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III. Political Agency for Messiah Church in the World
The word 'kenosis' helps understand God's ways in the world and the false god of the market economy. A messiah church is called to work for peace, justice, and sustainable creation.
By Ed Knudson
Editor's Note: This is the third and last presentation in the adult forum series at Augustana Luther Church.
I would like to begin today by mentioning a word that has become important in contemporary theology: kenosis. Sometimes one word can help us identify and remember a great big concept, in this case a way to understand how God works. It is a word that helps situate ourselves as human beings in relation to the world in which we live. It helps us understand the relation between our internal consciousness and the external public world of other human beings.
Kenosis is a Greek word which means "emptiness". The most important place it is found in the New Testament is in the second chapter of Philippians where the Apostle Paul says this:
5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,Paul is speaking into the Greek world where God was understood as all-powerful. So how could it be than an all-powerful God could be identified with a human being such as Jesus? Paul answers that God emptied himself of divine power in the person of Jesus and enters the world as a real human being. Or, to say it another way, Jesus exhibits the divine power of God in a different way than human beings expect, and thus the name of Jesus is exalted above all other names, including all the names of the politically rich and powerful in the Roman empire.
Paul then says: "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
Now, Paul is writing to regular folks who have become a part of the congregation in Philippi. They were not the rich and powerful in the city. In fact, Paul is writing this letter to them when he himself was in prison, so he was a kind of outlaw in the eyes of the Roman state. Imagine how those Philippians must have felt when they read those words of Paul, "God is at work in you." Just as God worked through Jesus who died on a cross, the very image of powerlessness and emptiness, so God is at work in you. And God is working through the Philippians to create something quite different from the world as it was dominated by the Roman empire.
Those are real gospel words. They announce a new reality, a new truth. We here today are not the rich and powerful of society, we are regular folks just like the Philippians, but we can hear these words of Paul said to us even today: "God is at work in you." What can that mean for us today?
To answer that question it may help to consider that the word kenosis has been used by some contemporary theologians to refer to creation, that is, the relation of God and the created order. When God created the world God was "emptying" God's self of power over that world. God created the world which means that the world is not the same as God, is other than God. And God has created human beings to be free in that world so that what happens in the world is the result of the decisions of human beings. That means that what happens in the world today is the result of decisions that you and I make today. The world is not controlled by an all-powerful God. The God revealed in the scriptures is not the all-powerful God of the Greeks, but a God who in the creation of the world has emptied God's self of such controlling power. The future of the world will be what human beings make it. And "God is at work in you" making salvation happen.
This idea of the kenosis of God is helpful because it expresses what is really the historic and orthodox understanding of God in Christian faith. God creates the world as an open field of possibility including human freedom and action.
Now, this is a very different way of talking than what religious fundamentalists are saying today. They tend to believe in the God of the Greeks. And they connect the idea of an all-powerful God with modern notions of how the world works. The world to them is like a big machine, and God is in control of everything, making every little thing happen. God is pushing all the buttons and levers controlling the machine world. This is actually a 19th century image of the world when human beings fell in love with machines in the industrial economy. And it is a huge distortion of the classic Christian understanding of God. In fact, one can say that religious fundamentalists have created their own modern idea of God and that they thus are worshipping a false God. And the big problem with this idea is that it teaches that we human beings don't have to be concerned with this world, God is taking care of everything, God is controlling history completely and we human beings are sitting on the sidelines watching what happens and hoping for the end of the world.
This idea of an all-powerful God gets turned around in modern consciousness as an excuse to reject the very idea of God. The most common reason people reject God today is because they cannot understand why an all-powerful God would allow such great suffering in the world. When people tell me they don't believe in God I always ask them what concept of God they are rejecting. When they say "supreme being" or some other reference to an all-powerful God I say that I agree with them, I reject that concept of God as well. So, in some ways I am like those atheists! But, God is not a concept in our minds, God is other than what we may think or feel about God in our own minds, in our inner consciousness. God is not determined by what human beings think. We can only know God if God reveals God's self to us.
Martin Luther came to see from the bible that the true nature of God is revealed in Jesus Christ on the cross. He even called his theology a "theology of the cross." Everything in the bible, even the Hebrew scriptures, finally point to this one who died on a cross. Here the true nature of God is revealed and it is a God of love and mercy and grace and forgiveness. When we hear the gospel of the love of God we human beings are made whole once again to be able to go into the world to serve the neighbor. Luther writes that because of God's love we are "free from all," free from all law and authorities, and "free for all," free and able to live our lives for others right here in the world. This accent on "freedom" for human beings is one of the most important aspects of the Reformation and the history of Protestantism, and it has had tremendous influence in the creation of modern society.
History is Open to What Human Beings Do
Freedom means that history itself is open to what human beings do. God does not control history; human beings make history.
In 1970 I was a pastor of a congregation in Baltimore, Maryland, a blue collar community of factory workers. One of the members of my church invited me to go with him to a VFW bar one night. So I am sitting on a barstool when I get talking with an older fellow next to me. He starts telling me about what he did during the second world war. He wasn't in the army. He worked in a boot factory. And he tells me that every time he hammered a nail into a boot he thought about the soldier who may wear that boot fighting in the war.
I came to see something important in that little incident, that human beings want to be connected to something bigger than themselves, that they want to participate in history, that they want to know that they are doing something for other people, they are making a difference, their lives make a difference.
Before Baltimore I had been a pastor in Washington D.C. My church there was in the black community and we were active in the civil rights movement as well as the movement to end the war in Vietnam. In fact, the church was a staging center for the Poor People's Campaign in 1968; people came from all over the country in buses and slept overnight on the pews in our sanctuary. Those were quite exciting days, we felt we were in the midst of historical events, we were changing things, we were involved in political events, not partisan politics so much, but we were making history. We were a sort of messiah church making a difference in the world. Lots of other Protestants were engaged with us in these activities.
Now it seems Protestant churches, at least the mainline Protestants, are not providing young people with opportunites to make a difference with their lives. We are not calling young people to significant vocation in the world. Many congregations want younger members but then they think that if they use music young people like they will flock to the church. Not so. Young people will go to churches where they are called to make a difference, where their lives will mean something.
Here it is the religious right which has been offering people an interpretation of history that leads them to feel they are making a difference. A historian, Darren Dochuk, talks about the rise of evangelical conservatism in his book From Bible Belt to Sun Belt. During and after World War II white Southerners began moving to southern California to work in the defense industries there. A whole new culture of southern religion developed there which focused on the anti-Communism of the Cold War. Sunday after Sunday preachers told the workers in these factories how important their work was, how they were helping the country win the war against atheistic Communism. These preachers were telling these workers that their lives made a difference, they were making history. It was in is this context that explains why Billy Graham was so successful in southern California in his evangelical campaigns. He preached anti-Communism and William Randolph Hearst who owned newspapers in Los Angeles sent a memo to his reporters, "Puff Graham," which means to write articles extolling Billy Graham. Hearst thought Graham would be good for the country. And, in the process, of course, the meaning of the Christian faith in this country was being established. To be a Christian meant fighting Communism. God and country preaching has a long history in revivalist traditions of the religious right.
Once the Soviet Union came to an end in 1991 I wondered who it would be that the revivalists would begin to attack since it seemed their preaching needed a clear enemy. We know now who they began to attack, it was the "secular humanists" in our public schools, "liberals" in government and other public institutions, and after 9/11 it became Muslim terrorists. And the anti-Communism habit of thought has not gone away at all, it continues to live in the minds of religious conservatives. The father of Ted Cruz from Texas, a Cuban immigrant, introduces his son at campaign events with language accusing President Obama of being a Communist for his health care law just like Fidel Castro.
So the big all-powerful God of the religious right is associated with the military might of the big powerful country of the United States. There's nothing in the bible about this, of course, but the religious right has long since learned to read into the bible what it wants to believe is there. Martin Luther would call this a "theology of glory" opposed to the theology of the cross and be very strong in condemning it. I say it has moved so far from both the bible and the historic doctrines of Christianity that it should no longer be called either Christian or Protestant. It is idolatry, it is making the country itself into an idol of worship. But it does have the advantage of giving people a clear sense that being a "Christian" makes a difference, their lives have purpose and meaning in history.
Political Agency for the New Protestants
The religious right, as we have mentioned in previous sessions, has adopted a political agent for its view of the world, the Republican Party. And the Republican Party for its own purposes has been happy to use religious right pastors and congregations to win elections. Carl Rove, the master-mind of George W. Bush's campaign for governor of Texas and then president, worked systematically to organize conservative Christians for get-out-the-vote campaigns. It appears right now that there is a fracturing process occurring in that party between conservative Christians and the more libertarian and establishment business interests. Here I want to discuss three key issues and how New Protestants can identify political agency for their own interpretation of history.
All the mainline churches have been affirming a historical agenda signified in three words: peace, justice, and sustainable creation. What we need to do is begin much more actively to actually organize local congregations on the basis of this agenda. And we have to connect that with the historic and orthodox doctrines and practices of the church, as I have tried to do a little bit today by discussing the idea of kenosis.
The United States has become a global empire using its military and mass surveillance to dominant and control everything that happens in the world. This is all justified by the preaching of God and country of the religious right following in the pattern of Billy Graham. Just think about this: fifty years ago during the administration of John F. Kennedy the government of this country came to the brink of using nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. This would have destroyed the world that God has made, but so-called Christians supported a rhetoric that justified the use of such weapons. Right now there are several television programs coming up in recognition of the anniversary of this event. Kennedy became so alarmed by some generals in the armed forces who were actually pushing him to use those weapons against Russia that he himself changed course and began concrete actions for peace. I recommend to you a book by James W. Douglass, a Catholic theologian, called JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. It documents what a large majority of Americans believe, that Lee Harvey Oswald was not a lone assassin but an agent of "unspeakable" forces within the government itself who were terribly worried over the direction that JFK was taking the country, trying to actually make peace with the Communist enemy. Since the death of JFK this country has continued down the path of massive military expenditure and bellicosity toward the rest of the world and this continues under President Obama.
I believe that what it means to be a Christian today is to work for peace in concrete ways. Our congregations should be full of peace-makers who make the mission of peace a central aspect of their vocation in life, making a difference in the world. To do this we need to come up against our own government in many ways, and against both political parties, and join forces with other groups in the community who share our goal of peace in the world. This is not just another "social issue" but a part of the central mission of the church with which we seek to "evangelize" others. To speak the gospel is to speak for peace. Our best theologians are helping us with this, just two are Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Powers, and John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now.
What I mean here is that we members of churches can actually build our congregations based on our commitment to peace. In personal conversations we need not try to use phony language about "coming to believe in Jesus," we can say "my congregation is really working to make a difference in the world about peace." Then invite them to a meeting.
A second major issue today is justice. Every human being has within themselves a sense of what makes for fairness and justice in human interaction, it's part of what is meant by "natural law" or conscience. Protestantism has been a big factor in the development of the modern economics and business enterprise. But over the past decades we have seen vastly increasing inequality in the distribution of income and life chances, so much so that we are seeing major social conflict here in this country and around the world. Since the fall of Communism, those who call themselves "capitalists" have gained more and more authority and power over not only the economy but over politics and the government as well. Neither of the political parties provides much critique of the capitalist system. But during this same period there has been a tremendous increase in poverty, the nation's cities have been allowed to deteriorate to dangerous levels, more and more people want to live in gated communities to protect themselves from the poor and oppressed, more and more prisons are built for millions of people, and human life is defined by how much one can get and consume for one's self. Life has become a matter of serving the Economy, as if the economy itself is a kind of god.
Martin Luther said that if people don't believe in the God revealed in the scriptures they will just make something else into a kind of God, they will worship other gods. The historic Protestant faith in God, a God of both justice and mercy, is no longer at the center of the public culture or consciousness in this country. People have come to worship other gods, and the primary god in this country is the god of the market economy. It is difficult today to find places where it is even possible to begin to question whether faith in this god is good for the country. The church should be such a place.
I believe it is necessary today to put behind us this whole debate between Communism and Capitalism. It was Karl Marx who taught, of course, that material economic relations drive all of history. But it is capitalists today who also believe that the economy determines everything and it should not be questioned. The economy is viewed as an all-powerful god. We need to get beyond this. Communism is a thing of the past. And capitalism as it is now is not well serving all people either in this country or around the world. Economics and finance do not determine everything in history. It is the decisions of human beings that make history. And we human beings can come together to make decisions based on what we can call a "new possibility" for the future, something beyond both Communism and Capitalism. The Protestant Church can be a place where we can imagine such a new possibility on behalf of the world which we believe God loves.
There is an immense literature out there written by people concerned with inventing new forms of economy. Two books I have found helpful are William Greider, The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy, and Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do? Democratizing Wealth and Building a Community-Sustaining Economy from the Ground Up. Local congregations could even experiment with helping form new cooperative businesses, local food markets, employee-owned small industries. But we also need to participate in the debate over future forms of the larger economy.
Worship of false gods is the most dangerous thing human beings can do. False gods turn against you in the end; they are not there when you need them. False gods don't keep their promises. False gods bring chaos and disorder. Think about the financial crash five years ago. You thought your house was worth $400,000 and you owed only $200,000 so you thought you had $200,000 in the bank so to speak. But then you wake up one day and find out that your house is only worth $200,000, and the $200,000 you thought you had in the bank is gone, poof it's gone. You think you have a pension at your work but then Bain Capital buys your company and uses your pension fund to leverage bigger debt and then your company goes bankrupt and your pension, what you thought you had for retirement, is gone, poof it's gone. It's just numbers, money is mathematics, and the whole system is based on trust, trust that the numbers will add up over time. But then a crash occurs and trillions and trillions of dollars are lost, evaporate, gone in an instant, poof it's all gone. The financial economy is literally a house of cards with big players playing their cards calculating how to make the numbers come out in their favor. But it's all mathematics, abstractions contained in computer code, and overnight it can all vanish in the air. That's where the god of the market economy has taken us.
That's the world we live in today. It makes me thankful to attend worship and go to the communion table, to receive real bread and real wine, the material body and blood carrying the divine presence. This helps me anchor myself in reality, not the mathematical abstractions of financial calculation. So I am not just talking about a moral imperative here, that we should act differently. I am not talking about business ethics. I am trying to describe what it means to believe in false gods and how they are always going to fail us in the end.
Worship of the nation, worship of the economy, worship of the state are all the worship of false gods. The false god of the market economy is not keeping its promise of peace and security, it has led to endless war, massive inequality, and total insecurity. And now in our time it is doing something even more terrible, it is killing the earth.
I need not tell you the facts of climate change, it is real and we all know it. I have put some articles on the website for you to read. I suggest a book. The Lutheran theologian Larry Rasmussen has recently published Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. On pp. 56-57 he has a series of charts which are like hockey sticks, they all dramatically increase in the last decades, increasing population, the use of energy and increase of carbon in the atmosphere leading to global warming. The popular magazine, National Geographic, has been running many articles providing the basic science involved.
So why hasn't the political process in a democratic society been able to begin to deal realistically with climate change? It is because of the worship of the false god of the market economy as if it is in charge of history and is all-powerful. And it is also because so many people and politicians deny the science.
Last time I talked about Martin Luther's positive attitude toward the use of reason in human affairs. God has made the world in such a way that what human beings do makes a difference. Having heard the good news of God's love and mercy, we are to use our reason to help us figure out how best to love the neighbor. Today, we know that science is one of the ways reason has been applied to human problems. Lutherans and all the mainline Protestants are open to the results of scientific inquiry. Science cannot answer the big spiritual questions or issues of divine presence in the world. But it can help us understand the world. And science is telling us today that the market economy is killing the earth.
It is important for us to realize that the fundamentalist religious right in this country started in the late 19th century in a battle against science, especially against Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. And that battle continues to be waged by the religious right in many ways including a war on public schools which disallow prayer and teach evolution. And this religious right, which remember is the "base" of the Republican Party, denies climate science. So large numbers of Republican politicians, especially in the House of Representatives, actively deny that the world is warming due to the energy usage of human beings which has dramatically increased just in the last few decades. The religious right is keeping the American people from being able to address the most important challenge facing us as a country, the challenge of climage change.
That's why it has become so important for what I call the "New Protestants" to stand up and reinvigorate themselves with the resources from their own history to be able to respond to the call today to be what the church has always been in its best moments, a messiah church, a church concerned with the salvation of the world. For it has come to pass that the earth itself, created by God for human flourishing and conviviality, is at threat because of worship of the false god of the market economy. We are called today to make history in a new way. Because of how God has created the world we are able to make decisions on behalf of all God's people everywhere.
It is not enough to have national denominations involved in these matters. It needs to happen in local congregations. I believe that Protestant churches will exist in the future only to the degree that they decide to be responsible for the public life of communities today, just as the church has always done in its history. We do not live just private lives. What we do in private has lots of consequences for everyone else in the "public world."
And there are hundreds, even thousands, of other groups and movements working for peace, justice, and sustainable creation. Paul Hawken has written a whole book on these groups called Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. We need to invite such groups to use our church facilities, to ask their leaders to come speak to our members, to partner with them in support of their activities, and invite them to come and worship with us a God of peace and justice. This can be our political agency, one way we can be active with others in the world. And through this too we will build up our churches enabling people to make a difference. The future will be what we make it.
But most important I think is that we remember the cross; it is a place of pain. We as messiah church are called to be with people in their pain. It doesn't seem natural to do this. We tend to avoid people in pain, we want to be with people like ourselves, or people who are successful and healthy. The middle-class church is tempted here to be a place where only the successful gather to celebrate all the blessings they think God has given them. But God sent Jesus to communicate with us, to meet us on the level of our own pain at the cross. And Jesus in his own life went to people in pain. Martin Luther was addressing the gospel to people in pain, exploited by the Roman Church at the time. It's good that Protestants are no longer important and powerful in society. It gives us a chance to encounter our own pain, and reach out to those who are on the margins of society, the people in pain, and there are billions of them on earth today. The pain from war, the pain that comes with injustice, the pain of not having access to the resources needed for life. Because of the gospel we are able to be in solidarity with people in their pain. Then God is working among us. This is the messiah church opening new possibility for the future for all.
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