, who both says too much and too little, has this to say about the role of the church and social transformation and what it truly means to be prophetic:

The Law of Moses mandated for Israel distinctive patterns of righteous and just behaviour. It was a primary responsibility of judges and kings and other leaders—right down to the chief priests and elders of Jesus’ day—to uphold righteousness and justice. And when things got out of kilter, as they inevitably did, the prophets drew attention to the fact, called Israel to repentance, and warned of national disaster if those responsible failed to put their house in order.

But it can hardly be claimed that the Jews programmatically engaged in—or were encouraged to engage in—social activism outside of Israel. The most that can be said, I think, is that if they had kept the commandments and walked in the ways of the Lord, they would have modelled righteousness and justice for the surrounding nations.


Would we call John the Baptist a social activist? He tells the crowds to share their clothing and food. He tells the tax collectors not to take more than is permitted. He tells soldiers not to “extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations” (Lk. 3:10-14). But this is a call to internal reform, and in any case the basic message is that the axe is already laid to the root of the fruitless trees, that the Lord is coming with his winnowing fork in his hand “to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:17).

Jesus’ mission to Israel had nothing to do with social transformation. It was too late for that. The “kingdom” message was that unjust Israel was facing destruction. John had been the last of the prophet-servants sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel in search of the fruit of righteousness, and the wicked tenants had killed him. Now God was sending his Son, and they would kill him too. What would the owner of the vineyard do? The chief priests and the elders of the people knew the answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Matt. 21:41).

In short, we are not called to change the world because by the time a prophetic call is made, it is too late. Reform won’t matter. Even the example Perriman cites of Daniel 4, in which Daniel counsels Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon:

[B]reak off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity. (Daniel 4:27 ESV)

That line, “showing mercy to the oppressed” (literally “be gracious to the humble ones”) is interesting, because as king, the oppressed Nebuchadnezzar would deal with would be people he oppressed himself, as king, as the leader of a government that ruled in his name.

But all Daniel is saying is that maybe, just maybe, God might relent for a season if you change your ways. Temporarily. Maybe.

Because the die is cast. Babylon is done. As was Israel and Judah even before they were formed, before the days Solomon took to bedding and keeping non-Israelite wives and lovers. A good king, like Josiah, might delay the rot a bit, postpone the end, but what is clear in both New and Old Testaments is that the end is coming. Because the end is judgment upon God’s people, and then as Perriman later notes, the pagan empire. Babylon/Empire is the tool of judgment upon Israel/Church, but then God enacts a stern vengeance/justice upon the Empire. It too will be subject to God.

To be a prophet, then, is not to say: The end is coming, change your ways that you may avert the end. Rather, it is to say: the end is coming, change your lives that you may live and survive the end.

I have danced around this for a couple of years now, but I think this understanding of our story as Israel/Church is the only understanding that works. It is why I think a Benedict Option ungrounded in the biblical story of Israel/Church, that understand prophetic judgment even as metaphor, will fail to appreciate the real scope of what is happening to us.

What is happening?

Modernity and enlightenment are Babylon and Rome, the beguiling means God is using to judge the church. Not America. Not Europe. But the church. The people of God. We are being called to change our lives not to save the world, but to save ourselves, to accept defeat and conquest and exile, to be a remnant God will use to resurrect his people in the future. In turn, as the powers of the world are the instruments of God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church, upon one too comfortable with and in Empire, God will judge the powers of the world. They have already been found wanting.

The Number of the Beast

NOTE: Headline corrected. How could I have not seen that?

I confess to not being much of a prophesy guy. I was once caught up in the whirlwind of dispensationalism — as I note, its a really good faith for geeky, misfit, and overly intelligent high schoolers — but have not been for some time.

I don’t scour scripture and try to discern the future. Aside from the promise of our redemption, of Jesus returning, and signs of that (which seem to trouble every age since he ascended), and the subjugation of the pagan, gentile world the Christ (whatever that might mean), we have few promises.

