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On market-driven Christianity and biblical tea parties…

April 20, 2009

The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness.  We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.

Spirituality and economics are inter-connected.  In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.

–from the core convictions of the Anabaptist Network UK

teapartyx-large1Interesting the connection between Christian faith and economics. This came through in our lesson from Acts 4:32-35 yesterday. “…no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”

This passage makes me uncomfortable. It describes a Christianity I have not embodied.   Radical generosity and communal practices that seemingly stand on its head the dominant value system of late American capitalism which is driven by individuals pursuing what will be most beneficial to their own economic situation.   The risen Christ transforms a fearful community, cocooning behind locked doors (John 20:19-31) into bold witnesses who are credible because of their communal life–particularly made visible in their economic practices. The embryonic church is not characterized by individuals pursuing what is in their private economic interest, rather they look after the common good.  The outward expression of resurrection is love for others, mutual aid, self-sacrifice.

How might this connect to what Bono is talking about in his latest editorial for the New York Times?   Jubilee.   Debt forgiveness.  Bono identifies the kind of compassion that is a hallmark of biblical Christianity–where we find our souls.  It is a call that will require individuals with wealth and wealthy nations to consider how life might need to be re-ordered so that the common good of the planet might be realized.  Economic purists will no doubt scoff at this as so much mushy liberal do-goodism.  This is not how economic systems work.   Aid and artificial stimulus does not produce incentive and innovation needed to achieve real value in the markets.  It just produces a sense of entitlement.  So let me hang on to my money and give to charity.  The empowered individual knows best how to handle money.

The contrast is stark between a Christianity primarily driven by markets, and one informed by the biblical text.  One need not look further than the headlines of the papers in the last week to find evidence of both versions of Christianity.   On the one hand we have Christians participating in Tea Party demonstrations on tax day last week, calling for the government to take their hands off the money of individuals.  These voices would no doubt find justification for their views in the economic principles of Adam Smith (Wealth of the Nations).

On the other hand we have voices like Bono, Jim Wallis, and John Perkins calling for relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution (of wealth).  Voices like Shane Claiborne and others embodying the New Monasticism, by moving to the abandoned places of empire, practicing mercy, compassion and justice.  All these voices are imagining that to be a Christian in the way of Jesus is to be invested in far more than self-preservation or self-realization.  The question is this.  Which embodiment looks more like the embryonic Christian community described in Acts and pre-Christendom?

Economics has much to do with discipleship…much to do with the relation of the individual to the whole.  Perhaps music provides an apt metaphor as we think about a healthy relation of individuals to the whole–in politics or in the church.  I received a paper from someone working on their master’s thesis in music therapy.  The article by Julia Simon, “Singing Democracy:  Music and Politics in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thought”, explores how music provides a medium in which the individual must be willing to “subordinate his/her own interests to the greater good of the group.”  Here is another quote along those lines:

“In music this means that each member of the ensemble will play in such a way as to maximize the beauty of the musical piece taken as a whole.  This will require some instruments or voices to be silent at times in order to allow other voices to be hear; it will require making concessions and compromises in one’s individual part in order for the piece to work as a whole.”

“Functioning together as a group in this way allows for the simultaneous expression of individual parts and the emergence of a group form: the body functioning as a whole.”

The article is discussing music theory as it relates to politics, but the themes apply to the church.  Not just to the church, but to life in the world (in relation to others…in relation to creation) from a Christian perspective.  Biblical concepts like Jubilee do not make sense from the standpoint of capitalist-driven ideology.  The economic practices of the early Christian community described in Acts 4, do not jive with the values of individual freedom…independence.

And so the debate will go.  But perhaps the tide is turning.  Perhaps, as Bono states, “capitalism is on trial” and “globalization…is in the dock.”  And as economic and planetary systems are teetering on the brink, perhaps Christians would do well to revisit the biblical text and read it again as if Jesus were speaking to us.  To read it again as if Jesus meant what he said.  To read it again as if it were not all a letter directed to the individual.  To take our cue as one part in the the larger ensemble of the transformation of all things.  This is the biblical vision–a vision of mercy, justice, beauty and love for all.

Perhaps what this historical moment requires of Christians, if not a willingness to embody the radical economic practices of the early Christian community, is at least a willingness to name the dissonance between our version of Christianity and this radical picture.  Let us allow the biblical vision for justice to be normative.  Let us be uncomfortable when we try to make Christianity something that does not challenge middle-class bourgeois existence.  Let’s have tea parties and let’s invite the rest of the world, including our enemies.  That’s a notion so radical that it just might have something to do with Jesus of Nazareth.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2009 11:07 am

    Idea for a retreat activity: Everyone is told that the organizers are considering refunding the fees everyone paid to attend the retreat. A very brief questionnaire is passed out that asks one question: “If this had been done through a free-will offering instead of the fixed fee, what would you have given?” Now, if the results, once tabulated, indicate that the total would have been less, then some people have to think about how they managed to pay more than what they would have voluntarily given, and why. If the survey shows a higher total, the group is given a refund and asked to pay for the retreat by a passing of a basket.
    The overage (we assume there will be one, after the collection) is directed toward an extra amenity for the retreat, to defray the fees for a future retreat, or some other use, according to a group decision of the attendees. (If there is NOT an overage, then truthfulness and sacrifice become issues for discussion.)
    Any way this ends up going, the topic, moving forward, is: imagine if we did our whole life this way — allocating resources for our kids’ education, assigning vehicles to those who need them, providing for retirement, etc. How hard would we work if everyone benefited from our labor, not just our immediate family? (harder? less hard?) How would we deal with the lazy, those who consumed more greedily, or those who seemed to be working themselves to death?

  2. Lisa permalink
    April 20, 2009 2:05 pm

    Thanks for continuing to challenge me, us, our church. These are some things I continue to struggle with and make me uncomfortable as well. Usually that means I need to hear it. Keep it coming!

  3. Sheryl Smoker permalink
    April 21, 2009 4:28 pm

    What a great conversation to open up for dialogue. I am glad that you put this conversation on the table because i think it is one we should have despite the uncomfortableness associated with the subject. I am a fellow struggler as well, and I applaud you for introducing this conversation and i hope the dialogue will continue and lead toward greater awareness and a more effective Christian witness for those willing to engage with it. I hope to hear more.

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