Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


Pax Romana

The Status Quo has got to Go!

written for Homebrewed

A few weeks ago Joerg Rieger (on Homebrewed Christianity) cautioned about a type of Christianity that was a cheerleader for the system, that reinforced the status quo, and participated in society in way that strengthened Empire.

I have said before I come from a background where this type of thinking is not just disorienting but alienating. The focus is on individuals – with little mention of anything systemic. The goal is the salvation of souls for the afterlife – with no address of collective issues.

It was reading Walter Wink  “the Powers the Be” that radically impacted the way I could see this. I have since encountered other writings and teachers who have opened the subject even further.

Now, it is odd to look at the central figure of our faith and ask how did Jesus ever get portrayed as a guy who basically told people to be nice and obey the rules? Cornell West would talk about him be sanitized, deodorized, and neutralized. Someone else might call this being a chaplain to the empire.

My buddy Tripp and I have a theme that shows up in our personal conversations on a fairly regular basis. It revolves around the idea that variable X or Y may be changed or tweaked, but the outcome of the equation is never in doubt. A specific issue may be protested, but the machine itself in never in danger. Certain areas can be challenged or  even overhauled, but the system itself is never in jeopardy.

This is not limited to Empire. It goes beyond hegemony. It is not limited to Capitalism.

The powers that be, or the system, or the machine (as you prefer) is an omnibus. It can absorb – incorporate – and co-op any variation, deviation, or even challenge … and in the end the structure is nearly unchanged. The system is never in danger. The machine doesn’t even slow down. The Powers are never in jeopardy. It eats new ideas with barely a burp – let alone beginning to buckle.

We could talk about an anarchist musical band that signs a record contract, or a retail store that sells Buddhist trinkets from ‘the far east’, or a seminar on Native American spirituality that meets in a university classroom… but I don’t want to get sidelined. 

Benjamin Barber in his book Jihad vs. McWorld talks about the market in such a way that sketched a picture (for me) of a machine that needs to be fueled by new authentic-indigenous expressions, otherwise it runs dry and burns out on it’s own the boredom of its generic repetitions and knock-offs.

“McWorld cannot then do without Jihad: it needs cultural parochialism to feed its endless appetites. Yet neither can Jihad do without that world: for where would culture be without a commercial producers who market it and the information and communication systems that make it known?” Continue reading “The Status Quo has got to Go!”

>Friday Follow up – Jesus was not violent


The conversation has been wild this week – both on the Blog and on Facebook (which I could not be in on this week). I wanted to thank all of those who contributed so much. I appreciate the full table when everybody brings something to share!
I wanted to tell a story and go back over some basic stuff. First the story:

When I was first a pastor we only had Saturday night services.  We didn’t have a building and so we rented a space on Saturday night. Sundays I would meet with people or ‘sabbath’.  One Sunday my beloved Chicago Bears football team was playing a big game and I did not have a TV. So I went down to the sports bar to watch the game which had a 4pm kick EST. I got down there to get a good seat only to find the bar full as many of the NFL games start at 1pm. 
I found a seat in view of the TV that the waitress said the Bears would be on when it was time. As I sat there, I noticed that there was a group of guys a couple of tables away who were quite rowdy. I think that they had been drinking quite a bit for quite a while and … it showed. One of these guys, a big muscular guy with a crew cut had his team’s jersey on (a team that was losing pretty bad at the time) and he was starring at me pretty good. Now, I have been around long enough to know that stare – he wasn’t attracted to me, he wasn’t thinking about being my friend – he was figuring out how to start something with me. 

This went on for a little bit and I thought to myself “ how am I going to explain to my congregation that their new Sr. Pastor was in a bar fight on a Sunday !” I also had recently come into a conviction of non-violent resistance.  SO I had to think of something. You only get so much time with these things. When a guy is building up courage… you either play chicken, you leave, or you fight. 