Well, and this: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” If we are penitent thieves.

However, while I don’t believe scripture does much pointing to a specific future, it does allude to itself. Which is why I find it curious that no one, so far as I know, has made this comparison.

In Revelation 13, we have a description of two great beasts, and it’s the second beast, “rising out of earth” with “two horns like a lame and it spoke like a dragon.” This is the beast that does great signs, and forces all — “both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave” — to take its mark on the right hand or the forehead so that “no one can buy or sell” without the mark. This is the beast of which John says:

This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. (Revelation 13:18 ESV)

Six-six-six. A dreaded number attached to Satan and the Devil and all sorts of evil. Yeah, okay, it’s 616 in some manuscripts, but most have 666.

And so, we count letters, do obscure forms of numerology, try to discern who this person might have been historically and who this might be pointing to now.

But what if this is simply … an allusion to something else in scripture? We find ourselves now in 1 Kings 10, after Solomon has just received the Queen of Sheba:

14 Now the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was 666 talents of gold, 15 besides that which came from the explorers and from the business of the merchants, and from all the kings of the west and from the governors of the land. 1 (Kings 10:14-15 ESV)

There’s that number, 666. This is apparently a lot of gold. Solomon is wealthy, powerful, righteous, draws people — like the Queen of Sheba — to him. His kingdom is impressive, his army large, his palace ornate. “The like of it was never made in any kingdom,” the author of 1 Kings writes.

What if John’s number in Revelation doesn’t name a person, but rather alludes to the kind of power the Second Beast has, the power that echoes that of Solomon, a power that draws all to itself. Solomon too was a man, a man who possessed much wisdom yet also turned from the Lord.

It’s not a perfect parallel, or even a good one. It alludes, it hints at, and little more. Perhaps this second beast will be seen as Solomon-like, wise and forbearing, wealthy and powerful, but a persecuted of God’s people, of the lamb and all those who follow. I suspect the two beasts are likely allusions to Vespasian and Titus, the father and son Roman generals who waged war on Jerusalem and destroyed the city, who then both, in turn, became emperor of Rome.

But the 666 may be an allusion power and wealth, and all that it means, and all that it brings.

Your Downfall is Rooted in Your Triumph

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (now THERE’S a title!) reviews The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future, the new book by theologians John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, in The New Statesman.

I want to like Milbank, and his critique of modernity, but I have found the man to be far to awful a writer to deal with seriously. Williams wanted to like him too, and has some good things to say about the book, though he is also critical of portions of the book.

I’ve not read it — I cannot afford books right now, and I’m nowhere near a serious university or seminary library to indulge myself — so I don’t know.

But Williams has this observation of Milbank’s and Pabst’s critique of where the West, where Christendom, “went wrong”…

Milbank and Pabst see the dissolution of this classical Christian picture by the individualism of the Reformation as a cardinal moment in the decay of the West. In other words, the very moment identified in conventional history as the birth of “Western” supremacy – the triumph of a notion of individual right, the recognition of the objective authority of scientific method – becomes the cradle of the metacrises through which we are now living.

I’m not going to deal with the accuracy of either William’s characterization of Milbank and Pabst, or Milbank’s and Pabst’s assertion made in the book, save to say that the idea a civilization’s downfall can be found in its greatest strengths and traced from it peak is a very biblical notion.

1 Kings 10 outlines King Solomon’s wealth — 666 talents of gold come to him in one year, not including all that came “from the explorers and from the business of the merchants, and from all the kings of the west and Thousands of chariots and soldiers, silver as common as gold, and giant ivory throne.

23 Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. 24 And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. 25 Every one of them brought his present, articles of silver and gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year. (1 Kings 10:23-25 ESV)

He fills his palace with 700 wives and princesses, and 300 concubines. All of this — women, court, army — is costly. Israelites and Canaanites alike are conscripted to build, and taxed for it all.

