Questioning identity (including the idea of ‘identity in Christ’)

There’s been a thread running through some of my recent posts that’s maybe not simply a thread, maybe it’s an elephant worth naming. And patting. And seeing if we can teach it to sit and let us give it a good scratch behind the ears.

I don’t believe ‘identity’ is a coherent category for Christians to use; not in politics, or in theology.

I don’t think it’s a category you find in the Bible, and I think when we shoehorn Biblical categories into this ill-fitting modern boot, we end up with terrible pus-filled blisters, and ultimately, deformed feet.

I think we should stop. And here’s why.

I think the Bible has an utterly different concept of personhood — both in terms of who we were made to be in relationship with God, and with what personal choice and the things we might ‘identify’ as indicate about us as people. I think the word is freighted with too much baggage to be a useful word if ‘identity’ is being used either descriptively (ie drawing an analogy between its use in popular psyhcological/sociological/political thought), or prescriptively (ie seeing those psychological/social/political concepts mapping on cleanly to a Biblical anthropology such that the word is something real and fundamental to our theological schema).

When we talk about ‘identity in Christ’ we’re talking about an act of ‘self-definition’ in Jesus, an enshrining of my own personal decision making and my decision to ground my sense of self in Jesus; this might be experientially true, but I’m not sure, for Reformed types, that it is theologically coherent to speak in these terms, and I think it comes with a whole anthropology that, appears to be a fruit of the Reformation but is actually a fruit of Renaissance Humanism (which in turn, influenced the Reformation). I suspect we’re better off talking about personhood as something given and received — even given by false gods — than something self-defined, grasped, activated, realised and performed as an autonomous action.

This might be oddly pedantic for someone who keeps saying that words have a descriptive function, not just a prescriptive one, and maybe we can fight the good fight to reclaim the word “identity” as something given to us by God, or reflective of heavenly, spiritual realities here on earth, not just a thing I self-determine as I project and perform my autonomous self-understanding and desires into the world… but if we’re going to have that contest we need to know we’re having it, and what we’re up against —  what’s ironic is the same people who reject using ‘gay’ as part of an identity statement for a Christian, because of the way it is understood by the average punter, is that they don’t apply the same standard to the word ‘identity’… There’s a whole other compelling argument, made at Mere Orthodoxy, that when we use ‘identity in Christ’ language we do that in a way that can eradicate a whole swathe of creaturely things that are good and God given as part of our personhood in the process, especially when that becomes a totalising weapon used to stop people making identity claims we don’t like (for eg ‘gay Christian’).

I know I’m unlikely to convince many people. But here are some of my thoughts.

The concept of identity is very closely linked to the concept of individuality. The need to define ‘who I am,’ let alone the need to have my answer to that question recognised and legitimised by society and the state (via laws or ‘identity politics’) is a relatively new concept. Previously you knew who you were because that reality was given to you by God, or the gods, or your nation’s god-ordained political system/structure.

The concept of the individual is both new, and humanist. That is to say, it emerged as society sought to decouple our understanding of the self from God and a cosmic order. When I say ‘new’ I mean in the scheme of human history, not relative to my lifetime. It’s new in that we had a really long time, including the periods in which the Old and New Testaments were composed, where people did not think of themselves as ‘individuals’ at all, but rather, as belonging to a series of systems — family, clan, tribe, nation, etc. In 1860, in a chapter ‘The Development of the Individual‘ in a book on Renaissance history, Jacob Burckhardt, a historian, traced the development of ‘the individual’ as a concept, to the start of the renaissance period in Italy. He said:

In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness — that which was turned within as that which was turned without — lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation — only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the State and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognised himself as such.

This ‘veil’ was, in some ways, the idea of a divinely ordered social structure that you were born into, that meant your position in the world, in this system, was given as part of God’s providential design. Now. Maybe some liberation from those structures is good and necessary (and we’ve all benefited), but it’s possible there’s a baby and bathwater situation going on here, because it didn’t take long, once this veil was removed, for us to get quite comfortable not just with the idea that God didn’t have designs for how I lived in my private life, or what I spent my leisure time on, or where I worked, but with the idea that God didn’t have designs for me at all — or, indeed, that God was not in the picture. This sort of humanism is a necessary precursor for the deism that then developed (the idea that God is not actively, or providentially, involved in creation at all — but is distant, having made the universe and then left it to its own devices), and deism was necessary for atheism.

Burckhardt talks about how, at first, this individualism didn’t rock the political system too much; people were content to have private individual freedom, without engaging in conspiracy or revolution. He says “political impotence does not hinder the different tendencies and manifestations of private life from thriving in the fullest vigour and variety. Wealth and culture, so far as display and rivalry were not forbidden to them, a municipal freedom which did not cease to be considerable, and a Church which, unlike that of the Byzantine or of the Mohammedan world, was not identical with the State — all these conditions undoubtedly favoured the growth of individual thought, for which the necessary leisure was furnished by the cessation of party conflicts. The private man, indifferent to politics, and busied partly with serious pursuits, partly with the interests of a dilettante, seems to have been first fully formed in these despotisms of the fourteenth century.”

Now, Burckhardt is writing a sort of ‘history of ideas’ a few hundred years removed from the period he’s describing, writing from a world shaped by the individualism he describes here, and its development through the renaissance, the Reformation, and the enlightenment.

The Renaissance produced ‘humanism’ as a philosophical outlook, this was a product both of the development of the idea of a ‘self,’ and the beginning of a departure from the idea that all positions in society represented a divinely ordained hierarchy. Humanism was, in particular, a product of the empowerment of the lay person rather than the clergy, and so reflected ‘non-church’ or non theological concerns. There are many good things about this move, and yet, the same move involved pushing God to the margins — to the ‘sacred’ space, carving out a ‘secular’ where God was not operating. Humanism was concerned with ‘individuals’ rather than a cosmic ordering of reality, or a system that people were born into.

Humanism eventually produced two lawyers who would reform the church, Martin Luther, and John Calvin (three if you count Erasmus). There’s lots to love about what Luther and Calvin brought to the church — both as lawyers who recognised truths about the Gospel that maybe only a lawyer could recognise, but also as humanists; and the church today would benefit if more people dug deeply into their thinking. But neither Calvin or Luther were infallibly objective commentators, the Reformation has the fingerprints of both humanism and the work of lawyers all over it. Again, these are not bad things where these perspectives gave access to truths about God that had otherwise been missed, but, they do freight in ideas from the Renaissance, and from humanism, that might obscure certain truths if these ideas aren’t held in tension. Like all of us, they brought their personhood into the task of understanding God, and his word.

One additional change brought about by the Reformation, as an implication of the sort of politics required to ‘consciously decouple’ the Catholic Church from state power, was a further breaking down of the idea that all monarchs (and priests) were appointed by God in a reflection of the divine order. The Reformation was another nail in the coffin of the medieval (or more ancient) conception of the world — where kings (and church priests) ruled by divine right and were part of the ordering of society. Luther had a much broader vision of God’s providence in his ‘priesthood of all believers,’ perhaps best expressed in his Letter to the Nobility. Luther didn’t want to so much do away with God’s providential ordering of society — he wanted to broaden it, so that the work of all members of the body of Christ, the church, were appointed by God to play a role in the divine order, and, ideally, all people would find life and their purpose — their true humanity — in Jesus. Luther wanted the ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’ — or the ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ to be much more overlapping than the church of his day did — he didn’t want the Spiritual removed from the picture all together. He says:

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people.”

And, describes his ‘priesthood of all believers’ — “Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood,” before saying “From all this it follows that there is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, “spirituals” and “temporals,” as they call them, except that of office and work, but not of “estate”; for they are all of the same estate, — true priests, bishops and popes, — though they are not all engaged in the same work, just as all priests and monks have not the same work. This is the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 12:4 and I Corinthians 12:12, and of St. Peter in I Peter 2:9, as I have said above, viz., that we are all one body of Christ, the Head, all members one of another. Christ has not two different bodies, one “temporal ,” the other “spiritual.” He is one Head, and He has One body.” 

Now, this might all feel a bit repetitive, but the point of the repetition here is that while the Reformation often gets blamed for kickstarting individualism, or discovering that it is a theological truth — like ‘identity’ — that comes when you do away with the old spiritual ordering of the universe, like the Renaissance did, or humanism attempts to, Luther actually had a different picture that wasn’t about individuality, but about being called to an office within a body — whether the spiritual body, or the community. While he elevates all individuals to ‘the priesthood’ (or lowers ‘priesthood’ to ‘the normal’), he doesn’t champion a sort of autonomous ‘define your self with no rules’ approach to life, or give us the building blocks to spiritualise personal identity, he invites us to be people-in-community (or in a system). Luther said all our work, within our vocations either in the ‘temporal’ or ‘spiritual’ realms are meant to be contributions to the health of our body — and he doesn’t just mean our own person… he said: “A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

So, to be clear, I think Luther is right — and that the proper re-ordering of the disconnect between the clerical rule of pre-Renaissance Europe and the everyday human was to not create a secular/sacred divide, where the clerics ruled the sacred space but kept their hands off the secular, but a ‘priesthood of all believers’ that held the sacred and secular together, and saw human dignity and value as things given by God along with the call for us to operate in community in ways that reflect heavenly realities. This isn’t to say the humanism of the Reformation did not, at the same time, impact its understanding of the Gospel (for good and for ill). In his landmark essay ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,’ (a seminal text in the movement now called ‘the new perspective’), Krister Stendahl suggests that the Reformers in general, and Luther in particular, brought their modern, western perspectives (humanist concerns even) to a pre-modern (pre-individual) text.