I knew that violence was not an option , it was off the table, so I prayed a little internal prayer and an idea come to me. I thought to myself, it is too bad that men do this puffed up- tough guy – peacock- poser thing , because under different circumstances this guy and me would be good friends. 

 I went up to the bar and ordered a beer. Walked over to his table, put the beer down in front of him and said “If a fight breaks out in here today – you are I are tag team partners- I think that we could clear this whole place.”  He huffed at me , half in disgust (I think) and half in surprise. He told me where to go and what to do to myself. I put my hands in the air as if to surrender, turned my head to the side, and said “It’s a standing offer”. I went back to my table. 
He drank the beer. Their game ended. They left. I enjoyed watching the Bears win in peace. 
I think that when we hold violence as an option – even a last resort – we may not have enough energy to overcome the inertia that is required to put all of our energy into creative non-violent solutions. 

I once heard a young man who went to a famous church, quote his famous pastor as saying “The only way to bring peace is to prepare for war”.   I do not believe that is true.
That seems very Roman to me. The saying in Jesus’ day was “The Romans make a desert and call it peace.”  Welcome to Pax Romana.   What we have in Jesus is a different kind of peace. The Prince of Peace brings in a Kingdom of Peace.  
Caesar had his legions, minions, and battalions.  Jesus has you and me. 
Here is one of the responses I had this week that I wanted to  adapted for the Friday Follow up  (because I know that many people do not follow all of the comments but only read the main post – so I wanted to bring them up to speed on something). 
Four things  🙂
1) There is much agreement on 80% of this violence issue. Most, I would guess, agree that Jesus was not violent, that we are lead by the Spirit who is at work in the world, that we would should have a gracious posture to others and many other things. We simply part ways on that final 20%. For instance: I don’t want endorse religious leaders (of any stripe) that say that “god told them” to be aggressive/violent.  I think that pastors (like the one in Seattle) aren’t just getting a detail wrong (like Revelations 19) they get Jesus wrong, are preaching a false gospel, which makes the world a worse place by enforcing that violent status quo. I know that not everyone will agree on that final 20%. 
2) By saying that I don’t want to support religious leaders who say that “god told them” to be aggressive/violent. I don’t think that I am being UN-gracious. I think that I am being very gracious in saying that I want to make a sharp break with the violence of Church History since 300. I think that it is all-too-ordinary-human violence just baptized in Jesus name and that we need to STEP AWAY from that as an act of repentance and take it OFF the table in order to see what God’s Holy Spirit can do that we can not do in our own power.  
3) I just want to make sure that when we talk about  ‘receiving things in personal prayer” that we are not speaking as an Enlightenment Individual. This is not YOU doing what “God” is laying on YOUR heart. I am convinced that what we need is a community discernment where there is both accountability and faithfulness to what God has already revealed in the 10 commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. That would be my suggestion. Not just you being you (Rambo style) and calling it “being undignified” or a ‘jesus freak” or “on fire”. 
In my defense: 
I have been clear from day one about my conviction that we will need a VERY different theology for the next 500 years than what we have had for the past 500 years. I have never apologized for that. That should not be surprising. It could not be more clear about what I am up to.

have a great weekend! see you next Tuesday for “Breaking the Bell Curve”

>Jesus is not Violent

> When we talk about God as Christians we are not talking about a generic conception of God. As Christians we believe in a very specific concept of God, one that was most fully revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. 

 For people that believe in Jesus and call themselves Christians, I think that it is important that we get something strait: Jesus was not violent. That is the first proposition. The second theory flows out of that: since Jesus was not violent, maybe his people should not be violent either. 

I know that there are those who will object. Some of them will even point to verses in Scripture. I will try to look at each of the objections that I hear as best I can as quickly as I can.
Old Testament
I think that it is important to recognize that we are not GOD-ians, or Spirit-ians. We are Christians.We would take our cue from Christ.

Here is my concern: Every time some Christian wants to be violent and can not find a way in Christ to justify it – they reach back into the Old Testament in order to do so. This is a bad way to read the Bible.  Sometimes, when christian ministers speak, it almost comes across as if Jesus never came.  When I say “Jesus was not violent” you can’t just jump backward and say “In the Old Testament God…” That is not the right way to do it.

Turning over table in the Temple
Whenever I say that Jesus was not violent, almost without exception the first thing someone says is “what about when he cleared the Temple?”  In passages like John 2:15, Jesus makes quite a ruckus in the Temple – driving out the animals that were for sale and turning over the tables of the money changers. 
I would just point out three things: A) it was the only time that he did something like this. It was an exception. B) he did not harm any human or living thing. He cracked a whip and turned over tables. C) this act was in protest of those who had made religion big business, profiting from the vulnerability of others. 
So often I hear this verse used to justify supporting violence and ironically it is by those who have made the christian religion big business and make a handsome profit off of it. That should tell you something.
The Book of Revelation

in chapter 19 of John’s Revelation you hear this: 

11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:  KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS

Somehow this becomes permission to be violent to other countries and to people of different backgrounds or persuasions. 
The error is threefold:

1. To derive doctrine from apocalyptic literature in difficult at best. The very nature of the genre is poetic, fantastic, and explosive. It really should not be read like the rest of scripture. I am firmly convinced that each genre should be read in ways that are appropriate to the nature of that genre. The Histories of the Hebrew Testament, the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles (or letters) and the Apocalyptic all need to be read in distinct ways.     

2. To miss that his sword is a non-sword – it is his Word !  I call this “the problem of jesuSword”  and though it can be confusing, it’s important to see that it is not Jesu’s Sword  but Jesus’ Word !!   What brings the nations to submission is not a sword but Jesus’ Word – or the word of the Word (if you prefer). To miss this is to miss the point all together. It is to think that the Romans did the right thing is nailing Jesus to the cross. It is to miss that Jesus was killed unjustly and the injustice pains the heart of God.  There is poetry in that Jesus told Peter to “put away” his sword (jJohn 18:11) and said that if his kingdom was of this world that his followers “would fight” (John 18:36). The implication is that his kingdom’s power does not originate with this world* and therefor his followers will not fight. 

3. Some people justify violence by saying “Jesus even said that he came to bring a sword”   but think about the whole sentence… what did he say? 

Matthew 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—   37 Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

 Here is the important thing: swords were meant to guard families. To protect me, my things, and those close to me! Jesus says that his sword it to divide up families – and I think he was being ironic !!  Because  in his day swords were actually for defending one’s family – for guarding me and mine. In this sense, Jesus’ “sword” is an un-sword… or an anti-sword. It does the opposite of what human swords are used for.  Jesus’ sword is not for defending family but for dividing family. Jesus did not come with a human sword but the opposite!! 

The Kingdom suffers violence
In Matthew 11:12 Jesus says that the Kingdom “suffers violence” and that the violent “try to take it by force”.  I know that this is a tricky passage. Some people see it as saying “you have to be aggressive to enter the kingdom” but I think it is more appropriate to read it as “violent men try to seize to use for their own purposes”.  Regardless, either reading does not give us permission to be be violent and advance the kingdom of Christ “by the sword”. 
I am not a pacifist.  I am not passive.  I am actively and passionately non-violent.  I believe that violence begets more violence. Sometime – a person who wants permission to be violent in Jesus’ name will pull out the big two examples and ask me either “what about the Nazis” or “what if some guy broke into you house and was going to rape your wife”?   These are always the big two and I will deal with them next week in “Breaking the Bell Curve”.  Suffice to say – barring those two examples, most of what we are talking about with burning heretics, Godly nationalism, and militarized violence does not primarily fall into those two famous categories. They are just all too normal human violence baptized in Jesus’ name. 
Let me get down to the heart of the matter. Here is an example of exactly what I am talking about. There is nationally known pastor in Seattle, Washington who is famously quoted as saying “Jesus is a cage fighter with a tattoo on his thigh and a sword in his hand, determined to make someone bleed”. He said this in reference to the fact that he “could not worship somebody that he could beat up.” 
Some people dismiss statements like this and chalk it up to testosterone fueled, overly inflated, pumped up hyper-masculinity.  I think that there is something much deeper and much more sinister involved. I think that it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God and the interpretation of Christian scripture. 
What is noteworthy is that in Revelation 19, the sword is not in Jesus’ hand but it comes out of Jesus’ mouth. That seems important in the poetic nature of Revelation. This sword is not your average sword. It is not in Jesus’ hand and that makes you wonder if the way in which this sword “strike down” the nations is not in bloody violence but in a kind of destruction that would happen as a result of a sword that proceeds from the mouth of God?  Let’s ask ourselves “is there something that comes from the mouth of God that radically impacts or consumes peoples and nations?”  Is there something sharp that comes from the mouth of God … something sharper than any two edged sword? 
I am suggesting that we need to be open to consider at least three ideas:
1. that since that time in church history when the church rose to Roman power and began to kill people (burn, hang, and behead) what we often call Christianity has been very different than the initial vision of Jesus and the precedent set by the early church when Jesus was killed by Romans and the church suffered violence. 
2. that when groups of nationals are invaded by violent foreigners who mix commerce and religion with genocide and ethnic cleansing, that maybe the rejection by the indigenous population of the alien religion can not be called a rejection of christianity. Maybe when groups like the Native American tribes who were assaulted by European invasion were not actually rejecting what you and I would know as the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
3. that when preachers get stuff like this wrong, that it essentially changes the message and thus the addition of violence to the gospel makes it a different enough message that they are not preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ anymore but a different gospel. Maybe he doesn’t just quote this passage wrong, maybe he has Jesus all wrong.
Now usually people say “no no it is not a different gospel – it is just an adding of something to the gospel.” It is the gospel plus violence. 
But I would ask, if the example and model of Jesus and the apostles is essentially and fundamentally  non-violent, and one adds violence to it… does it then essentially and fundamentally transform the gospel into something that is then not the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
But is it possible that this preacher did not just get a detail wrong but is actually portraying Jesus wrong. That he is not just adding something to the gospel but is preaching a different gospel and thus is not preaching the gospel? 
I guess a fun example would be : if I write a book about how English is the best language and how everyone should speak English. Then someone translates that my book into French… that would be complicated. But what if they then appropriated the message and said that French was the best language and everyone should speak French… would that then be a different message?   Even if it were based on my original book, had the same title and used all the same stuff – it would be a different message.
I think that they would not just have translated my message but would have changed my message. Essentially and fundamentally they would be saying something different than I was.  They would not be promoting my same message. 
This is the exact situation that I think we often have. People use Jesus’ name, read from the Holy Book and even put crosses on the outside of their building and on their stage. It has all the markers of a Christian message. Here is the problem – it has a fundamentally different message and motives than Jesus did. It uses Roman models and methods and thus it is not in keeping with the Spirit of Christ. 
Jesus was not violent. jesuSword is not Jesu’s sword but Jesus’ word. It’s not a sword – it is an un-sword or an anti-sword.  When we miss this detail, we miss the message.
* the phrase “not of this world” does not mean that Jesus power has nothing to do with this world, but that it does not originate with this world (unlike Herod’s or Pilate’s). It definitely impacts the world and is for the world. “Not of this world” does not mean that it has nothing to do with this world and is for a “world that is to come”. It means that it is fully IN the world but that the source of its power is not OF the world.  

>Did that Elephant say Merry Christmas?

>I thought it would be fun to share one of the Christmas messages I preached on the podcast.
[PODcast Here]

In case anyone wanted to chat about it, I have put a short set of bullet points here.

  • Trying to explain our holiday celebrations to someone from outer space or from a foreign land who had never seen them might be tricky. To get from a poor family having a baby a long time ago to our massive shopping sprees and gift exchanges might take a while.
  • Consumerism is one of the elephants of Christmas. It’s that giant presence in the room that’s just easier to ignore than to acknowledge and address.
  • The “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” controversy exposes another elephant. The fact that this whole holiday is centered around the gift of love and humility makes it tough to sell when it gets entangled with cultural constructs and political realities.

  • The Gospel of Matthew has two things that none of the other Gospels in our Bible have. One is the slaughter of the innocents where King Herod (King of the Jews) tries to murder all boys under two years of age in the region. The second is Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt. It is clear that Matthew includes these because he is trying to tell us a distinct type of story: an Exodus story. He includes images and allusions to portray Herod as a Pharaoh character and then connect with this to Egypt in a way that makes it impossible to miss. ( There are many other devices that Matthew uses to construct his gospel in a way that mirrors the Pentateuch.)
  • These two elements from Matthew’s Gospel reveal biggest of the elephants of Christmas. The Christmas story is couched in, set in a context of, violence. When we ‘Hallmark’ this holiday we sometimes sanitize it and sterilize it to the point that it is unrecognizable from the Gospel accounts.
  • Let’s be honest, as these two Jewish young people flee to Egypt to become illegal aliens, foreigners in a land that holds deep cultural implications for their people, the idea of people saying ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘ Happy Holidays’ seems pretty irrelevant.
  • In fact I think that this exposes two things. The first is that the “Merry Christmas” controversy is not about this at all but about something else entirely. The second is that we are disconnected from the violence of that first Christmas.

  • When the angels say “Peace on Earth – goodwill toward mankind” it might have seemed redundant to those that first heard it. The region already had a Peace : Pax Romana. The Peace of Rome was enforced this way — you obey the rules and there will be peace. If Jesus came as the Prince of Peace he comes into the context of the Pax Roman and provides a different kind of Peace.
  • We miss this point because we are disconnected from the context of that original Christmas. when the Magi say to Herod “we’re looking for the one born King of the Jews” they are speaking to the one appointed by Rome ‘King of the Jews’. this would have been a subversive sentence. “ Peace on the earth” would have been a subversive sentiments to the Peace of Rome – saying that it wasn’t good enough. Many Christians don’t know that the phrase “Jesus is Lord” is a mirror to a very popular saying in the centuries before and after the birth of Christ. people in every direction from the place Jesus was born would have said “ Cesar is Lord”. So when Jesus’ followers would have said that he was Lord they were in an act of subversion saying that Caesar isn’t Lord.
  • The Christmas story is couched in violence and is violence to the ways and powers of this world. It still is today. The Christmas story says to the structures and institutions of this world ‘ you don’t get to stay this way’. The peace that you provide commerce through violence and submission and victory and is not a real peace. when we sanitize, sanctify and sterilize the Christmas story we lose this part of it.

  • Revelation 12 is the Christmas story as seen from heaven. It is distilled to us through a genre of literature known as Apocalyptic. It is the Christmas story nonetheless.
  • You never see Christmas cards of the image of a pregnant woman lying on her back with a dragon perched between her legs ready to eat the baby as it comes out. I’ve never seen a Christmas card carrying the image of the slaughter of innocents or of a terrified couple fleeing into the wilderness running for their life.

  • The Christmas carol “Oh Holy Night” is probably my favorite. I especially like the big notes of the chorus: Fall on your knees! Oh hear the Angels voices! Oh night divine Oh night when Christ was born! Oh night divine… and mostly I’m just hoping that I’ll be able to hit that big note at the end. Mostly I don’t. But it’s such a climactic moment in that song that after it’s over afraid I’d miss the next chorus because I’m thinking about how I can never hit that note outside the shower!
  • It’s a shame because that next verse is amazing. And in the context of what we are talking about — the violence of the first Christmas And the subversive nature of the story– it makes a lot more sense.

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.

Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

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