Now, ostensibly, God promises to rip the kingdom from Solomon’s hands because he has allowed and encouraged and even likely participated in the idolatrous worship of some (many?) of his non-Israelite wives/mistresses/concubines. (1 Kings 11:9-13) For the sake of David, God will allow Solomon to reign over a wealthy, powerful, united kingdom.

The price to be paid for Solomon’s unfaithfulness will only come after. Solomon will not pay it himself.

It comes in the form of Jereboam, the son of one of the king’s female servants (a mistress?), who rebels against the king. When Solomon dies, Israel comes to his son Reheboam and asks for relief from the taxes, from the forced labor, from the cost for this kingdom, this court, and this large standing army.

Reheboam refuses, and in his arrogance, promises more taxes and tribute and conscription.

So Jereboam leads the rebels, who disown and denounce the monarchy and the state. “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse! To your tents, O’ Israel! Look now to your own house, David!” shouted the rebels, who go their own way, found their own state, and build their own temples.

Solomon’s empire was strong, powerful, wealthy — and that strength, that power, that wealth, was its own undoing. In this, I believe we see something about ourselves as both human beings and as the people of God. We are undone by our power, which sets into motion things we cannot control, cannot fix, cannot repair, and cannot even fully comprehend. I see the story of the church in this light. American Christendom is being undone by the very power, wealth, privilege, and influence it still yearns and aches for. Indeed, Western Christendom itself is being undone by its centuries of power.

Because power undoes itself.

And, to the extent the history of Israel tells us something about what it means to be human — the condition of humanity writ small — then this is true of peoples and nations and empires. An act of faithfulness, particularly on the part of the ruler, can arrest the decline and collapse for a time, but it cannot stop the coming judgment, which was set into motion long before and rooted in the very things that made the society or state powerful and important to begin with.

It also means that sadly, those who pay the price, bear the consequences of sin, are not those who sinned. Solomon died the ruler of a powerful, wealthy state, though he’d also been promised his son would not rule that state. The Babylonians, the ultimate consequence for the sins Solomon set into motion, would not show up and defeat Judah for several centuries. Jereboam would erect golden calves in Bethel and Dan, and proclaim them Israel’s gods, but it would be some time before the Assyrians arrived and destroyed the northern kingdom.

So I am willing to accept Milbank’s and Pabst’s characterization of the West’s decline — the very moment those things arose which made Western Christendom and the secularism arising from it the power that could conquer and organize the world are also the moment the decline begins, because those very things which made the West the supreme global power are also those same things which will bring about its demise.

It’s true. It’s human. And it is inescapable and inevitable.

ADVENT 9 / It Sucks to be Born at Such a Time

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. (Isaiah 24:5 ESV)


I hate that word.

“God will punish you!” I’ve heard it. Not recently, not as an adult, but as a child, from some people who called themselves faithful Christians, followers of Jesus, people who pointed fingers and said, “God will punish you because you do not believe!”

As an adult, I’ve seen the shaking of heads, heard the whispered muttering which suggests that my problems, my suffering, are all my fault. If only I was a better person, more pious, of better character, I would not have suffered, not be poor, not be in such need.

My fault.

God is punishing me. For my faithlessness.


There are consequences for sin. War and penury, defeat and conquest and exile.

But often times, children pay for the sins of their parents. Some pay for the sins of others. The generation of Israel that went into exile was not that generation whose sinfulness, whose faithless idolatry, brought about war and death and exile. It is not fair, and it does not seem right to us.

But it is the way of things.

When we sin, we who God has called to follow, we set into motion things we cannot control, things we cannot see or understand until they are upon us. We may live well, but in that living well, and all that comes with it, are the seeds of our destruction. Israel under Solomon was a rich and powerful state, with a huge army and a sprawling court of ministers and priests and officials and concubines. But that power brought with it the cause of its destruction, as Israelites rebelled against the cost of that army and court, failed to show mercy and forbearance to each other, and rejected the God of Israel as they deliberately rejected the inheritance of David.

The earth becomes defiled. The consequences of sin become bigger than us, seeping into the air and the water — in, with, and under the sky and the soil. Everywhere. The consequences of sin from long ago oozes and poisons everything, wrecking and ruining individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities, even whole kingdoms.

This is not punishment. Those who sin often times live lives of ease. But their sin, that ease, creates conditions that someone will, eventually, pay for. Sucks to born at such a time. To know that once, life was easy and life was good, but now, not so much. Sucks even more to know that ease and that goodness is likely one of the reasons things are so hard now.

Not my doing! I didn’t do this! I’m not the cause of this! The earth is not defiled because of what I have done! I shouldn’t have to pay for this! To suffer for the sins of others! It’s not right! It’s not fair!

But defiled it is. With sins I inherit but did not commit.

ADVENT 5 / Fire

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

… when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. (Isaiah 4:4 ESV)

Fire destroys. It doesn’t usually clean.

Unless you consider that fire can be used to clear away that which is unneeded, unwanted, unsightly, embarrassing, inconvenient, and downright troublesome. Think Naomi Klein’s “disaster capitalism,” which never lets a good crisis go to waste. The upending of the meagre lives of the poor in some kind of calamity — tsunami or hurricane (there we go with the water again) or financial crisis — always manages to be the means by which someone who is rich becomes richer, one more tool the powerful use to get and keep their way.

Fire destroys. It lays waste. And what is left behind … is rebuilt upon. By those who have means. To the exclusion of those who don’t.

Sometimes the fire is set on purpose.

There is also the fire of revenge. For many years, I wanted nothing more than to douse the whole wide world with something flammable and set it alight. I wanted to watch it, and everyone in it, burn. Down to nothing. I wanted to put an end to humanity and my misery and my loneliness and the cruelty of the world. I was angry, enraged at a world that had let me suffer, had made me suffer, at a world that seemed to exist somewhere between a callous indifference and calling all it had done to me righteousness.

Give me a match. Because fire destroys.

The people of God … have sinned. We have worshipped that which has not saved us, and cannot save us. We have sacrificed the bodies, spilled the blood, valued as nothing, those whom God cherishes, those whom God has not asked us to sacrifice — orphans, widows, the weak, strangers, foreigners. We have been indifferent to their fate, to what we have done to them, called our cruelty righteousness so we can enjoy our ease. And God tells us … payment is coming, in the form of a terrible fire which will consume everything. A divine vengeance which will burn to the ground all that we have made with our hands, all we venerate, all we value.

It will destroy. Little will be left. It will clean. And in that fire, we who survive … shall be made right.

JUDGES And So It Begins

A reading from Judges, the third chapter.

7 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. 8 Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. 9 But when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. 11 So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died. (Judges 3:7-11 ESV)

And here is Israel’s condition. Our condition. Israel has turned away from serving/worshiping עָבַד God, and has embraced the false gods of Canaan. Of its neighbors. Idolatry, serving and trusting and sacrificing to and telling stories about gods who have not saved Israel and cannot save Israel. This is Israel’s chief sin, its primary sin, the one for which the people of God will suffer conquest and exile — will be subjugated for time — time and again.

Othniel is of good character. He is an upstanding citizen, with a good pedigree. Caleb was one of the twelve scouts send to examine the promised land, and alone with Joshua, he was confident Israel could take the Canaanites. It makes sense someone like him would be the first “judge” שָׁפַּט (judge, lead, govern), the first one to redeem and deliver Israel, to defeat its enemies.

This establishes a pattern. Israel sins, and forgets God. Israel succumbs to sin — God gives Israel over not just to its sin but to foreigners, who conquer and rule it. They become the visible, tangible consequence of idolatry. Israel cries to God, God listens, and raises up a savior, who then fights for Israel, defeats its enemies, and there is “rest” for a time.

For a time. Until Israel forgets, and gives itself over to sin — again.

And God raises up a savior, to fight for Israel — again.

This is who Christ is. A redeemer, raised up not only to redeem the people from their sin, but also defeat their enemies. However, Jesus is no temporary savior. The rest he gives us is permanent. We do not need earthly champions anymore, our redemption is real and right now. Even if we do not see it, it is real. We live it. Right now. Even when we fail to trust God, when we turn for protection to those things which cannot save us, we are redeemed.

We cry out, and God hears our cries. But we are already saved.

SERMON It May or May Not Be Okay, But I Have Hope

A reading from the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 29:

1 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:1–14 ESV)

I want to tell you things are going to be okay.

But I can’t. Because I don’t know if they are.

I don’t know what okay means with the election of Donald Trump. I know that many of my queer friends, many of my friends in mixed-race marriages with with mixed-race children, are terrified, and many with disabled kids are as well. They fear for the future, and rightly so. Because it isn’t just Trump himself, it’s many of the people he brings into office with him — Chris Christie, Rudi Giuliani, Newt Gingrich could only best be described as callous and indifferent — who are also short-tempered, petty, vindictive, and intolerant of dissent. Sheriff David Clarke, who may find himself tabbed to head a department like Homeland Security, has for months now called Black Lives Matter a “terrorist movement” and predicted a BLM alliance with the Islamic State to topple the U.S. Government.

And what do we do with terrorists? What has Trump said we should do with terrorists? Arrest them. Torture them. Kill them and their families.

These may just be words, but words mean something. Trump’s 2005 boast that he grabs women “by the pussy” has a terrifying resonance given the ministry I do. Words set actions into motion. We’ve had a little taste of what life in Trump’s America looks like, and I suspect Trump and his regime, if they are magnanimous at all in victory, won’t be for very long. We have every reason to believe his government will be a punitive, authoritarian one eager to arrest and brutalize and condemn people.

Alex Jones may yet see FEMA Camps at work.

So no, I have no idea if it will be okay. At best — at best — the American Greatness Trump supporters seek hearkens back to an era which did not welcome and did not include many of the people I love and care about. I have no idea how this will end, whether this will be a bumbling and incompetent government or merciless and brutal. I have no idea. None at all. There is no future to discern here1.

When God spoke through Jeremiah to the exiles of Israel, he didn’t promise them things would be okay either. Consider where Israel was. They had been invaded, subdued, Jerusalem the holy city besieged. Judah was defeated, conquered, and carried into exile, told by their captors to sing and dance and entertain them with their strange new stories. “By the waters of Babylon, there was sat down and wept, and we remembered Zion.” Zion was gone. Not just far away, but reduced to rubble.

There were prophets telling them “soon and very soon now,” that within two years God will break Babylon and the exiles will go home to live and rebuild. And to someone in a strange place, frightened, traumatized by war and conquest and dislocation, living admidst hostile captors and conquerors, that seems good news! Just hang on a few months, all will be reversed! We will be going home! Our defeat will be undone! We can hope again!

But God is having none of it. Because that is not what real hope looks like here.

Build houses and plant gardens, God says. Marry and have children, and give them in marriage. Seek the welfare of the city — this strange city, this foreign city, this enemy city, this home of your conquerors — where I have sent you into exile. Pray for it. It’s success will be your success.

You’re going to be here for a while, God tells exiled Israel, amidst your enemies and your conquerors. So build, plant, beget.

In face of hopelessness and fear, in the face of uncertainty, humiliation, and defeat, God’s command to us is: build, plant, beget.

This is what hope looks like. Not “hang in there, everything is going to be okay,” but: build, plant, beget.

This is not an easy hope. It is not a happy hope. It does not promise quiet, easy, untroubled lives. And it is given to people who will never live to see it realized. It is little different that the promises given to Abraham — descendants, a land of his own, and a blessing to the world — promises he never saw during his lifetime but took hold of tight and believed anyway (though he wasn’t always entirely faithful in that either). We, my sisters and brothers, may never leave this place, this exile, this Tel Aviv — Summertime Hill — that we have cobbled together on the banks of the Euphrates.

We may never see Zion again. We may die here. Our children may die here. And their children may die here too.

None of that matters. We still have hope. We are still called to build, and plant, and beget.

Because we know something else. Babylon is judged. God has promised we will be delivered. We will not be here forever. “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope,” God says. “I will bring you back to the place from which I have sent you into exile.”

Seventy years from now. A long fullness.

And so we wait. And live. In hope. We build, and plant, and beget.

Because Babylon has been judged, and she will fall. We have that promise too. Babylon has been judged, and been found wanting, a place of violence and brutality, of lecherous corruption, of immorality and debauchery. “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence and will be found no more … And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who have been slain on the earth.” (Revelation 18:21b, 24)

Babylon has been judged. It has already happened, even as we weep in exile in its midst. Babylon has fallen, even though she stands tall and strong, her armies invisible, her treasury bursting.

And we have already been redeemed. One who was faithful and true lived and preached and healed and died and rose from the dead, facing down that very power which has carried us off, dying at its hands, and showing us that God’s response to faithfulness is not success, but resurrection. (Just as God’s response to sin is not damnation, but resurrection.) I’m certain in the Garden of Gathsemene, Jesus wanted it to be okay, to know it would be okay, and he realized — it wasn’t. And it wouldn’t be.

This is hard faith. And a difficult hope. It is sometimes a hope of bitter determination. I wish I could say no one will suffer and no one will perish and no one will have to resist great evil. But I don’t. I can’t. I have no idea how terrible things will get. I have no answers except the ones God gave to Israel in exile — build, plant, beget.

Build. Plant. Beget.

In a difficult and uncertain time, that is what hope looks like.

  1. With all the talk of Nazi Germany, Trump reminds me more of Mussolini or Napoleon III (who was the first real modern dictator), and their use of power on opponents and dissidents was real but fairly restrained. Both regimes ended badly, however, in war, conquest, and ruination because of wars they started or joined. Something that should also give pause. ↩︎

Some Thoughts On Governance

So today is election day, and quite possibly the most ugly election in modern American history is going to more or less come to an end.

I say more or less, because if Hillary Clinton wins as forecast, I suspect Donald J. Trump, billionaire (he owns a mansion and a yacht), will not go away. He will linger, and likely proclaim himself the aggrieved victim of some kind of fraud, and then launch into his next venture as the “President” of some kind of ersatz, make-believe “government” that will feature itself on Trump TV.

Or whatever it will be called.

He will play at governing for television, second guessing every decision the Clinton White House makes. Even if congressional Republicans don’t impeach Hillary Clinton, the country will rather quickly slide into ungovernability, Clinton unable to accomplish much (at least legislatively) and Trump able to play at being president without having any real responsibility for anything.

It won’t quite be the worst of all possible worlds. Trump won’t hold real power. But the sense of resentment, and entitlement, on the part of his core supporters is real, and it won’t go away. They want an America ordered differently, ordered in their favor, and they believe that the country will be lost if they don’t get that order. That’s a motivation for drastic action. It won’t simply be content to lose an election.

I’ve long believed that, as Americans, we have invested so much in politics, as part of our sense of justice, good order, and however we identify, that there will come a moment when one side will decide: There is too much at stake to lose.

If this is indeed the Flight 93 Election, then nothing is off the table, not even force and coercion and violence, if the fate of the nation is at stake.

I admitted earlier this year, there were things about Trump I kind of admired. His anti-elitism, especially given that elites across the liberal/social democratic West have so completely failed in the last two decades, resonates with me. And I still admire, kind of, his utter lack of respectability, and his inability to be shamed.

But Trump’s authoritarianism is the kind of thing that won’t save the nation. It will accelerate whatever rot we’re dealing with, from moral failure to elite failure. He is not Pinochet. Trump is too undisciplined to be a savior, and too capricious to lead effectively. In the end, he is all of the failure we suffer from, incarnate.

Hillar Clinton is not much better, for she too is embossed with failure. And she too will govern by decree as much as she is able. We are headed toward dictatorship of some kind (I won’t call it tyranny, since that word is largely empty of any content in the Anglo-American political tradition), the only question is whether we are on a local or an express train. Clinton gets us there just as surely as Trump, though the nature of the dictatorship will look different.

Most people won’t suffer under what’s coming. And that will be true whether Trump or Clinton presides.

I’ve seen some happy Christian posts on Twitter in the last few days reminding everyone that whatever happens today, Jesus is still King. And this is true as well.

But American Christians approach government as if it matters, as if somehow government somehow has to be a reflection of t5he God-given order, or an expression of how blessed the people of God are. There is some of that in scripture, with good leaders — like Josiah — able to temporarily avert the coming judgement of God.

But only temporarily. God’s judgement on God’s people was cast at Sinai, a consequence of their idolatry and their faithlessness.

For much of scripture, including the New Testament, the people of God are governed by conquerors and enemies. This is our condition. Not the Davidic Kingdom (which has been restored in Christ in any case), but Egypt and Philistia and Babylon and Rome. Despite its misuse as a prod to good and loyal citizenship, Romans 13 is a reminder that even conquerors and enemies are “legitimate” authority who can impose good order and even some modicum of justice in the world. When Jeremiah calls upon Israel to “seek the welfare of the city,” he is speaking to exiles far from home to build and love and have hope amidst the people who conquered and oppress them.

When Jesus tells the Pharisees to render unto Caesar, he speaks not of a co-equal sovereign to whom love and loyalty and bodies are owed, but a competitor, a conqueror, a pretender, a false god, and one who has enslaved God’s very own people.

And one who makes his own claims to bringing peace and salvation to the world.

This is not to say that all political orders are created the same. A Trump victory would likely lead us to places we have not been before, to an officially sanctioned lawlessness that would shred any sense of shared community and solidarity in ways the status quo won’t. A Clinton victory gives us more of the same, and there is a lot to hate about the neoliberal world order. But a Trump presidency would likely be a deluge which would drown all in its path.

It has the potential to be regime change in the worst of all possible ways. And we’ve seen how well that’s worked where it has been imposed.

But the political order doesn’t save us. The political order is capable of giving us only an approximation of justice. The political order can provide some safety and stability that allows individuals and communities to thrive. But it doesn’t always, and it won’t always. No matter how we are governed, or who governs us, we are called to love enemies and conquerors. We are called to be good neighbors to those who oppress us. We are called to have hope in redemption when it seems that suffering and death are the only things that are real. And we are called to do all of things knowing that we may never see that redemption, that we live for children and grandchildren and descendants we will never know.

I know, the spirit of the age, whether we quote Martin Luther King, Jr., or Frantz Fanon, or George W. Bush, or Donald J. Trump, is: “Now is the time, and we are the people.” Maybe.

But we are still only exiles, homeless, a people between creation and eschaton, who live in and with the consequences of choices we never made and hope for deliverance we may never see. Because we, the people of God, are the justice of God, right here and right now, in how we live, how we love, how we hope, and what we hope in.

Not kings and princes and presidential candidates, not greatness and glory or even safety and stability. But love. In the face of violence and uncertainty. And a God who loves, loves us utterly, loves us to the end, and has not left us or abandoned us in our exile, has promised us that even conquerors too will be held accountable. May even become part of the people of God.

Because God so loves the world. A world run and ordered brutally and violently and unjustly. We love. We hope. We live.

JUDGES Our Condition

A reading from Judges, the second chapter.

16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. 18 Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. 19 But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. (Judges 2:16–19 ESV)

This is our essential condition, as the people of God, as the church. In our faithlessness, in our inability and unwillingness to follow the teaching of God, we are given over — we give ourselves over — to those who would plunder us.

And plunder us they do.

God has pity on us, and saves us from our conquerors, from the consequences of our sin, of our faithlessness. We are not unfortunate people. We are sinners. We are cot redeemed from mere circumstances, we are redeemed from our sin.

And while we can be rallied to righteousness and faithfulness every now and again, idolatry is our fundamental sin. The worship of that which cannot save us is our fundamental sin. We cannot help ourselves.

This short narrative is the explanation. It is truth, and it is all we need to know about ourselves.

But it is also the narrative into which Christ comes. He is our judge, and he redeems us in our sin. He is faithful when we are faithless. He does not die, and therefore, we have no reason to turn away from God, to seek salvation in that which cannot truly help us — money, power, privilege, position, might. And yet we do.

And when we do, we are eventually given over to those who will plunder us.

But Christ, the righteous judge, is still with us. Even when we are faithless, he is faithful. He is our faithfulness, showing us that even when we forget, and walk away, we are never wholly and completely given over. We are afflicted and oppressed, but never abandoned.

We have a righteous judge, who is with us, until the end of the age.

SERMON The God of the Living

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the twentieth chapter.

27 There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, 28 and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. 30 And the second 31 and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. 32 Afterward the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”

34 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. 37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” (Luke 20:27–38 ESV)

Moses wrote for us. In Deuteronomy 25, to be exact. The rules by which a dead brother’s name is to be remembered. She shall not be married to a stranger, but “[h]er husband’s brother shall go into her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.” And the first son — meaning he keeps going in if she bears daughters — shall bear the name of the dead brother “that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.”

(And there was go with the blotting out again!)

This all reminds me of Abraham and Sarah, and the promise of God that the two will have many descendants. And their failure to trust God’s time, and God’s abilities, when Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham as a present, telling him “go into my servant, that I may be built up by her.”

And Ishmael is born. Abraham and Sarah try to fulfill the promise of God on their own, with their bodies, according to their impatient wills. It doesn’t work. Not that Ishmael isn’t a blessing, and receives a promise of his own, but that he is not the one in whom and through whom the promise of God will be fulfilled.

Jesus says something similar here. The Torah allows — even requires (though the matter appears to be conditional by beginning this teaching with the qualification, “If brothers dwell together” כּי־יֵשְׁבוּ אַחִים יַחְדָּ֗ו) — that brothers do this duty for each other. This appears to be a woman’s right, to have a son that will bear the name of her deceased husband, and she is allowed to shame a brother publicly for his refusal. Strong stuff.

But it assumes death, and the finality of death. It assumes that all we leave behind of value is what we beget, or can build or hew with our own hands. And Jesus no longer speaks of the finality of death. “They cannot die anymore,” he says. And they never were truly dead, as God is God of the living, and to speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is to remind ourselves that our ancestors in calling and faith are not dead.

It is to remind ourselves that we are preserved — our names, our patrimony, our descendants — not through our own efforts, not because (as men) we go into our wife’s handmaiden or our dead brother’s widow, but because we are united to Christ in his eternal life.

And Jesus also suggests here that our temporal arrangements — in particular, marriage — are of no meaning in the resurrection. That we marry not for sacred or holy reasons, or to fulfill some natural order of creation, but rather, as Paul said to the church at Corinth, for crass and almost utilitarian reasons, because “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

We are not married for time and eternity. Because in the resurrection, all of the things we arrange — good ordered or not, pleasing to God or not — are of no importance and of no value. No one “belongs” to anyone in the resurrection, not spouse, not child, not slave.

Death is not real, and so we do not have to worry about what we leave behind. We who have no children will have as many descendants as those who have conceived and birthed many.

We love in the here and now because we are called to love. And we leave it to Go to fulfill the promises we are made when we love. Whether we marry, or not — or beget, or not — we belong only to Christ. Whose eternal life we share, whose resurrection is ours.