What’s interesting about Stendahl’s paper is that he suggests a key difference between modern readings of Paul, and perhaps Paul’s own thought world, is that with the rise of ‘the individual’ as a construct, our understanding of our selves, or our identity, or our personhood — what it means to be human — becomes not an act of knowing God and understanding our calling in the created order (and so knowing nature as well), but introspection. When we overlay our method of processing the world onto Paul’s, when that processing of the world is reasonably novel, we end up reading Paul through our own eyes. This is the heart of the ‘new perspective’ as a theological movement — and, you can take or leave its conclusions, but its starting point — acknowledging that modern people think (and so interpret) differently to ancient people seems like a sound starting point.

Stendahl offered an alternative reading of Paul’s writing that challenges, but doesn’t totally overturn, the supremacy of the individual in a particular Reformation schema. This is to say that there is an element of the Gospel that relates to an individual’s position before God, and, at the same time, a corporate or communal aspect of the Gospel that is thoroughly integrated with the individual person. Stendahl says:

“Thus even justification by faith, important though we have seen it to be, must be subsumed in the wider context of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, part of God’s plan for his creation. Or perhaps we should say it this way. Paul’s thoughts about justification were triggered by the issues of divisions and identities in a pluralistic and torn world, not primarily by the inner tensions of individual souls and conscience. His searching eyes focused on the unity and the God-willed diversity of humankind, yes, of the whole creation.”

Stendahl’s contention here is that inasmuch as Paul is interested in ‘identity’ it’s about a communal identity found in Christ; rather than in being Jewish or Gentile. That we find who we are as people in communion (or union) with Jesus, rather than through introspection and the pursuit of an authentic expression of an individuated self.

In his conclusion, he says, that when we as readers are conscious of our tendency to impose our own views on the text, and tried to step back, we can observe the way western thought has developed — both theologically, climaxing with Luther, and in the secular frame climaxing with Freud, and then ask whether this trajectory is a valid and glorious one, building on seeds planted in the New Testament, or we can try to strip back those assumptions and understand what the text is saying (or try to do both). There’s almost an invitation in Stendahl to either read the Bible ‘westernotelically’ — where God’s intention was to develop the liberated (liberal) western human, through the intervention of Jesus in the world, or to read it ‘Christotelically,’ and then to keep looking back to the Jesus who arrived in the first century world, understanding the Scriptures as deeply connected to his life, and mission, and our life being caught up in his. Where you land on this question will impact how legitimate the concept of ‘individualism’ or even ‘identity’ is for Christians engaging in theology in the modern world.

Stendahl critiques the Protestant tendency, in individualising the function of the Gospel, to individualise the function of the Old Testament law, such that it exists to teach us how to live morally and so convict our conscience and show us our need for Jesus, but also give us instruction after we trust him (so that gentiles are under the law), and instead suggests we should read the law as a necessary part of the history that leads us to Jesus. Stendahl explores a debate on the translation of παιδαγωγὸς (paidogogos) in Galatians 3:24 in various modern english Bibles as ‘schoolmaster’ or ‘custodian’ and the theological significance of those choices in terms of what gets freighted in to our understanding of the function of the law, he suggests the law is best understood as occupying a holding position for the Jews until their true teacher and king, Jesus, arrived. , understanding that we, as Gentiles, are not under the law, but are united with our Jewish brothers and sisters in Jesus.

For what it’s worth, I suspect Luther might actually agree with lots of Stendahl’s observations, if not his conclusions. I think Luther gets misread pretty often through the prism of post-Luther Reformed thinking and emphasis, and that he actually grounds his understanding of the Gospel not in justification and its mechanisms, but in union with Christ (where individual justification and sanctification flow from that communal reality), and we see this teased out in, for example, his Letter to the Nobility quoted above. But you also see it in his desire to strip back the text of the Bible from the Latin translation of his day to the original languages; that same impulse might see us stripping back the thought worlds of our day, to the original thought worlds of the Bible.

Luther did, himself, attempt to hold communal realities and individuality (of sorts) together in a theological system, and, if anything, the communal reality (particularly in a social context where everybody was assumed to be part of the body of Christ) still defined the function, even the personhood, of the individual. Luther’s priesthood of all believers, and his application of this to the temporal and spiritual (or secular and sacred) roles people occupied was built from his understanding of our union with Christ, and so, with Christ’s body, the church.

But the reformation of the church, and as a result, the western world, didn’t stop there. And the Reformation itself provided some of the building blocks for ongoing reform outside the church; specifically the foundations of liberalism and the individualism we see at the heart of the modern west. Where Luther challenged the way a divine ordering of reality had been operating in the hands of a corrupt church, modern ‘secular’ humanism challenges the idea of a divine ordering of reality. What we get, instead, as secular humanism captures the imagination of the post-Renaissance/post-Reformation west, is not a ‘priesthood of all believers’ but the divine rule of the individual; the sovereignty of the self. This little snapshot definition of humanism from Oxford has a nice summary of the move involved: “The evolution of Italian humanism, grounded as it was on the study and imitation of the ancients, was marked from its beginnings with the concerns of lay society. Herein lay its claim to be a major progenitor of the modern world.”

When the divine ordering of human society gives way to the all encompassing secular space, built on the bedrock of humanism, the only authority that really matters is ‘the self,’ and any communal endeavours have to be built not on an understanding of, or appeal to, a divine order, or common good, even, but to common self-interest (or coalitions of over-lapping self-interests for the sake of holding power).

After Luther, but before Burckhardt, came John Locke. Locke is one of the founding fathers of liberalism; the political doctrine underpinning both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ in modern political conversations in the western world. If the Renaissance created the individual, Locke was important in enshrining the individual as the supreme authority; completing the shift of locating human dignity in the ‘image of God’ imprinted on us, to the idea that each individual is Lord of his or her own domain. Locke spent a fair bit of his time arguing from the Bible to justify his understanding of the relationship between the person and the state, especially in his two treaties (treatises?) of government. In the Second Treaties of Government, Locke argues for certain principles of individual liberty that work to establish the sovereignty of the individual. Locke located legitimate exercises of political power, basically, in the protection of property — starting with the property an individual person has in their own self, and extending to rights for an individual to claim created things where their labour had fused with the created thing to give it a sort of value. Locke says:

“Every individual man has a property in his own person; this is something that nobody else has any right to. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his. So when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own; and in that way he makes it his property.”

This is an expression of a move from either an understanding of a commons, where natural resources belong to all (particularly as given by God), or an understanding that all ‘property’ is owned by monarchs or rulers (in feudal systems). For Locke, legitimate governments existed to guarantee these property rights (both to the self, and one’s work), and to afford individuals the liberty to pursue life, liberty, health, and property. Again, I’m glad Locke existed and brought a bunch of changes, but in bringing these changes life as individual people became further detached from the providence of God, and the ordering of creation such that our experience of its goodness was seen to flow from his hands. Instead, it flowed from our own individual efforts.

So. What does this potted history have to do with identity? And why it’s a nebulous, and perhaps unhelpful concept to build Christian anthropological (and political and ethical) thinking on?

Well. Identity as a concept is a product of these movements — of renaissance humanism, secularisation, and the development of the absolute sovereignty of the self; sometimes justified with some implications of the Reformation, but often only paying lip service to a Christian heritage and seeking to cut loose from the roots and branches that produced the fruit. In a journal article from 1983, ‘Identifying Identity: A Semantic History’ (that became a book chapter), Philip Gleason traced the development of the concept of identity by tracking the use of the word identity. He found that this word that gets given so much weight in modern Christian theology has a very short history; and that alone should give us pause about how keen we are to use ‘identity’ and how people ‘identify themselves’ (ie with what terms or qualifiers) as a yardstick of orthodoxy. He says the emergence of identity as a concept in politics (or sociology) and psychology is very new.

The historically minded inquirer who gains familiarity with the literature, however, soon makes an arresting discovery—identity is a new term, as well as being an elusive and ubiquitous one. It came into use as a popular social science term only in the 1950s. The contrast between its handling in two standard reference works dramatizes its novelty. The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, published in 1968, carries a substantial article on “Identity, Psychosocial,” and another on “Identification, Political.” The original Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, published in the early 1930s, carries no entry at all for identity, and the entry headed “Identification” deals with fingerprinting and other techniques of criminal investigation.

This fits with the Google ngram data I posted in a previous examination of how unhelpful the word ‘identity’ is when it comes to a Christian approach to sexuality.

When it comes to the links between the development of the individual, unmoored from a divine order — or a ‘given’ self — Gleason traces its usage back to Locke, and Hume (two key figures in the development not just of humanism, but secular humanism).

“The OED’s first two usage citations illustrating psychological “personal identity” are from Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) and David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature (1739). This tends to corroborate Robert Langbaum’s assertion that identity did not take on psychological connotations until the empiricist philosophers called into question what he calls “the unity of the self.” The unity of the self was not a problem so long as the traditional Christian conception of the soul held sway, but it became a problem when Locke declared that a man’s “Identity … consists in nothing but a participation of the same continued Life, by constantly fleeting Particles of Matter, in succession vitally united to the same organized Body.” Langbaum argues that Locke and Hume “use the word identity to cast doubt on the unity of the self,” and he has written a book to show how writers from William Wordsworth to D. H. Lawrence reacted to this challenge to the integrity of “the self.””

Gleason tracks the emergence of the concept of identity as we might know it from the mid 50s, where he says a book titled Protestant-Jew-Catholic made the case that in a fragmenting culture where personhood had become disconnected from an established order, and was left in the hands of the self, religion was still the most satisfying way for “locating oneself in society” and answering the aching question “who am I?” He quotes a publication from 1963, to demonstrate how ‘Identity’ had moved from the fringes to the centre of moral discourse, and the defining question of a particular age, which asks “who, thirty years ago, would have thought that the problem of identity would become one of the most crucial issues for the searching individual in our society?” 

Gleason then traces the development of the concept of identity (especially identity formation) in psychology, specifically through the work of Erik Erikson (which is about as cool a ‘given’ name as possible for a bloke who then talks about the quest for the development of the self). He says that in the psychological realm, Erikson saw identity formation as a process that “involves an interaction between the interior development of the individual personality, understood in terms derived from the Freudian id-ego-superego model, and the growth of a sense of selfhood that arises from participating in society, internalizing its cultural norms, acquiring different statuses, and playing different roles.”

Charting its actual use in publications, Gleason identifies a contest within the modern understanding of the word ‘identity’ between its psychological and sociological uses, and, indeed, the present use of the word still seems contested in those spheres. This is true even when Christians try to appropriate it in order to ‘contextualise the Gospel’ and speak truths about God’s role in defining ‘the self’ into the modern conversation that often doesn’t realise what is lost through his absence… we use ‘identity’ in either psychological, or sociological ways, or interchangeably without recognising the difference. Gleason says the psychological and sociological understandings of the concept of identity can’t be easily reconciled:

“The two approaches differ most significantly on whether identity is to be understood as something internal that persists through change or as something ascribed from without that changes according to circumstance. For Erikson, the elements of interiority and continuity are indispensable. Working within the Freudian tradition, he affirms that identity is somehow “located” in the deep psychic structure of the individual. Identity is shaped and modified by interaction between the individual and the surrounding social milieu, but, change and crisis notwithstanding, it is at bottom an “accrued confidence” in the “inner sameness and continuity” of one’s own being.

The sociologists, on the other hand, tend to view identity as an artifact of interaction between the individual and society—it is essentially a matter of being designated by a certain name, accepting that designation, internalizing the role requirements accompanying it, and behaving according to those prescriptions.”

Gleason suggests that the incredible spike in popularity of the term identity was that its dual use gave it currency in emerging questions in the 1950s, especially post World War 2. He describes how talking about ‘identity’ replaced talking about ‘character’ and how part of the traction it gained was a sort of reconnection between an individual’s quest for self-hood, and the way social identities (including national identities) were being studied, and/or redefined at the time.

The quest for an individual ‘identity’ alongside a social identity emerges as a significant concept in the west only in the period between 1955 and 1963, but piggybacks off the Renaissance, the Reformation, the work of John Locke, and others, including Freud and Erikson. While it has a heritage that stretches back to the 1300s, it this search is a product of what Charles Taylor calls ‘the secular age’ and specifically the plethora of individual identity-constituting choices that flows out of the rejection of the idea of a God, or gods, providing order and meaning, and a place for each person in the cosmos. Taylor explores this idea in depth in his work The Sources of the Self. Taylor notes that the roles we play in forming our identity after the ‘nova effect’ that comes from the social order being disconnected from a divine order often leaves us with a plethora of choice, and performing our identity not just through rituals (typically non-religious rituals of belonging), but also through choice (and particularly consumer choice).

Gleason’s paper is worth ploughing through, both for its substance, and its conclusion — one that urges caution in employing the word “identity” mindful of the contest or confusion caught up in its use; a warning that we Christians might heed when co-opting the word to use for our theological purposes (or even to try to show how the Gospel of Jesus provides answers to both the psychic and sociological quests for an identity). He says:

“For these reasons, responsible use of the term demands a lively sensitivity to the intrinsic complexities of the subject matter with which it deals and careful attention to the need for precision and consistency in its application. But of course its enormous popularisation has had just the opposite effect: as identity became more and more of a cliché, its meaning grew progressively more diffuse, thereby encouraging increasingly loose and irresponsible usage. The depressing result is that a good deal of what passes for discussion of identity is little more than portentous incoherence, and the historian need not be intimidated into regarding it as more than that.”

When Christians talk about our ‘identity’ in Christ, it’s hard to distinguish what we’re saying at that point from the idea that Christianity is just one ‘choice’ we make, that impacts the role we play and the community we belong to, while we ‘internalise its cultural norms’. The Christian story of who we are as selves, especially selves in Jesus, is something different to this. A Christian understanding of personhood makes space for a whole range of ‘identities’ as descriptions of roles we play in different relationships so that I can be, for example, husband, father, pastor, friend, sport fan, coffee connoisseur, or dog owner as ‘identities’  — I could even be straight, or Australian, or white (or if it were true, gay) and have that as part of my experience or story, and a description of communities I am connected to, without that threatening my understanding of my ‘self’ being rooted in God’s life and providence, and found and redeemed in the body of Jesus, through union with him by the Spirit, and so also find my identity in the body of Jesus, the church, and in the roles God has appointed, or provided, or calls me to in this world as a priest in the priesthood of all believers, in service of the body. I don’t need to claim a totalising ‘identity in Jesus,’ as an expression of my individualism.

That is to say, Christianity has something to say for those who are searching for a sense of self, who want to answer the question ‘who am I’, but the answers Christianity gives might, in their most satisfactory form, not rest in weird ontologically weighted labels around sexuality, race, or even religious belief, and the recognition of one’s individuality, desires, or ‘id,’ but instead might look to a more ancient schema, both in a divine ordering of reality that works its way through to the givenness of our personhood (in an integrated sense of body and soul), and the calling, or telos, we find in Jesus as we are united to him, and called into the priesthood of all believers, such that we can find meaning and purpose in both the spiritual and temporal realms. To push towards that sort of vision of the person might involve pushing back both against individualism (as a product of Renaissance/secular humanism), and identity (as a child of the uncertainty produced by that move), and to something more grounded in the life and providence of God.

The ACL and Luther’s “Theology of the Cross v Theology of Glory”

Be careful what you wish for…

I’m starting to think I liked it better when the Australian Christian Lobby never mentioned Jesus.

The ACL’s website describes the organisation’s mission in the following terms:

“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. Proverbs 14:34

To this end, Christian institutions are being undermined. Churches are being pressured by new moral and legal norms. Individuals who speak or live consistent with truth are made a prey.

To stand for truth in public as a relentless, unquieted, and effective voice, is a leadership role that is desperately needed. It requires divinely inspired courage, wisdom, and endurance.

But the courage of one inspires the courage of others. And the truth, whenever it is spoken, will yield fruit.”

It also says:

“Isaiah 59 records God’s displeasure at the paradigm in Israel which so closely mirrors the concerns articulated in Australia. In particular, the Lord marvelled that “there was no one to intercede.”

ACL seeks to ensure that such a statement cannot be made of modern Australia. To intercede for the cause of truth, righteousness, and justice in the public squares is our burden and our core business. This includes interceding for the cause of those who are made a prey.”

And finally:

“We want to see Christian principles and ethics accepted and influencing the way we are governed, do business and relate as a society. We want Australia to become a more just and compassionate nation.”

Now. These might sound like noble aims; the sort of thing that most Christians would want to get on board with out of love for our neighbour. This courageous standing for righteousness in the public square sounds like a tremendous thing to do, and the ‘leadership’ it involves sounds positively heroic. Glorious even.

It sounds a lot like Rodger Ramjet. Now, whenever I read anything by the ACL I’m going to be singing this theme song in my head.

Martyn Iles now likes to dish out his wisdom and leadership via his video blog and his Facebook Page. Now, I’m not really in a position to judge; I have a blog, after all. And a Facebook page. But I did read this missive from  Sunday night, reflecting on the sort of leadership the yoof of todayTM require, the sort of leadership or example the ACL and its head hero would like to bring to the public square in pursuit of truth, justice, and the Christendom way.

Iles says:

I am constantly asked questions along the lines of “how can we reach young people?”

One thing I have learned over the last decade is, if you are a man, today’s young person will be drawn to your:

1) Strength
2) Wisdom
3) Goodness

Put simply, they are searching for people to look up to; people who tower over them.

Stop trying to be their bestie and their equal. Stop living like an apology to them. They don’t want friends and equals – they have people their own age for that, who will always be better at it.

They want trustworthy leaders and examples.

And here’s the tragedy: they often don’t find them.

People just need to know where to look for this sort of leader. One who stands above the fray and fixes problems not by being a ‘bestie’ to those they’re leading, or their equal…

… But by being ‘trustworthy’ — you know, not slandering women who come forward with embarrassing information that your new bestie and equal is someone you’re not equally yoked with because they deny the fundamental tenets of your faith… like the Trinity, and even your own salvation because you were presumably baptised in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit… Trustworthy, like coming forward and saying “yes, this is true, Israel’s beliefs put him outside the Christian church as we understand it, but we support his rights to hold religious beliefs we profoundly disagree with.” Instead of attacking someone as “having an axe to grind”…

I just want to very briefly unpack the problems with both the ACL’s ‘about’ page, and Martyn’s logic in this Facebook post, just for a moment.

The ACL has a strong track record of making natural law arguments and wisdom arguments for public and private morality and righteousness in the Australian cultural frame; and I tend to agree that natural law and wisdom are good things because they tend to be oriented towards the intended telos of all created things — they reflect the divine nature and character of God; nature is ordered to grace. God has two books of revelation — the natural world, and his revealed word, which culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the word made flesh (John 1:1-18, Hebrews 1, Luke 24, etc). But here’s the thing; the ACL wants their leadership on moral and political issues to influence Australia, and they seek to exercise this leadership through wisdom and natural law arguments, and often through political power and legislation (they are a political lobby group, after all). Their approach to social change is ‘top down’ though they are a grass roots organisation (so they’re attempting to change the top down approach from the bottom up). Confused? Good. It gets worse.

The Bible suggests there might be a problem with this approach; the human heart. Romans 1 says that rather than creation being ordered towards grace in the human heart, creation is ordered towards self; while all things that have been made were made to ‘reveal the divine nature and character of God,’ we humans take creation and worship it in God’s place (Romans 1:20, 25). This does things to our capacity to recognise wisdom, and, in fact, we humans become fools. Romans has an answer for this foolishness; the new hearts that come through the Gospel, which Paul calls the power of God (Romans 1:16). The Gospel reveals the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God is actually revealed not in the law — whether natural or Old Testament moral law; but in Jesus, through the Gospel (Romans 1:17). The law, the Old Testament variety, actually reveals our unrighteousness (Romans 3:20), it isn’t so much a guide for righteousness but a pointer to its fulfilment (the same logic from Matthew 5, and Luke 24 — the law and the prophets point to and are fulfilled in Jesus). The ACL wants a more righteous Australia, but Paul says that righteousness comes from only one source, he says: But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22).

Without the Gospel our attempts at righteousness will come to naught and our claims of wisdom will be foolishness in God’s sight. Paul makes a similar argument about the Cross being the wisdom of God, but foolishness to the world in 1 Corinthians 1. Without the Gospel we do not receive God’s Spirit which unites us in Christ, and so gives us God’s righteousness. Without the Gospel of the crucified Jesus — God’s wisdom — and the transformation we receive by faith, there is no righteousness. Paul says this sort of endeavour is pointless.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:5-8)

Campaigning for righteousness without the Gospel, as Christians, doesn’t make you Roger Ramjet; it makes you a kamikaze Don Quixote; flying planes into windmills.

Which brings me back to Martyn Iles and the tall man syndrome on display in his post; he has observed a pattern in creation (wisdom), whereby the ‘yoof of todayTM‘ require “strength, wisdom, goodness” and a towering presence; a Roger Ramjet like figure. Trustworthy leaders and examples who will stand strong against the dragons (possibly windmills) of modern life. Leaders like himTM who happen to be tall and chiseled; not that there is anything wrong with being tall. I am tall. There’s a bit of Jordan Peterson’s upright, shoulders back, top lobster in Iles’ observation — his suggestion that the sort of person the world wants, the type who might lead the sort of charge the ACL wants led, will be a person “who tower[s] over” others. A towering leaderly type who is strong, and wise and good. Now strength, and wisdom, and goodness are all virtues. But this towering righteous figure of courage; this dragon slayer; who is going to set an example — he’s going to have to do that in one of two ways. He can do it Ramjet style, and seek to bring righteousness to the public square through law and order (not the TV show), through politics and power, through ‘towering strength’ while people look up to them… standing up against anyone — even Christian women concerned about the Trinity — who’ll get in the way of truth, justice, and the Christendom way; or he can do it like the Apostle Paul, as he imitated the Lord Jesus Christ.

These two choices are choices Martin Luther described as the choice between adopting a “theology of glory” or a “theology of the cross”… Paul had a particular understanding of the posture Jesus took towards others; it wasn’t one of ‘towering over’ but of sacrificial service; of lowering and letting go of status; to the point of humiliating death on the cross; Jesus went as low as could be (Philippians 2). This was the example Paul followed; he saw the cross as God’s wisdom, which meant he didn’t come into the public square as a burnished up champion in armour riding a steed in triumph, towering above all, but as the vanquished captive at the end of the procession. The humiliated loser. He contrasts himself with a Corinthian church who perhaps think they’re campaigning for a more righteous Corinth, but really they’re campaigning for a more worldly Jesus; the Corinthian church is obsessed with worldly power and status and influence. And Paul wants to turn their whole world upside down by pointing them to the cross.

“For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.” — 1 Corinthians‬ ‭4:9-13

And when it comes to the example Paul thinks he is following in this posture — one that shapes his ‘becoming all things’ including a servant, to all people, is the example of Jesus; the Jesus he describes in Philippians 2. He says to the Corinthians:

“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” — ‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭11:1‬ ‭

And if it’s not clear that he means the crucified Jesus he’s been preaching about — as he has resolved to know nothing but Jesus and him crucified; preaching the Gospel — the power of God — when he writes a return letter to the church in Corinth after they’ve signed up a bunch of Roger Ramjet type Super Apostles who keep attracting people to themselves by being tall, and wise, and eloquent and all the things the Corinthians wish Paul was… he returns fire with:

“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” — ‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭11:30‬

‭And then describes his calling, from God, and his understanding of the rationale for delighting in the world treating him the way it treated Jesus.

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” — ‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭12:9-10‬ ‭

Paul doesn’t sound like the sort of figure who towers over others and who is looked up to; instead he follows the Lord who lowered himself.

Look, like the ACL, I’d love to see a more righteous and compassionate Australia; a more just nation. Unlike the ACL, I’d like to see those desires extend to policies that deal with refugees and asylum seekers, and to our first nations people, and to how we justly participate in the use of natural resource for life and our enjoyment and that of future generations… not just religious freedom, the Lord’s Prayer in parliament (and not even that), abortion, etc.

Like Martyn Iles I’d like to see lots of examples of Christian leadership raised up. I’d just like to see them raised up to testify to Jesus in the public square and reveal the source of God’s righteousness; and to do that by making it clear that God is revealed not in Roger Ramjets jawline and muscular heroism, but in the mess and blood and sacrificial humiliation of the cross. We’re not just tilting at windmills; there is a dragon. Satan. A dragon defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus who still has followers who like to wield beastly worldly power to fight against God’s kingdom; this is John’s apocalyptic vision of the economic and political power wielded by the Roman empire. John describes the witness of the faithful church — the ‘two lampstands’ of Revelation — and its results.

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. — Revelation 11:7-8

The inhabitants of the world look on and gloat, but then, in the very next chapter John reminds us that the dragon was defeated; that Jesus dealt him a death blow in his crucifixion and now he’s thrashing about mortally wounded. The cosmic, apocalyptic, victory has already been won; when the curtains are pulled back on the heavenly significance of Jesus’ humiliating death we see the destruction of unrighteouness secured through “the blood of the lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:7-17).

So by all means, let’s call for courageous leadership in the public square; but that looks like testifying to Jesus Christ, not calling people to law and order. The call to law and order will fail to produce the righteousness the ACL desires; their own handbook, the Bible, suggests theirs is a fool’s errand. They are bringing a ‘theology of glory’ approach to a fight that requires a ‘theology of the cross.’ Luther coined these categories in The Heidelberg Disputations, a public debate about theology (the sort the ACL tells us, or at least Martyn does, that we shouldn’t be having in public). Luther condemns those who seek to produce righteousness by ‘works of man’ — whether that be leadership, or the creation of laws or policies, or even the preaching of the law without grace — and says the works of God always appear ugly and foolish like the cross; lowly rather than towering. He notes that just recognising good and virtuous things in the world does not make one worthy and wise, or a theologian; a true theologian “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” A true theologian; a true leader who might point us towards righteousness, is one who frames his understanding of righteousness not through the wisdom and power of the world — looking for towering leaders, but through the folly and weakness of the cross, looking for self-effacing, servant leaders.

Luther says:

“A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18), for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are dethroned and the “old Adam,” who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his “good works” unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.

That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened. This has already been said. Because men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on.”

We don’t need a generation of towering heroes, or Roger Ramjets, crashing their planes into whatever looks like a dragon. We need a generation of self-emptying theologians of the cross who model service and suffering for the sake of others; weakness not strength — who truly see the cross as the power and wisdom of God, not some thing to be moved past and overcome as we seek to bring God’s kingdom of righteousness through our own power, but as the very key to the kingdom and the demonstration of its ethos and power. God’s glory and righteousness is revealed in the weakness of Christ on the cross; and in his power to resurrect even in the face of those evil powers who would seek to silence the testimony of his witnesses; the church.

If you want a more righteous Australia, preach the Gospel to more Australians and trust that it is God’s power for salvation for all who believe.

Luke Cage and the captivating power of anger — how an American show about black liberation might help shift our approach to race in Australia

// Read in Estimated reading time: 19 minutes // // by // Comments Off on Luke Cage and the captivating power of anger — how an American show about black liberation might help shift our approach to race in Australia

“Everybody’s talking about Luke Cage like he’s Jesus. You’ve got magazines calling him the bullet proof black man with Barack’s easy smile, Martin’s charm, and Malcolm’s forthright swagger… Harlem’s worship of Luke Cage has reached golden calf proportions. Luke Cage is soul brother number one. But I want you to ask yourself one thing. Luke Cage. Who is he really? Does he serve the Lord, or does he serve himself? … Luke Cage is nothing but a man, and there’s a reason we don’t worship men because we’re weak, subject to temptation, ego, vainglorious, spiteful, oh yes, Lord knows, we are spiteful. Bulletproof skin doesn’t change nature.” — Rev Lucas, Luke Cage, Season 2, Episode 1.

Almost everybody in Luke Cage season 2 is angry. The whole season is an exploration of just how destructive the spiteful part of human nature is; and just how deeply rooted the cycle of anger and vengeance is in our psyche and how destructive it is when you can’t let go; when you can’t forgive. Anger doesn’t liberate; it captivates. There’s a sub-thread about just how hard it is to bring forgiveness and reconciliation into an angry environment too; but also just how redemptive breaking the cycle can be.

Luke Cage is an interesting exploration of a superhero informed by a ‘liberation theology’ styled-Jesus. The comparisons to Jesus in Luke Cage aren’t subtle like in many other stories set in the backdrop of the western world, they’re overt. This was true in season one, it’s contained in the origin story of Carl Lucas’ choice of ‘Luke Cage’ as a name — it’s a reference to the Gospel of Luke and the promise that Jesus came to liberate captives (Luke 4); the opening words of season two show there’s no signs of the messianic comparisons abating. We might be keen to distance ourselves from belief in the supernatural these days, but there’s no escaping the way the story of the Bible, and its prescient diagnosis of the human heart, has shaped our narratives. By the end of the season Luke Cage is Harlem’s Messiah — its ‘anointed king’ — the question is what sort of king he’ll be, and what part of its soul it’ll cost him.

“The preacher’s son. Even when you’re ugly, you are regal. Harlem’s gonna need a king. I’m glad it’s you.” — Mariah

The season picks up somewhere after the events of The Defenders, Luke is back pounding the streets of Harlem. Jessica Jones is off enjoying her season 2 hijinks (enjoying is a strong word). Danny Rand is patrolling other boroughs of New York as the Immortal Iron Fist (though he makes a fun cameo). Matt Murdock… well… the cut scene at the end of The Defenders has him in a monastery somewhere.

There’s a new battle for the streets of Harlem; a three-way fight (with a few extra parties like the police, and some rival gangsters thrown in the mix) all motivated by some form of anger, all allowing the shows writers to explore various forms of injustice — from Mariah Stokes who carries anger at past sexual abuse and a messed up family background which complicates her relationship with her daughter Tilda, to Bushmaster, who has returned from the Caribbean hell-bent on gaining revenge over the Stokes family because their wealth is built from the dispossession and murder of his ancestors, and Luke Cage who’s angry about his father, angry and angry about what Harlem’s criminal element costs his people.

The music in this season is sensational — Luke typically fights with ear buds in place breaking bones to the beat of various hip-hop tracks, Bushmaster’s attempts to conquer turf are accompanied by reggae, while Mariah’s plotting plays out against a sonic landscape of her club Harlem’s Paradise — typically blues. These two songs from Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram were spectacular.

But, music aside, the show is about anger and its power — anger as motivator — and how much it grips and distorts and destroys when our hearts, our nature, are impure… no matter how pure we think our hearts are, Rev. Cage is right, bulletproof skin doesn’t change a man’s nature. The problem for Luke is that he’s started to believe it’s his anger, not his strength and bulletproof skin, that is the source of his power. There’s a battle raging for his soul — and with it the soul of his kingdom, Harlem.

I’m a man, ok, full fledged. My anger is real. But if I can use that anger for intimidation and fear, to do work, then so be it. If I have to speak the language of those who would do others harm to make them stop, then so be it. — Luke Cage

The problem is that this ‘turn’, this ‘messianic vision’ can’t even bring those closest to him on board; and Luke has to decide if he’s in life for love and relationships, especially with Claire, or if he has bigger fish to fry…

“He’s going down a dark path, one that I’m not sure I can follow. He’s angry. He’s lost his purpose… he’s in a place where I can’t help him because I don’t know how…” — Claire, Season 2, Episode 3

The problem set up early in the series is whether or not this embracing of the darkness is going to leave Luke indistinguishable from those he seeks to save…

“Sometimes you have to step on a cockroach, I get it. But when you enjoy the stomping? What’s next? You become an exterminator?” — Claire

And while Luke is grappling with this identity crisis, the season’s anti-hero, Bushmaster is a picture of the fully-fledged embrace of darkness as he goes toe to toe with Mariah for control of the family — darkness against darkness, forcing Mariah, the carry-over villain from season one to raise the bar as she targets Bushmaster’s family; a family who had been urging him to turn his back on the vicious cycle of strength pitted against strength; violence against violence; an ‘eye for an eye’… at one point an abducted family member of Bushmaster’s, Anansi, stares down Mariah and articulates not just the war for Bushmaster’s heart, but for Luke’s.

“Anansi: I didn’t want him to destroy you the way the Stokes destroyed his family.
But now I see you with my own two eyes, and I understand the temptation.
Your darkness matching his.
You deserve all the brimstone he’s gonna bring upon you.
Mariah: Where is he?
Anansi: I don’t know. And I wouldn’t tell you even if I did. But I’ll tell you like I tell him. When one seek vengeance, he must dig two graves.
Mariah: That’s not enough holes for me.” — Episode 10

Luke’s soul is up for grabs in this series, and by the end, we’re not sure whether or not the darkness has taken over… is he Mariah’s heir a new angry oppressor, or a liberator? Is he a hero or a gangster?

“You really are Luke Corleone, aren’t you?” — D-Dub (President of Luke’s fan club)

There’s a great visual homage here, continuing the Godfather reference, where the newly enthroned Luke Cage is greeted at his desk by his new crew and Detective Misty Knight, who has placed such hope in him watches through a closing door.

Mariah (in a flashback, via her lawyer): You know the story of the Sirens? The beauty of their voices compelled men off course to crash against the rocks. This club will be his siren. He’ll be lulled by its song, lulled by so-called greatness.
Luke: She really said that?
Ben Donovan (the lawyer): “You can’t rule no kingdom from a barbershop,” is what she said to me.
Mariah: The preacher’s son will think he can use the roost to change things, to control it. But in the end it will change him.

There’s another great visual moment in the final episode where it appears Mariah’s prophecy might have bean realised; back in season 1, gangster Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes had a giant portrait of a crowned Biggie Smalls hanging on the wall in Harlem’s Paradise. Mariah replaced it, but Luke restored it to pride of place, mostly so these two shots could be framed to, perhaps, close the circle… 

The things we own end up owning us… could it be that Luke Cage is a ‘golden calf’ after all? Not a saviour of Harlem but an oppressor? Could it be that Luke’s dad was right when he said “there’s a reason we don’t worship men because we’re weak, subject to temptation, ego, vainglorious, spiteful, oh yes, Lord knows, we are spiteful. Bulletproof skin doesn’t change nature.”

The war for Luke’s soul, the war for the heart of the ‘saviour king’ of Harlem, is still on in earnest, and with it a war for Harlem’s future… all the visual clues suggest the battle is raging, and that Carl ‘Luke Cage’ Lucas might have lost himself. The closing words, a flashback to a conversation Luke had with his father as they were reconciled, offer, perhaps, a note of hope that his soul might not totally be lost; that Luke might yet face a pressure test and be prepared to walk away from seeing anger as his power.

Your strength is from God, Carl.
I have no doubt in my mind about that.
But with that kind of power comes its share of pain.
Science? Magic? God? That power flows from within. From inside.
What comes out when that pressure is heaviest? That’s the real magic.
That’s what defines being a man.
That’s what defines being a hero. — Rev. Lucas

Luke Cage’s preacher dad has the first and last words this season. In my review of season 1 of Luke Cage I suggested that Luke Cage’s approach to messianic heroism was shaped, perhaps, by the sort of Black Liberation Theology that uses Luke 4 the way he does; the sort founded by theologian James Cone. Here’s a quote from A Black Theology of Liberation.

“In the New Testament, the theme of liberation is reaffirmed by Jesus himself. The conflict with Satan and the powers of this world, the condemnation of the rich, the insistence that the kingdom of God is for the poor, and the locating of his ministry among the poor–these and other features of the career of Jesus show that his work was directed to the oppressed for the purpose of their liberation. To suggest that he was speaking of a “spiritual” liberation fails to take seriously Jesus’ thoroughly Hebrew view of human nature. Entering into the kingdom of God means that Jesus himself becomes the ultimate loyalty of humanity, for he is the kingdom. This view of existence in the world has far reaching implications for economic, political, and social institutions. They can no longer have ultimate claim on human life; human beings are liberated and thus free to rebel against all powers that threaten human life. That is what Jesus had in mind when he said:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19).”

The sort of rebellion against the powers he talks about here involves anger and, at times, according to Cone, permits violence. He writes some exceptionally provocative things about the status quo and racism, and there’s something about theology done from the black perspective that really does ‘re-embody’ Jesus and his teaching in a way that institutionalised, white, Christianity just doesn’t comprehend, let alone practice. He argues that if theology is neutral about oppression and oppressors, it is as bad as it being used to justify oppression, and this should be a challenge that the institutional church in the west, including in Australia, hears on issues of race…

The challenge Luke Cage leaves us grappling with a bit when it comes to issues of race and liberation, alongside Cone’s theology, is what place anger and violence have in solving the problem. Can you embrace the tools of the enemy without becoming the enemy? Is any human heart — even a heart moving from oppression, on behalf of the oppressed, ever avoid becoming an oppressor when handed power?

Cone recognised that anger alone would leave his movement ‘one armed’; that unfettered, it would lead to the sort of destruction Cage faces.

“Anger and humour are like the left and right arm. They complement each other. Anger empowers the poor to declare their uncompromising opposition to oppression, and humour prevents them from being consumed by their fury.” — James Cone

Luke needs to rediscover laughter; at least from Cone’s perspective. And there’s surely something in that, but perhaps the deeper problem Luke Cage presents via Luke’s apparent descent into the abyss is that violence begets violence, and angry oppressors rising up creates new oppressors; here is where someone like Martin Luther King Jr is a voice of resistance against a Christian theology of Luke Cage; an application of Luke 4, that includes violence. Less this become to reductionist, it’s worth pointing out that Cone does have a significant place for the cross in his theology; to take up one’s cross is to enter the ghetto alongside the oppressed, but the movement from that position is one of rising up in a sort of judgment against the oppressor (much like Luke Cage does in the series once his powers are secured and he re-enters Harlem). Here’s King on the problems of violence:

“My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolence resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigour and power as the violence resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.” — Martin Luther King Jr, Stride Toward Freedom

Luke Cage as a text, and Cone and King as theologians have lots to teach us particularly on the issue of race. I think Cone is right about the problems with theology from institutional Christianity that upholds, or doesn’t challenge, status quos, and some of the critique of non-violence and the ‘violence’ of institutions built on the back of historic violence in his words at this link are worth sitting with, but I think King is closer to the solution when it comes to how those marginalised by our institutions should respond in ‘rebellion’… there’s obvious dangers with someone educated in such institutions, and employed by one — as I am — who is also white — as I am — prescribing solutions for those kept on the outer (not by ‘policy’ — our institutions don’t preclude indigenous participation — but by culture and so by practice — they do take shapes and involve requirements and even just behaviours and norms that we’ve ‘baptised’ that serve as barriers).

There’s a real danger that theology that doesn’t listen to voices from the margins is not Christian, but ‘Babylonian’ — that we prop up worldly status quos not intentionally but because we are ignorant; because we are not hearing the voices and experiences of those who are oppressed not just by worldly forces but our failure to speak and act against them. My own experience of listening to indigenous Christian leaders here in Australia over the last few years has been to be confronted with my ignorance of the indigenous experience of life in Australia; it has been to confront how I’ve, in substantial ways, benefited from being white in a white system and how this benefit ultimately comes at the expense of those peoples dispossessed by European settlement. It has involved being confronted with truths about Australia that are often white-washed from school curriculums. Try, for starters, reading this utterly confronting account of massacres of indigenous peoples in South Australia and the Northern Territory — for bonus points, try doing this as I did, having driven through the areas it speaks of a few weeks before where you can’t help but observe the economic gap between indigenous Australians in these areas and the white community both there and on the coasts. Then check out this project mapping massacres around the country. This stuff is enough to make me angry — imagine if I’d been dispossessed and impoverished just how angry I (or you) should be… then chuck a bulletproof and powerful hero into the mix there and tell that hero how to live, or what to do… I read Richard Flanagan’s recent speech calling for the re-imagination of Australia, and an Australian story that acknowledges this history and moves to something better, and it mentions the story of Jandamarra, a resistance fighter in the Kimberly region who was hunted by the colonial police. A hero for a time in Australia’s history where to be black meant to be shot at — much as in Luke Cage‘s harlem, and in the United States in the age of #blacklivesmatter — Jandamarra was thought to be bulletproof (it was believed he could dissolve his body so that bullets would pass through where he stood). Flanagan said:

“When the colonial police were hunting down the great Bunuba resistance fighter Jandamarra, they came to believe that he was, as the Bunuba said, a magic man. Many white settlers came to believe Jandamarra could fly and even police reports described bullets passing through his body. The Bunuba believed that a magic man could only be killed by another magic man, and so police brought one down from the territory and it was he who killed Jandamarra.

But who really won?

To defeat the Bunuba the whites had to enter their Dreaming, and accept their beliefs as the truth of the Kimberley. And in this way the story of the frontier is a story of birth as well as of killing, of values and mentalities changing as much as it is also of segregation, oppression and violence. If we can as a nation learn and understand some of these things we can also appreciate the second story which is as transcendent as the first is tragic, and that is a different story of the past, a story of glory.

This is a challenge outside the church, for our approach to our shared life to be shaped by listening to those voices typically excluded from the mix; but it’s also a challenge for the church. And there’s never been a better time for us, as an institution in our culture, to take up this challenge. We’re experiencing our own marginalisation in the culture — finally realising what it looks like not to have a seat at the table. We can approach this new reality in two ways — we could fight, we could get angry, we could look for our own bulletproof heroes (who’ll probably write columns in the Spectator), or we can do some self-assessment from this new perspective and consider what voices in our culture have been excluded from the table in part by us and start listening to them to hear how they’ve approached being marginalised while being followers of Jesus, to figure out how to chart an heroic way forward for the church, and perhaps for our country. We could start participating in public life as Christians not for our own interest, or to maintain or protect our place in society, but for the interest of these other groups. We don’t need to be bulletproof to be heroic; we just need to have our character revealed under pressure — and to reveal the character of Jesus, as described by Martin Luther King — as we’re marginalised would be a fine start.

There’s no doubt a few people who, if they’ve bothered reading this far, will suggest this, what I’m suggesting, is a path to theological liberalism, to letting go of the Gospel — but that’s not it. It’s very easy to dismiss voices from the margins, from outside our ‘orthodox’ institutions as liberal as a way of not listening or reforming (just consider how the Catholic Church responded to the reformers). It’s very easy to assume that our own experience of the world is normal and that we are ‘colourblind’ and so able to see Jesus truly, detached from our own subjectivity. Acknowledging our possible bias and the problem with institutions that stagnate somewhere near the centre of the status quo isn’t a call to liberalism.

It’s a challenge to let go of those places where we’ve brought the powers of this world into our approach to following King Jesus such that we can’t always tell the difference between Jesus and Caesar.

It’s a suggestion that our faithful brothers and sisters who aren’t part of our institutions be it voices from Australia, or Christians from other countries and cultures who already occupy the margins, might have some prophetic critiques of our practices and beliefs… That this might be akin to listening to the voices of faithful same sex attracted brothers and sisters, those committed to a traditional sexual ethic, when they critique our institutional practices (idolatry) of family and marriage. That these marginal voices are precisely the ones we should turn to in a world that idolises sex, marriage, and family because they are not part of that ‘status quo…

It’s a challenge to keep reforming and to realise that reform comes from the edge of institutions (ala the other Martin Luther) not from the centres of power. The voices that might sometimes be dismissed for being too angry…

It’s a challenge to have those voices and those experiences help us re-imagine the story of Jesus, without our particular cultural blinkers, and so re-image Jesus in how we live.

This is why I continue to be blown away by my indigenous Christian friends who aren’t consumed by anger, but rather continue to offer hope and invitation centred on re-making and re-imagining an Australia that deals with this past, but also looks to a future, particularly a future shaped by the cross of Jesus. If we want to be part of that future, as a church, perhaps it’s time we start deliberately carving out space to hear these voices rather than allowing our educational and church practices to keep maintaining the status quo.

Yeah, the government doesn’t understand the secular/sacred divide or public faith… but that’s on us.

Did you hear the one about the government that didn’t build religious freedom legislation into its amendment to the Marriage Act?

I did. I can’t stop hearing about it.

If you follow the Christian blogosphere in Australia you’ll be seeing plenty of posts following the parliamentary debate in the senate overnight; a debate passing the changes to the Marriage Act that the Aussie people called for via the clunky mechanism of the postal survey. The conservative Liberal/National Coalition passing this legislation, rather than a progressive Labor/Greens alliance was a great silver lining for Christians who believe in traditional marriage; these guys, ‘our people,’ understand that religious freedoms are important…

Only…

There’s a problem. The government didn’t bring in religious freedom protections, via amendments, in the bill it put forward as a result of the postal survey.

Two problems.

One is that the government has always said it will deal with religious freedoms separate to the actual act so these rejected amendments were all political grandstanding from a section of the Coalition who are trying to undermine Turnbull’s leadership; and all these bloggers are adding fuel to that fire. We’re pawns in someone else’s political game, when, as I’ll argue, we should be playing our own.

There’s also a problem with how our government and our nation understand the phrase religious freedom.

Bizarrely the conversation around religious freedoms has largely been about the freedom of Christians to define terms for ourselves (and for other theists from classic organised religions), rather than it being a two way street figuring out how different communities built on different ideals can live together in a pluralist context. This has just come across as us wanting to protect our privilege to hate and discriminate; which isn’t what I necessarily want brand Christian to stand for. It’ll continue to do this the more we bang the ‘victim’ drum in this debate; especially when the Aussie populace (perhaps rightly in some of these cases) believe we’ve voted to end a form of systemic inequality or oppression; to strike a blow against the persecution of minority groups; and to confer full human rights (and thus human dignity) on a community within our nation.

More bizarrely the conversation around religious freedom has been around the freedom not to participate in free common space (like public education, and especially sex ed classes), and to protect Christians wanting to operate businesses catering to the public around the wedding industry (florists and bakers). I feel like we want to have our cake and eat it too on this front; Christians decried corporate Australia jumping on board the same sex marriage bandwagon and essentially discriminating against Christians in their hiring practices, which surely is an expression of the religious freedom of a society that worships sex to hire and participate in public life accordingly, though it costs us Christians; but at the same time want Christian business people to be able to act according to religious beliefs without it costing them. It seems we just want the laws of the land to revolve around what is good for us; not what works for all of us. If we want bakers to be free to sell cakes to whoever they want, and schools to be able to hire Christian janitors, then it seems to me we should be happy to allow Qantas to bring in special marriage equality rings, and tennis organisations to rename their arenas…

Perhaps most bizarrely though, the conversation around religious freedom has been around the rights of church celebrants to not marry people (a right we already have under the Marriage Act, where we can refuse to marry anybody we want, without reason, but also only marry according to the religious rites of our institution (it is the institution that is recognised, not us as individuals). What’s bizarre about this is that it is a thin view of the nature of religious belief; and one for which we, the church in the western world, must shoulder the blame.

We’ve got a thinned out vision of religious life; we ourselves operate as though there’s the sacred space of church on a Sunday; as though church’s are an embassy of heaven, and the secular space of the rest of the world; as though our sacred lives are caught up in religious pomp and ceremony, but our secular lives, our public lives, are not remarkably different from those around us; as though faith is a private (sub-)intellectual conviction that we shouldn’t bother anybody with, while our public lives are lived according to the shared values of reason and the pursuit of common ground. We’ve denied and played down the difference between Christian living and the lives of our neighbours, and now when we want to maintain some sort of distinction we’re creating the impression that this — same sex marriage — is the only point at which it matters for us to be different; as though this is where our nation is departing from God’s design.

This is our fault.

Our political lobbyists have talked up a Christian constituency for years based on census data, all the while knowing that active engagement in church life — a faith with flesh and bones — makes Christianity a significant minority in our country (with disproportionate influence in our civic institutions — like our politicians still praying the Lord’s Prayer). We’ve done this while talking down anything that looks like religious reasoning for our positions; preferring to make arguments from ‘nature’ or ‘logic’ as opposed to saying “we believe God says X, and that belief shapes our community”… we’ve overreached as a result, denying that other religious communities (or non religious communities) do not share our convictions about nature, or the character of God. At a conference I went to a couple of years ago an Aussie law professor, Joel Harrison, made the point that our judicial system cannot and does not accept religious arguments as legitimate motivation for behaviour because of the way our legal system operates and understands behaviours and motivations for behaviours; the spiritual is closed out, so it doesn’t get a look in.

Our (evangelical) churches have settled for a ‘faith alone’ approach to Christianity that emphasises a personal rational assent to particular truths about God and the Gospel as what ‘counts’ for Christians; a ‘tick a box’ Christianity (that matches our census approach) so that making disciples has largely been about winning arguments, not so much about forming people who imitate Jesus in rich communities that live lives of thick difference from the community around us; not just when it comes to sexual ethics. We see conversion as being pretty much exclusively about the head, which when our culture sees religion as, in the words of Manning Clark, ‘a shy hope in the heart’ — a private thing that doesn’t really motivate how we live outside our homes — means we avoid anything particularly radical.

The connection between what we believe and talk about on Sundays and how we live apart from Sundays such that religious freedom is about anything other than Sundays is not obvious to most Christians, let alone our secular politicians.

And our culture perpetuates this myth every time political correctness kicks in such that the behaviour of religious radicals is explained away as simply political; because we’ve decided the sacred is only what happens in the institutional practice and teaching of religious belief; not in the lives of believers as motivated by belief.

This is our fault… and the way to change it is to totally reverse our strategy.

To pursue thick community that is different to the world around us in that it reclaims every inch of life for a believer as sacred; such that it is unimaginable for us to participate in the public or political life of our country without doing so as people who first bend the knee and submit our lives (in every sphere, for example economically not just sexually) to Jesus.

We need to have an approach to education and formation that isn’t just about the head and what is taught, but about allegiance and practices (who we serve and what we do). We need to recapture a grand organising narrative for our lives so that our ethics are connected to something we can easily communicate and explain to people who don’t share it; rather than seeing faith as being a private, disconnected, part of who we are. We have to be able to understand our own behaviour, and account for it, in a way that is connected to this story and such that our behaviour is different to the behaviour of others — and we need to be prepared to simultaneously cop the sort of opposition that difference brings, and give the sort of generous space to others that we want to be afforded ourselves. So, for example, give away our wedding cakes and flowers to gay couples (especially if we suspect a court case is part of the intent) if we don’t want to profit from things we disagree with, as a sign of rich disagreement and love… and hire non-Christian janitors, and (continue to) accept non-Christian kids for our Christian schools as an act of inclusion — but make it clear why we are only hiring Christian teachers and how our approach to education is connected to our understanding of the good life — the Gospel — not just to getting a good education for our kids so they might prosper (the false Gospel). As an aside, every person on staff at a Christian or church run school should have to read Augustine’s On Christian Teaching.

We also need to be prepared to practice a particular sort of faithful presence in our community to model difference that isn’t disinterested or withdrawing difference; not withdraw our kids from classes that teach people stuff we disagree with (especially if we ever tell our kids to invite their friends along to hear about Jesus).

The sky isn’t falling in; it’s the same is it was yesterday. It’s the ‘sky’ Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age. He even describes the path to getting there; and as you skim this, just imagine how our Christian political strategy (think about the no campaign for an example) reinforces this way of seeing the world.

He starts by talking about our current political reality.

“The political organisation of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. Churches are now separate from political structures. Put in another way, in our “secular” societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”

Just imagine if we, churches, adopted a strategy that reinforced this status quo. Oh wait. We have.

But what this means, this shift, is that people in our world don’t have a real understanding of anything sacred, just this secular vision of reality where God has no place. Taylor calls this the ‘immanent frame’. Here’s the progression from the pre-modern to the modern western view.

At first, the social order is seen as offering us a blueprint for how things, in the human realm, can hang together to our mutual benefit, and this is identified with the plan of Providence, what God asks us to realize. But it is in the nature of a self-sufficient immanent order that it can be envisaged without reference to God; and very soon the proper blueprint is attributed to Nature. This change can, of course, involve nothing of importance, if we go on seeing God as the Author of Nature, just a notational variant on the first view. But following a path opened by Spinoza, we can also see Nature as identical with God, and then as independent from God. The Plan is without a planner. A further step can then be taken, where we see the Plan as what we come to share and adhere to in the process of civilization and Enlightenment; either because we are capable of rising to a universal view, to the outlook, for instance, of the “impartial spectator”; or because our innate sympathy extends to all human beings; or because our attachment to rational freedom in the end shows us how we ought to behave.”

Our modern world operates as though God is not in the picture; and if Christians are right that’s a terrible and deadly mistake. The problem is that we’ve helped. We Christians have adopted a strategy of political engagement that is formed in this secular millieu, by its assumptions about politics… the idea that lawmakers don’t need to understand religious belief to make laws, just ‘nature’… and then when we lose the ‘nature’ argument we’ve mounted we want to turn around and ask for religious exemptions?

Seriously.

This also means that our modern world is ill-equipped to understand why a symbolic cake matters to a baker, or why exemptions for clergy don’t really cut it.

We also have a politics to fix this.

We have our own political game that makes sure we see the secular consumed by the sacred when we bend our knee to King Jesus. Church isn’t an embassy; we don’t stand on sacred ground on Sundays. We are ambassadors. We are sacredpriestly, people wherever we go. This was part of the heart of the revolution of the Reformation; the same movement that brought us faith alone (and probably democracy) brought us the priesthood of all believers; the idea that everything we do in this world is a sacred act of priestly service to God. Luther wrote a letter to the Christian nobility — a political letter, to politicians — his purpose was to take the power to decide what was sacred and profane away from the corrupt institutional (and political) church, and put it in the hands of everybody (including the politicians of his day). The church was claiming that it had power over the state because the church was ‘sacred’ or spiritual while the state was ‘secular’ or temporal… Luther said:

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people.”

Farmers and people who make stuff… politicians… teachers… butchers, bakers, florists… if you’re a Christian you belong to the ‘spiritual estate’, your work is sacred. Our government doesn’t understand that, because for the most part, neither do we. Protections for clergy aren’t enough; especially not for protestant Christians who agree with Luther. Luther also said:

“There is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, “spirituals” and “temporals,” as they call them, except that of office and work… just as Those who are now called “spiritual” — priests, bishops or popes — are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them, except that they are charged with the administration of the Word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office, so it is with the temporal authorities, — they bear sword and rod with which to punish the evil and to protect die good. A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

Every occupation held by a Christian is sacred so long as their work is for the bodily and spiritual (you can’t disconnect those in his though) welfare of the community. That the government doesn’t understand that we think this is our fault, because where else do they gain an understanding about the lives and beliefs of Christians apart from how we live, and what we say to our politicians? Or, what we allow to be said on our behalf by our lobby groups?

We have a very clear political mandate, especially in a world that lives life without God and believes that to be ‘good’… We have a mission to follow the one who broke through the ‘brass dome’ of the natural world as a super-natural emissary from the God of heaven; though he wasn’t just the ambassador; he was the visiting king of what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven. Our secular politics has been the result of allowing the church to box this king into a corner; a corner where he has almost no apparent relevance to the day to day life of Aussie believers so far as those looking on can tell (except when it comes to how we think about sex).

The Gospel is, itself, political. It is the proclamation that Jesus is king; that God is the creator and through Jesus claims every inch of our lives and of the world; that he died, was raised, rules, and will return to renew the world for his resurrected people living as his kingdom. This proclamation has profound implications for how people who believe it live now; in other kingdoms, and how we live with one another as this kingdom.

Church properties aren’t sacred embassies, or sanctuaries (though they’ve been recognised that way in the past), clergy aren’t particularly extra-specially sacred or priestly… church communities are sacred ambassadors for this king.

This is our politics. And we’ve forgotten it. We’ve played the ‘secular game’ for too long… and it has come at a cost.

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. — 2 Corinthians 5:11-20

We are sacred new creations. Sacred ambassadors. Serving a king crucified by the government he came to visit. Let’s start acting like it. Dying for it. Compelled by the love of Jesus, not by protecting our privilege (and even if that isn’t our motivation, the appearance that we’re doing that must push us to behave differently). Giving up commending ourselves in order to commend Jesus, and as Paul put it a chapter earlier ‘carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies so that the life of Jesus might be made known’… whether we’re clergy or bakers, or candlestick makers.

The _____ captivity of the church

Sometimes I think we Christians after Christendom think we’re William Wallace. That we’re in front of a shield wall firing people up for the battle we face… when, actually, we’re already not just prisoners of the enemy, but serving the empire we think we’re standing against. We talk about the world now being ‘Babylon’ and don’t always confront how much Babylon already infects our hearts. Here’s a piece, in part, inspired by Martin Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity Of The Church

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” — William Wallace in Braveheart

Freedom.

Religious freedom.

Freedom of speech.

It seems we Christians are a bit obsessed with questions of freedom at the moment. We’re positioning ourselves like an army of Scots ready to fight to maintain our independence from the empire. We’ve got thought leaders who are bracing us for impact, telling us that we’re in the middle of a battle that will decide our future; the battle for our freedom. These freedoms. Hard won freedoms. Freedom from the tyranny of Babylon. Freedom from bending the knee to Caesar and his rainbow sash.

The problem is we talk about religious freedom and how important it is, while we the church are captives in Babylon; and if we think freedom looks like Babylon-lite we’re in big trouble. If we think freedom is simply the ability to maintain a distinct sexual ethic we don’t realise just how much we’ve already been captivated by a world that is an entirely different kingdom to the one we live for if we follow king Jesus. We’re so focused on sex, that we fail to realise that we, mostly, already belong to ‘Babylon’.

We’re captives.

We’re political captives.

We’re economic captives.

We’re captivated by a counter-Gospel. We’re narrative captives, enthralled by Babylon and its shiny promises and explanations about who we are, and what we’re for; blinkered so that we don’t often look beyond our defaults; the status quo of our immediate context and culture.

We’re captivated in our hearts, and our minds, in our desires and in our imaginations.

But still. We picture ourselves as William Wallace, just without the face paint (and so we end up looking a whole lot like Mel Gibson, it’s ok to be a raving lunatic if you’re in character, elsewise, not so much).

We think our freedom is at stake; that it is under attack.

Apparently our real enemies; the ones who will decide our fate, are those who’ve risen up from the margins of the empire who now threaten to take control of everything, or at least to wield disproportionate influence as they capitalise on our collective guilt and shame at how our culture has treated those who are different. We don’t feel guilt, or shame, not in any way that manifests itself in sitting down at the table to make reparations and to reconcile, anyway. We might have changed some of our practices so we don’t do conversion therapy any more or kick out our same sex attracted children (hopefully); we celebrate celibacy for those in our community who are same sex attracted, sure, but we’re not particularly on the front foot explaining to same sex attracted folk outside our community how Jesus is the best possible news for them, and better than any desire for earthly things, including sex, we’re not particularly interested in how life in a contested, pluralist world might be safe for them. It’s not just Christians, or the last vestige of christendom/Old Testament morality that cause bullying, or discrimination, or the world to be unsafe for those who statistically, are not normal. It’s the human heart. It’s the beastly part of the human heart. We’re like chicks, who turn our beaks on the little bird in the clutch who is different, and peck at them until we feel secure, and they are broken beyond recognition.

Well. Now these marginalised folks are at the head of an army; they’ve rounded up the forces of Babylon, both the politicians, and the market forces — corporations — and they’ve brought that army to our shield wall.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

We get these bracing call to arms type blog posts on all the big Christian platforms. We get books trying to chart a strategy for the church going forward in a hostile world where our freedom is under threat.

Freedom.

Religious freedom. That’s our shtick; and partly because we so value it for ourselves, it’s one of those things, those common goods, that we want to fight for for everyone else. We tend to see ourselves as the warriors fighting the good fight for freedom on the frontline. William Wallace in a battle raging against the ‘secular’  empire. And by secular this is the sort of hard secularism that sees no place for worship, rather than secularism as ‘no religion is favoured’ pluralistic secularism.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

Only we can’t really say that. Or rather, we can’t really say that and mean it. Because our freedom is already gone. We’re already captives. When it comes to Babylon, they’re not at the gate banging on the doors using the new sexual revolution to break down the walls. We’re already captives, and have been for a long time. This stuff on sexual difference is just, perhaps, the last defence to fall before we capitulate, bend the knee to Caesar and kiss the ring. And that we don’t realise we’re already captives makes our resistance pretty pathetic and futile.

We think we’re fighting the good fight here on same sex marriage and safe schools. But the truth is, we’re already captives to Babylon in so many ways that this resistance is pathetic, and unless it leads us to seek freedom in a whole bunch of other areas where ‘Babylon’ has infiltrated, we’re in a bit of trouble.

But the other truth is that Babylon in the Bible isn’t just judgment from God (as we’ll see below); it’s opportunity. It’s an opportunity to reach people outside Israel, and outside the church. Babylon is our mission field, and always has been. And the thing that keeps us focused on the main thing — joining with God in bringing dead people to life through the Gospel — is realising that we’re in Babylon, not Israel, that our neighbours are facing death for rejecting God, and that we’ll be part of God inviting them out of Babylon into a new kind of citizenship.

If we really want to resist Babylon in order to be part of winsomely calling people from death to life, there’s a whole lot of stuff we might need to free ourselves from first. We have to figure out how we’re distinct from Babylon (or should be) in order to reach Babylon with the Gospel (oh, and we need to remember that because we’re not Jews, we’re actually converts from Babylon, Babylonians who’ve decided to follow a different king, that our job isn’t first to identify with Israel and its story, but to appreciate that because of the one faithful exile, Jesus, we are brought home to God and made citizens of something new); we also need to be clear about what ‘Babylon’ means as a metaphor in a Biblical sense (beyond the exile).

There is a sense that God’s people being scattered into Babylon is both vital for his mission to see his image bearers spread over the face of the earth (Genesis 1), and judgment for failing to do the job of being his image bearers in the world; a case of God achieving his purposes through judgment. There’s also a sense in which exile into Babylon is judgment giving people a taste of what it seems they desire — to not live like his people; it’s a purifying thing. This is where his judgment in response to the impulse at Babel — where a bunch of people didn’t scatter, but instead stayed together to build a big, central, tower — probably an ancient ‘ziggurat’ (a staircase into the heavens to make themselves gods) — fits in with his plans for the world. These people rejected his call to go into the world, they built a tower for their own name to make themselves gods ascending to the heavens, and were scattered as a result. It’s this moment, in the Biblical narrative, that creates nations like Babylon, and there’s some pretty interesting historical ties between Babel and Babylon, so that in the first century, the historian, Josephus, says:

“The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion”

The Babylonian captivity of Israel

When Israel was carted off into exile in Babylon the first time around, what got them there, what got them in trouble, was they were already Babylonian at heart before the armies arrived. They were captivated by Babylon before they were captives in Babylon.

They’d already rejected God, and what should have been their distinctives as his people, and they’d turned to idols instead.

They’d signed up with their hearts, and exile was a case of them becoming what they loved. In the book of Ezekiel we get an explanation read by people in Exile about why they’re in exile in the form of the words of the prophet who warned them what was coming.

There’s this scene where a group of Israel’s leaders rock up to Ezekiel to ask him what God says, and it turns out they’re in trouble because they’ve ‘set up idols in their hearts’ — abominations one might say… it turns out they’ve already deserted God. They’re already captives in this sense, even if the physical takeover is not yet complete (though it is for the first readers of Ezekiel)…

 When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’ — Ezekiel 14:4-5

The heart reality, the ‘Babylonian captivity’, is going to become the real deal though.

“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because you people have brought to mind your guilt by your open rebellion, revealing your sins in all that you do—because you have done this, you will be taken captive.

“‘You profane and wicked prince of Israel, whose day has come, whose time of punishment has reached its climax, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Take off the turban, remove the crown. It will not be as it was: The lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low. A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it.’ — Ezekiel 21:24-27

Exile is a judgment from God on those whose hearts have already gone from him; those who are already captives. The end of this Babylonian exile, according to Ezekiel, is the restoration of the crown to a rightful king of Israel. That’s Jesus. This restoration would also include a restoration of the heart, and a return from exile.

 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” — Ezekiel 36:25-28

The first Babylonian captivity of the Church

The ