Do Not Conform

A sermon from Romans 12:1-2

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. [Romans 12:1-2]

One of my favorite novels is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. In it we meet the aging Rev. John Ames as he writes to young son in a small Iowa town in the 1950s. Rev. Ames loves the small town & its people. He is 3rd generation preacher; his father was pacifist but we learn that his grandfather moved from Maine to the Iowa frontier before Civil War to join abolitionist fight against slavery. Gilead, like other towns throughout Iowa and Kansas, was founded in order to help enslaved people escape and to change the balance of power in the nation so that future states admitted to the Union would be free.

But by the time Ames writes to his son this history has long passed. The town settled into contented apathy, its roots in the great battle against slavery forgotten. Ames writes that his abolitionist grandfather, disappointed in what the town had become, left Gilead for the scenes of his former battles in Kansas.

He was terribly lonely, no doubt about it. I think that was a big part of his running off to Kansas. That and the fire at the Negro church. It wasn’t a big fire – someone heaped brush against the back wall and put a match to it, and someone else saw the smoke and put the fames out with a shovel. (The Negro church used to be where the soda fountain is now, though I hear that’s going out of business. That church sold up some years ago, and what was left of the congregation moved to Chicago. By then it was down to three or four families. The pastor came by with a sack of plants he’d dug up from around the front steps, mainly lilies. He thought I might want them, and they’re still there along the front of our church. I should tell the deacons where they came from, so they’ll know they have some significance and they’ll save them when the building comes down. I didn’t know the Negro pastor well myself, but he said his father knew my grandfather. He told me they were sorry to leave, because this town had once meant a great deal to them.)

The black pastor and and his congregation remembered the Gilead of the past. But now, during era of Jim Crow laws and lynchings, they know longer felt welcomed. Their church, the symbol of their faith and freedom, suffered an arsonists attack. They had to leave.

And what does Rev. Ames remember most about this moment? The flowers. In contrast to his grandfather, Ames has accepted the attitudes and assumptions of his day. It’s not that he’s a rabid racist; he seems to remember the black church fondly. Instead, like the rest of the town, he views the fire and the black community’s subsequent departure as a benign fact of history. By the time he writes to his son, not a single black person remains in Gilead and nothing about this troubles the abolitionist’s grandson.

Rev. Ames conformed to the forgetfulness of his town, to its tolerance of racial expulsion, to intentional cultural homogeneity at odds with its very founding. He willingly conformed, as a Christian and a pastor who deeply loves his Lord and his congregation.

Despite being a Christian his whole life and his decades as a pastor, I doubt Rev. Ames would be at all troubled by Paul’s warning: Do not conform to the pattern of this world. It’s unlikely that he would see his acceptance of the black community’s flight from the town he loved as having much to do with his own Christian discipleship. He did not recognize how he had conformed to the world because he did not see the ways his world opposed God’s will.

This fictional narrative provokes me to ask a question of myself: How have I conformed to the patterns of this world, patterns that are hostile to God’s good, pleasing, & perfect will?

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In Romans 1-11 Paul presents the gospel. In dense and majestic language, he shows how we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus, who fulfills Israel’s vocation to bless the world and stands in for the judgment of our sins. And then, in chapter 12, he makes a turn. “Therefore…” In other words, Paul will now show what we do in response to what God has accomplished, in response to the gospel.

And what do we do? We offer our bodies as worship. We don’t offer Sunday hymns, tithes, sermons, or ministries, though these matter! Our worship extends beyond Sundays because it’s our bodies we offer to God. It is our whole selves we give to God; living sacrifices, holy and pleasing. Our worship goes where we go. Our worship extends into the world. Christian worship cannot be constrained to a day or contained by a building.

Christian worship extends into the world but, as Paul goes on to say, it does not conform to its patterns. Paul has in mind the realm of sinful rebellion against God, and its consequences: injustice, death. This is the word Jesus has rescued us from: “[the Lord Jesus Christ…] gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” [Galatians 1:4]

But though we’ve been rescued from its demise and its judgment, we still live within the world, the present evil age. Though we’ve been transferred from sin and death to righteousness and life, “this transfer does not isolate us from the influence of the old realm.” (Douglass Moo) Until Jesus returns, there remains the temptation to become engrossed with the things of this world (1 Corinthians 7:31); to assume the patterns of this world are normal & miss how they contradict life in God’s Kingdom. This was John Ames’ mistake. The good pastor did not see how his town’s treatment of its black citizens was at odds with the Kingdom of God.

It is natural for me to conform to the patterns of this world. I am a white, Christian, man within a country that considers itself a Christian nation; within a country that has favored my gender and race since its inception. Not only is there little incentive for me not to conform to society, my privileged experience makes it hard to even see how my conformity has led me to oppose God’s will.

My tendency to conform is true even during a time when immigrants and refugees are slandered publicly, when the abusive power long suffered by women has been made visible, when lands sacred to Native Americans suffer government seizure and corporate pollution, and when African Americans are regularly reminded of their vulnerability to this nation’s violence – whether sitting in a Starbucks, standing in grandmother’s backyard, or playing in a public park. Paul commands me not to conform knowing that, in this present evil age, it is normal and natural to conform to perspectives & assumptions that oppose God’s will & injure my neighbor.

Rather than conforming, God calls us to transformation by the renewing our minds. The vision is big: Jesus renews our minds so that we can know God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.  As Jesus taught his disciples to pray, it is God’s desires that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our renewed minds allow us to imagine a way of life that conforms not to the patterns of this age, but to the patterns of God’s will, to the patterns of his kingdom. As N.T. Write says,

Christians are therefore in a position… of someone who needs to stop letting the world around dictate its own terms and conditions, and who instead must figure out how to think, speak and act as is appropriate not for the present age, but for the new age which is already breaking in.

Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection makes available to us a complete transformation; hearts of stone that soften to love what God loves; captive minds renewed to see God’s kingdom breaking into this rebellious world. In response to the in-breaking Kingdom of God, disciples of Jesus offer our entire selves in worship by conforming to God’s good, pleasing and perfect will… no matter the pressures and temptations of the present evil age.

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The early Christians sometimes paid a cost for their nonconformity. They were persecuted not for their private beliefs, but for their public worship; for how their renewed minds in Christ led to non-conformity in the world. We can expect this as well. As we discern God’s will, we will find ourselves on the receiving end of this world’s opposition to God’s will.

But more important than the potential cost, not conforming to this world allows for God’s will to be made visible in our lives. The good, pleasing, and perfect will of God, accomplished through Jesus’ death and resurrection, cannot be ignored in this world when God’s people refuse to conform to its patterns.

An epidemic in mid-2nd century killed between 1/4 – 1/3 of those in the Roman Empire. A hundred years later a 2nd epidemic ravaged the empire, killing up to 5,000 daily in Rome alone. Bodies piled up in homes, streets, & pagan temples. The sick were left behind. This was the pattern of the Roman world. In contrast, the Christians stayed behind, caring for the sick.

About this time Bishop Dionysius wrote,

Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.

The Emperor Julian, an opponent of Christianity, wrote: “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

The Christians didn’t have to do this. They could have conformed to the pattern of the world. Instead, they looked to their Savior and his pattern; like him, they gave up their lives for their sick and dying neighbors.

Or consider the lot of women in the Roman world: Because of gender-based infanticide, far more boys than girls survived infancy. Girls given in marriage at 12 or younger. Abortion, a decision made by men, killed many women. The Christians, on the other hand, opposed infanticide and abortion; women married older with more choice; they opposed divorce, incest, infidelity, & polygamy (all which disproportionately harmed women); their widows were respected, cared for when necessary. It’s not surprising, then, that off the 33 people Paul greeted by name in Romans, 15 were women: Junia, the apostle; Phoebe, the deacon; Priscilla, the pastor & Paul’s longtime co-laborer in the gospel.

Or what about the early church’s response to their culture’s divisions. Within a cultural worldview that was permanently stratified by ethnicity, citizenship, and class, the church crossed all lines of division. Philip was sent to the Ethiopian eunuch; Peter to the Roman centurion. the diverse church in Antioch was led by multi-racial leaders. Within an empire that survived on divisions and exploitation, the Christians believed that within the Kingdom of God: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Galatians 3:28]

None of this was inevitable. The Roman Empire did not praise the Christians for not conforming. Living out their transformed lives was risky and intensely counter-cultural. At times it resulted in deadly persecution. But the gospel could not be ignored!

The Christians did not look to the way things were in the Roman Empire for how they should live. Rather, they looked to their Savior, and his kingdom. As they worshipped him, they were led to demonstrate his will, no matter the cost. They lived fully within the world, but as citizens of a different kingdom.

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In 1954, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from Romans 12:1-2. He said, 

And so although the Christian finds himself in the colony of time his ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. In other words, the Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is the Christian duty to revolt against it.

Our allegiance is to Jesus and to his Kingdom. Our allegiance must be active; it means resisting the sinful patterns, unjust institutions, and the harmful assumptions of this age. We must not be lulled into conforming complacency as was Rev. Ames.

What is the evidence of our true and proper worship? What is the evidence that we have offered our bodies as living sacrifices? What is the evidence that we have been transformed by the renewing of our minds? What is the evidence that we have not conformed to the pattern of this world? What is the evidence that God’s will – his good, pleasing and perfect will – is our heart’s greatest desire?

We can’t look to our buildings, budgets, attendance; neither can we appeal cultural relevancy or access to halls of power. After all, for not conforming the early Christians suffered isolation and persecution; for not conforming Paul was imprisoned, flogged, stoned, and shipwrecked; for not conforming Dr. King was threatened, beaten, jailed, and assassinated.

The world’s standards of success and acceptance cannot be what a citizen of the kingdom of heaven looks to. We look, instead, to our Savior and his kingdom. Is our true worship leading us to oppose the unjust and wicked patterns of this world, or have we conformed to them? Is our worship leading us to represent Jesus and his Kingdom in the midst of destructive and, at times, dehumanizing patterns? This is the evidence of our true & proper worship.

The patterns of our world has become especially evident recently. What most women have long known has become more visible: That institutional power is not equally shared between men and women; that, in fact, women often experience the worst of abusive and manipulative power. The racism that works its way through our institutions and societal assumptions has now metastasized into visible white nationalism and xenophobia.

In response to the destructive patterns of this evil age we sometimes hear that Christians should not be involved. These are political issues. But no! They are people issues! And we remain disengaged at the expense of our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. King pointed this out in his sermon: “The mere fact that slavery, segregation, war, and economic exploitation have been sanctioned by the church is a fit testimony to the fact that the church has too often conformed to the authority of the world rather than conforming to the authority of God.”

When we close our eyes to gender disparities and abusive power, we are conforming to the pattern of this world.  When we appeal to the racial homogeneity of our towns and suburbs as a rationale for not pursuing racial justice, we are conforming to the pattern of this world.

Too long have we affirmed women in church leadership theologically but not practically. Too long have we patted ourselves on the back for having racially diverse denominational leadership without asking how God is calling our church to cross lines of cultural segregation.

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Let me be conclude in a confessional manner: It is so easy for me to conform to the patterns of this world. My gender and race conspire to benefit me, to privilege my life at someone else’s expense. Conformity feels safer. Limiting my worship to some songs on Sundays feels safer. The call to worship with my body, as a living sacrifice, in this world is risky. The call to conform to God’s will rather than this world’s way is risky.

But in Jesus the early Christians found a pattern for sacrificial love that compelled them to give their lives for their sick and suffering neighbors. In Jesus they found a pattern for women’s dignity and leadership. In Jesus they found a pattern for crossing lines of ethnic division, class distinction, and religious taboos. They did not wait for the world to become more like God’s kingdom before proclaiming God’s kingdom in the world.

The early Christians lived non-conforming lives because they worshipped a non-conforming Savior. How could they conform themselves to the same world that their Savior had overcome? Why would we conform ourselves to the racial inequities that our Savior has overcome? Why would we conform ourselves to the gender disparities that our Savior has overcome? May we not forget that Jesus overcame the world so that we would not be conformed by the world!

God’s will is risky! It is not safe and it is not comfortable. The will of God led Jesus to leave the throne of heaven for earth; to exchange divine power for an infant’s weakness; to submit to life as a persecuted ethnic minority within a violent empire; to humble himself by becoming obedient to death- even death on a cross!

There is nothing safe about the will of God, at least nothing that our world would recognize as safe. But the will of God is good, pleasing and perfect.  And for a people who have been rescued from death unto life, from conforming to transforming, for this people the will of God will be courageously expressed in our bodies offered as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.

Photo credit: Tim Wilson.

Of Monsters and Money

A sermon about the empire’s money, the exile’s hope, and the Savior who would not be bought.

14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” [Revelation 3:14-18]

11 “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves. 14 They will say, ‘The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your luxury and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.’” [Revelation 18:11-14]

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During Lent we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and the Israelite’s 40 years in the wilderness. The wilderness experience was a common experience for God’s people in the Old Testament, as was its corollary of exile. Exile, the experience of being sent or kept from one’s homeland, is something the early Christians experienced as well, something they anticipated from Jesus’ teaching and, later, from the Apostle Paul.

“You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” [John 15:18] 

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. [Philippians 3:20]

Exile is a normal part of the Christian life. And how we engage with money in exile is incredibly important because, as we’ll see, money is a spiritual force that competes with God for our worship. Money, according to the Bible, is different than we tend to think of it, as a neutral object that we can use for good or ill. According to the French sociologist Jaques Ellul, money in the Bible is seen as “a power which tries to be like God, which makes itself our master and which has specific goals.”

The warped spiritual power of money is nowhere exhibited more strongly than within the context of empire and exile. If the Christian experience is one of regular exile in this life, then we need to pay special attention to the power that the empire’s money exerts over our desires and decisions. Otherwise we’ll think we are using money when we are being used by money.

Laodicea sat at the intersection of two major trade routes, had fertile grazing land, and became a center of banking and finance. It is of the church in this city of which God says, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Why? The Laodicean church had forgotten their exile and thought of themselves as being comfortably a part of the empire. They saw themselves as citizens of the Roman Empire rather than exiles of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let’s look more closely at why this provoked such a fierce response from God.

The letter to the church in Laodicea is found in Revelation, a letter from the Apostle John to churches throughout the Roman Empire. Revelation was written to people who knew the particular exilic experience of one of the most powerful empire’s the world has known. The Emperor Domitian called himself “Lord God,” demanded worship, and brutally persecuted Jews and Christians who refused to do so, taking their property and executing them.

It’s important to remember that John’s letter to Laodicea is contained within Revelation, a letter written as apocalyptic literature. This form of literature is foreign to us but it had important characteristics that help us understand why God threatened to spit the Laodicean Christians out of his mouth. First, apocalyptic literature revealed the spiritual realities behind physical events, like pulling back a veil between the natural and spiritual worlds. Second, apocalyptic literature described current events through the use of symbolism. By using dense symbolism and metaphors, John was able to warn the churches about life in exile without antagonizing the wrath of the empire. In this way is less like gazing into a crystal ball to see the future and more like the spirituals sung by enslaved women and men in the American South, their songs serving as coded and subversive instructions for the long and dangerous journey to freedom.

God’s harsh words to the church in Laodicea were written in this strange, apocalyptic style. But we need to jump ahead a few chapters to understand how God’s anger with these Christians was connected to their relationship to money.

The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore. [18:11]

Who is the woman over whom the merchants are weeping? Between the letter to the Laodicean church in chapter three and the weeping merchants in chapter eighteen, Revelation tells us about three layers of evil that are violently opposed to God’s people. The first is God’s enemy, Satan, who is described as “an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns.” [12:3] The second is the beast, or monster, who is, as N.T. Wright puts it, “the dark power of pagan empire.” This monster derives its power from the dragon – Satan – and is the spirit of empire that violently chases God’s people into exile. The third layer of evil is the prostitute who is the particular expression of the monster, the spirit of empire expressed as the Roman Empire. Of his vision about the empire John writes:

Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. [17:3-4]

The image in Revelation of the prostitute is not of a person exploited or trafficked as we might think of prostitutes today. Rather, this is a person who derives power from the beast, from the spirit of empire, to lure people with glittering promises to their destruction.

As Wright notes, the prostitute, “in it of her own volition can dress up fine, can put on a great show, and (not least) can hold out a wonderful golden goblet as though she’s inviting you to a rich banquet. But the eye of faith, not merely of cynicism, recognizes that the goblet is full of urine, dung, and blood.” The language Wright uses is harsh, meant to offend our sensibilities and provoke our gag reflux. But it’s an accurate description of the wickedness inflicted upon God’s people by the empire: I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. [17:6]

This personification of the Roman Empire is who the merchants mourn in chapter eighteen. They grieve because John’s vision looks ahead to the day when the Roman Empire would finally collapse. And now we’re getting closer to seeing how money is a spiritual power that competes with God for our worship. Those who’ve made their money from the empire will grieve over their losses, but John wants the church to remember that this empire gained its power – as all empires do – from the monstrous spirit, a spirit who receives its potency from Satan himself.

The monster of empire is drunk on the blood of God’s holy people. In fact, the entire system of empire is built upon the exploitation and destruction of human beings. The business people grieve over the long list of resources from which they will no longer be able to profit now that Rome has fallen – precious stones, fine linen, expensive spices – and at the end of the list of things they will no longer be able to profit from: human beings sold as slaves. The monster of empire – the demonic spirit which chases God’s people into exile – expresses itself by exploiting and destroying women and men.

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You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. [3:17]

It’s not just that the Laodicean church was depending on their wealth rather than on God, though they were. Their real problem was that they had built their security upon the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, including other Christians whose blood cried out from the empire’s cup. Their financial security came from the very empire whose wicked power derived from the dragon, a power that fueled itself by treating image-bearing people as resources to extract, exploit, and eventually extinguish.

It’s not that they were intentionally profiting from the slave trade or had as part of their financial portfolio government bonds built on the bloody persecution of their fellow Christians. No, the problem was their tacit acceptance of the empire’s monetary regime of buying and selling everything, including people. The problem is how they embraced and benefited from a system of exploitation and death.

Do you know that thirty-five percent of mutual funds contain investments in a maker or retailer of guns and ammunition? Do you know that after the president’s election the stock price for two publicly traded for-profit prison and immigration detention corporations went through the roof? As one financial analyst said, The deportation crackdown is doing very good things for these companies. On a personal level, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth, but I guess business is business.

Like Rome, our American expression of the beast of empire assumes that exploitation and death are the reasonable collateral damages of our wealth. Indiscriminately imprisoning black women and men, massacring children with military-style weapons, building economic bubbles on the backs of the poor… all are the cost of doing business with the beast. I guess business is business.

The particular expression of any empire is always built on the monstrous spirit of empire and so the way the empire engages with money will never be neutral. Money, in the empire, will always be wielded as a spiritually oppressive power. The option to wash our hands of responsibility simply does not exist for those who have been exiled within the pagan empire… whether that empire is Rome in the early 100’s or America in the early 2000’s.

Of the Laodicean Christians, theologian Brian K. Blount writes that they “comprised a wealthy, self-sufficient community of faith. They believed that their wealth was an indication that they were recipients of God’s favor. John believed that their wealth was an indication that God did not favor them. Because one could only gather wealth in that Greco-Roman context by blending into the very culture that denied God’s lordship, wealth was a sign of accommodation.”

God was angry with the Laodicean Christians because the money and wealth in which they had put their trust came from the monster’s ravenous appetite for human flesh. Their comfortable homes, secure borders, respectable jobs, and secure bank accounts were evidence not of God’s favor but of their collusion with the demonic forces of empire, the same forces that had exiled members of their own Christian family at the knife’s edge of persecution unto death.

How could the Laodicean church miss it? How could they mistake wealth that was built on the backs of enslaved and exploited people as God’s blessing? How could they ignore that the same empire that had made them wealthy was literally killing their Christian family? And what about us? We miss the same thing those early Christians missed, that money is a spiritual power that the evil one exploits for his destructive purposes, purposes that are heightened and hidden within the machinations of the empire.

Once we understand the satanic power behind empire we can better understand the Laodicean church’s captivity to money, and perhaps our own as well. The Bible tells us two important things about God’s enemy, the red dragon of Revelation who animates the beast of empire. First, his desire is to destroy.  So of course the spirit of empire – whether the Roman empire of the past or the current expressions of empire that we experience today – of course empire will destroy human life. And not just as a matter of occasional policy, but as the fundamental rationale for its very existence. There is no way to profit from the empire without profiting from someone else’s exile; there is no way to take the empire’s money without being complicit with the empire’s bloodthirsty violence- human beings sold as slaves.

Second, Satan is a liar. The Laodiceans show us how the dragon who animates the monster of empire is a deceiver. Not only have they been blinded to how their wealth has been squeezed from the bodies of others, blood pooled in the prostitute’s cup; they’ve also become convinced that this wealth is a sign of God’s love for them, rather than proof of their complicity with the empire’s wicked agenda. Standing on the security of their money, the Laodicean church proclaims “we don’t need anything.” In fact, they are in danger of being spat from God’s mouth along with the other filth that has collected in the prostitute’s golden goblet.

Jesus warned his followers in similarly stark terms. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” [Matthew 6:24] We are tempted to think of money as an object to be used. But Jesus warns us, as does John in Revelation, that money is a spiritual power that competes with God for our worship. The empire’s money is a spiritual power opposed to the Kingdom of God. If we choose to play by the rules of the empire we will never simply use money; money will always use us, and we will get used for the enemy’s deception and destruction. Or to put it slightly differently, when we get used by the empire’s money, someone else is guaranteed to be abused.

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Is there any hope for us? If exile is our experience until Christ’s return, is there any way we can stand against the monster of empire and its oppressive use of money? Each of us has been ensnared at some point by this monster. Many of us are like the complacent Laodiceans, mistaking our relative wealth and comfort for God’s favor when in fact we are reaping the rotten empire fruit of exploitation and dehumanization. Others of us today know genuine poverty. We’ve had money squeezed from our bodies in the form of payday loans; court and legal fees collected by justice system that privileges the wealthy and the white; Chicago water fees that are higher in black and brown neighborhoods; Chicago property taxes that are adjusted at higher rates in lower-income neighborhoods; and on and on it goes.

As much as we’d prefer to think of ourselves as the masters of our money, if we can stomach the truth than we must admit that the Biblical view of money as a spiritual power that demands our worship and brokers no rivals is a far more accurate description of reality.

Is there any hope for an exiled people?

18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. [3:18] God urges the Laodiceans to repent, to turn from the Mammon of the empire and worship the God who is the only source of true wealth. If there is hope for them, there must be hope for us too.

There is hope for us, even in a place of exile, even as our world groans under the oppressive regime of the monster and its dragon. There is hope because God did not abandon us to the empire.

The God of grace subjected himself to the monster’s regime of buying and selling, of exploitation and greed; the Son of God took on the flesh of our frail and vulnerable humanity and subjected himself to an empire where everything was commodified, including the very creatures created in his image.

The God whose character it is to give, to forgive and then to forgive again; the God who cancels debts and liberates captives; the God who makes covenant with his people and then agrees to uphold both ends of the promise; the God who came to proclaim good news to the poor; the God who came to to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for blind Laodicean and American eyes; the God who came to set the oppressed free… this God – the very definition of grace and gift – this God subjected himself to the greedy empire and this God – for us and our salvation – allowed himself to be sold for thirty pieces of silver.

There is hope for exiles like us whose minds have been colonized by a greedy empire because this God allowed the monster to crush him; allowed the beast to display his cheaply purchased body from Calvary’s tree.

There is hope for the exiles who have forgotten that we are exiles; who have acculturated ourselves to the pleasures and luxuries of the monstrous empire. And there is hope for the exiles who are this empire’s scorn, the ones whose blood and bodies have long sustained the crops of America’s ill-gotten cash. Despite the dragon’s power behind this ravenous monster, there is hope for the exiles because though he subjected himself to the empire’s marketplace, Jesus would not be bought. Though he allowed his body to be purchased, Jesus would not be owned. Though he subjected himself to the enslavers, Jesus would not be captured. Though he allowed the spirit of money to lay claim on his life, Jesus would not be commodified.

The Son of God was sold, but he could not be bought. And so in God’s divine reversal, the purchased Son of God gave himself away and with his death freely given he purchased our salvation.

There is hope for us because the One who subjected himself to our exile is now leading our exodus from the empire. The one who allowed the monster to crush him has defeated the dragon.

Money is a spiritual force that competes with God for our worship. This power is amplified within the empire, causing some of us to forget our exile and others of us to suffer greatly under its destructive power. But Jesus, by allowing himself to be purchased, has opened the way for our salvation; he has exposed the ultimate powerlessness of the empire’s money. In a nation that buys and sells everything and everyone, Jesus has made us free.

We are free to confess how we have suffered the monster’s lies: the shame we have been made to feel by our financial poverty; the false sense of blessing we have been made to feel by our wealth.

We are free to sell our stuff to provide for the poor.

We are free to give generously from whatever abundance God has provided.

We are free to admit our financial addictions without shame to those who will walk with us, holding us accountable, cutting up those unnecessary credit cards.

We are free to tell our community that we don’t have enough to pay the rent this month. And we are free to tell our community that we have too much money and that we need help giving it away.

We are free, in other words, to reject the false god of money, to scoff at its weak power, and to worship instead the God of Grace.

The Laodiceans thought they were wealthy, not realizing they were wretched; thought they were powerful, not realizing they were pitiful; they misunderstood their poverty for wealth, their blindness for sight, their nakedness for luxurious cloth. May it not be so for us. May we see through the destruction and deception of the monster and its dragon, so that we might know the freedom that is ours in Christ Jesus, whose body and blood freely given forever purchased our freedom.

Photo credit: vonderauvisuals.

Book Review: The Color of Law

The Color of LawA new $23 million bicycle bridge is being built in our church’s neighborhood of Bronzeville in Chicago two blocks from an elementary school. The bridge will be beautiful, and when it is completed cyclists will cruise past the school on their way to the bike path. Maybe some of them will notice the crumbling entryway to the elementary school and wonder how our city can find money for a pedestrian bridge while our schools are asked to do more with less. Maybe they’ll notice the empty lots where public housing high-rises used to stand or the low-rise mixed income developments that are slowly replacing them. Maybe they’ll wonder why this neighborhood is mostly African American and why the neighborhood to the west has historically been white.

Richard Rothstein asks these kinds of questions in his meticulously researched and well-written book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. A research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, Rothstein points out that most Americans tend to talk about segregation as being de facto, something that simply happened as the result of individual choices and preferences. Important decisions by the Supreme Court have shared these assumptions and have thus been reticent to address the destructive implications of segregation in our nation’s neighborhoods and schools. But Rothstein convincingly demonstrates that segregation in America has never been de facto; the segregation that the cyclist pedaling through our neighborhood observes is in fact de jure, a social reality constructed by our laws and public policies.

Through the middle of the twentieth century racial discrimination was federal policy. African Americans were unable to apply for federally insured mortgages, and the Federal Housing Administration would not insure any housing development that planned to admit black families. These policies extended to the first public housing developments which were first constructed for working-class European immigrants. As the need for black labor increased in northern cities, the demand for housing grew and these developments slowly opened to black residents, but they remained segregated. As European immigrants made their way in white America, they were able to move out of the housing developments, leaving behind racially concentrated pockets of poverty which were then exacerbated by new federal policies that capped the income level of the residents while simultaneously underfunding them.

Read the rest at the Covenant Companion

Go back to your country!

I sat next to my friend, a pastor, and across from his wife and young son in a booth in a suburban diner listening as he recounted what had happened to them recently. The emotion was still fresh, a mix of anger, fear, and confusion. I felt the same as the story spilled out. He gave me permission to share it here. I’ll call my friend Pedro.

Pedro is originally from Mexico and recently became a citizen of the U.S.A. His wife, also Hispanic, was born in this country. I have visited their church, worshipped with their community, and ate many meals with them. They were once kind enough to invite me to preach despite the rusty state of my Spanish.

A few weeks after the presidential inauguration Pedro and his family drove to a local auto parts store. As is common at these kinds of stores, my friend opened his the hood and had begun adding windshield wiper fluid. That’s when it began. A man who’d been shoveling snow from the sidewalk in front of the store approached the car and told my friend that he wasn’t allowed to open his hood in front of the store. Pedro knows from experience this this simply isn’t true but, nevertheless, he responded that he was almost finished and he was about to leave. The white man wasn’t pleased with this response and began aggressively telling Pedro to leave, and then… Leave now or I’m going to call the police. Go back to your country!

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Credit: Juha Haataja

In the restaurant, in front of his young son, my friend didn’t want to include all of the crude and hateful language the man had used against his ethnicity and country of origin. His wife chimed in, describing the rising anxiety she felt watching her husband berated, his place in this country denied, her son in the back seat unaware of how quickly an uneventful day had become fraught with ugly possibilities.

Pedro again told the man that he was almost done. Infuriated, the man scooped up a pile of snow onto his shovel and dumped all of it onto the pastor’s legs and into his shoes.

I don’t know how he kept a level head. Probably he was remembering his wife and son in the car and the threat to call the police. Who would the officers believe, the white man or the man with an accent and a Latino-sounding name? And so he closed the hood and walked into the store. After explaining what had happened to an employee behind the counter Pedro waited for some sort of sane response, perhaps a bit of compassion.

I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do. That man owns the store.

So Pedro walked out of the store, got in the car, and drove away with his family. What else could he do?

He finished the story. We shook our heads. I’m sorry that happened to you, I said. Or I think I did; my head was swimming, imagining myself in his ice-filled shoes as my own wife and children looked on.

My friends told me about their church and about the members who are afraid. The stories of deportation and harassment are everywhere and gaining frequency. Friends are sleeping one one another’s couches rather than driving home after dark. The threats from Washington D.C. are not simply one news story among others- they are visceral and attached to particular bodies and families.

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The question facing the churches today is not whether or not these sorts of hateful things are happening. They are. The question is whether or not we care. Do we genuinely believe that we are attached to one another across race, ethnicity, culture, and language? Do we believe that the eucharistic blood shared between Christians is, as Jesus told us, thicker than the blood of biology and race? My friends and their church full of recent immigrants want to believe that this basic Christian theology can be true.

They need it to be true.

The Blind Gaze

On seeing, and not, in America.

It takes fifteen Chicago blocks to read aloud the names of the women and men murdered in our city within the past twelve months. It might be done quicker under some circumstances, but not these: hundreds of us walked slowly down Michigan Avenue on New Years Eve, our pace restrained by the crowd, the tourists along the Magnificent Mile reaching into the street with their cameras, and the occasional pause while police officers cleared an intersection. Also, the crosses. They were heavier than I expected: hefty beams, the fresh sawdust pressed onto the shoulders of my black coat. A single man had cut and assembled each of the more than seven hundred crosses, affixed a plywood heart to the cross beam, and painted onto it the victim’s name and date of death. We carried the crosses and walked down the street and then back again, the weight of the wood but also something else slowing us down. The names were read through a bullhorn chronologically by date of death and, occasionally, from somewhere within the cruciform waves, someone would cry out in recognition. Otherwise it was quiet, the whole event like a distant kin to a graduation: quiet, names in order, the uncontrollable scream at everything the name has meant.

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As we moved I angled toward the curb, walking at the edge of the crowd so I could see the response of the unsuspecting shoppers and tourists. Many of the crosses had photos of the deceased attached, the black and brown faces matching the statistics of who gets killed in Chicago. The sidewalk faces varied in their reaction from puzzled to somber, from annoyed to grief-stricken. None, that I could see, joined our quiet march.

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The unexpected emails started arriving in the months before the presidential election. My correspondents were men who could have been my uncles or cousins, if I had a small collection of kind Christian relatives who believed I’d lost my way. My blunt opposition to the next man who would be the president provoked them to write with varying levels of concern and correction. They worried that my polemics missed greater truths about the other candidate, about their own self-consciously Christian support of Donald Trump.

I know these men. They are gentle and modest. They care for their country, but not in the chest-thumping, flag-waving, you-damn-well-better-stand-for-the-anthem way that is sometimes assumed of certain kinds of Christian men. They are authentically pious and God-fearing.

They are also white, though they might question the relevance of this particular fact.

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In an essay about his visit to the West Bank, Teju Cole asks, “How does one write about this place?”

Every sentence is open to dispute. Every place name is objected to by someone. Every barely stated fact seems familiar already, at once tiresome and necessary. Whatever is written is examined not only for what it includes but what it leaves out.

He’s thinking about the troubling relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The names of the places, people, wars, and sacred claims have become so common and heavy with assumptions of guilt and innocence that conversation becomes nearly impossible.

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Last February, on a rainy day in Israel, I sat in an idling bus with a group of clergy looking across an impressive wall into Palestinian land. The pastors, most of them, were impressed with the wall and sympathetic to its military architect who stood at the front of our bus explaining into the microphone why the separation was necessary. He told us that he hoped one day to lead the work to demolish the wall, once the people on the other side learned to police themselves.

Through the rain-streaked windows, across the border, we could see some houses, small and meager next to the impressive wall. I wondered about the people whose days began in those homes before making the slow walk through tangled border crossings to work on the other side.

Did you know, asked the architect, that some of your politicians have visited our wall to study how to build a similar one on your border?

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Seeing is hard. The stimuli enter my eyes and I register, somewhere, the scene as it unfolds. My eyes are exposed to experiences that exist beyond the limits of my body; I take them in as a passerby, sometimes as a confidant. But do I see?

It took a couple of weeks after this election to notice that I’d stopped posting photos of my sons to Facebook. The decision wasn’t deliberate; I’m proud of my sons and delight in sharing their smiles and adventures. I was aware, almost immediately, that there was nothing rational about my unconscious decision, but once it surfaced it became an unmovable fact, a thing I don’t do. The knowledge that many in my digital timeline voted for the man who has made himself a threat to my black and brown sons made posting their images seem, I don’t know, somehow inappropriate. As though I’d be aiding and abetting those who will not see my beautiful boys for who they are. These friends – and they are, still, I think – believe that what is best for my sons is to empower a man whose words and actions menace those who share what will be sons’ tenuous experience of this nation.

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There is a lot to which I am blind but, when the emails came, I could see what my correspondents saw. I know the concerns and hopes they feel. I can hear the sermons they nod along to each week. I imagine the dinner-table conversation or the commentary over the latest headline. I see them.

That’s not totally right. I know this; there’s so much that I miss and Jesus says this discomfiting thing about beams and motes that chastens any assumptions about how clearly I see. Still, I’m willing to say this: They can’t see, not really, the experiences I try to explain- the ones about my sons, our friends, this segregated country, the good things being led in our city by people whose race renders their stories uninteresting to those with the power to tell them. In America, seeing happens through tinted lenses. What is made visible by dint of proximity and friendship is rendered perilously opaque to those who lack these basics. Seeing accurately requires closeness and familiarity.

The choice, such as it was, to stop posting photos of my sons is probably misdirected. Silly even. But it’s instinctual, a spasm provoked by bad eyes. These eyes are blinded to the flesh and blood village in front of them as they look to the gleaming, reality-defining wall in the distance.

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In 1955, Mamie Till Mobley, upon hearing that the lynched and mutilated body of her 14-year-old son had been recovered from a Mississippi river, decided that Emmet would rest in an open casket during his Chicago funeral. About this decision, Claudia Rankine writes that “Mobley’s refusal to keep private grief private allowed a body that meant nothing to the criminal-justice system to stand as evidence.” Her decision, steeped in a courage I cannot grasp, was a mother’s demand to be seen. For her son to be seen. Photos were taken and articles written. But, as Rankine writes,

We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and going. Dead blacks are a part of life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned down by the police, or warehoused in prisons: Historically, there is not quotidian without the enslaved, chained, or dead body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against.

In this land, seeing demands more than an open casket and a mother’s deep resolve. We cannot be made to see. The white gaze blinks, even weeps at these moments – Emmet Till in the Tallahatchie River, Michael Brown on Canfield Drive, Tamir Rice at the Cuddle Recreation Center – but somewhere deep in the racialized reptilian subconscious is the anticipation of these scenes. This is the dark traumatic screen upon which whiteness has projected itself for centuries. We know the rituals and act them out; some will grieve and others will explain the violence away. But we do not see. We do not want to see.

It has long been this way. Sixty years before young Emmet’s funeral, Ida B. Wells published A Red Record, an account of American lynchings between 1892 and 1894. The book was “respectfully submitted to the Nineteenth Century civilization in ‘the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.'” It is a brave and gruesome book, the fruit of Well’s brilliance and incomparable will. Chapter after chapter documents the sad and brutal cases in which black bodies were desecrated and hung under the most speculative of pretenses. Then, toward the end, Wells describes a trip to England in support of her anti-lynching crusade. While there, Wells was asked about another American Christian, the Rev. Dwight L. Moody who was an internationally known evangelist and founder of a well known Bible college. Unlike Wells, he was white. Her English supporters were curious whether Rev. Moody had supported Wells’ efforts to stop the rampant lynching of black women and men. She replied, “Mr. Moody had never said a word against lynching in any of his trips to the South, or in the North either, so far as was known.”

In a forward to one of Wells’ previous books Frederick Douglass praised her work.

Brave woman! you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever you pamphlet shall be read.

But, as Rankine observes, the scream never comes. The white Christians indicted by Douglass cannot see, or rather, what horror they do see slides from consciences that were generations ago hardened to the violence inflicted upon black bodies. There is no whiteness without the juxtaposition of black bodies and, in America, those same bodies have always been interpreted through the lurking threat of state-dependent violence.

So the white gaze sees the unending assault but not the associated horror of any human encounter with violence. The suffering black body becomes black-ness, a disembodiment requiring no empathy or reflection, certainly no confession or repentance. The gaze can survey a ruined landscape, decimated by violence of its own making, and feel no complicity for the damage, no compassion for its victims. Within this devastation, Rankine writes, black citizens are asked, “What kind of savages are we?” But the legitimate question, she writes, the question grounded in truth and history, the question invisible to the white gaze, is different: “What kind of a country do we live in?”

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My sons are black and they are brown. The oldest can tell you what continents and countries his ancestors came from. How they came here and why is unfolding before him. They must learn to see clearly for the critical reason that they cannot expect the same from those whose hazy sight has not hindered their accumulation of tremendous power.

“Every sentence is open to dispute,” writes Cole, but it’s more than that. Vision itself is contested. The gaze renders specific bodies invisible; it replaces flesh and blood with specters of an ancient, terrified imagination.

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Our New Years Eve memorial ended about two hours after we first gathered in the December chill. Family members were invited to keep the crosses bearing the names and photos of their deceased. The rest of us placed ours near the trucks that had brought them; they would be delivered far from the Magnificent Mile, to an empty city lot as a larger version of the memorials that dot certain neighborhoods throughout the city. We left then, our ranks replaced by window shoppers and tourists ready to welcome a new year. Some looked over curiously, quickly. But mostly they walked on, their sight attracted to the shimmer and sparkle ahead.

Now, months later, I try to remember the name of the man whose cross I carried. I imagine it, scrawled across the plywood heart, but in my memory I see only a blank space where his name should be.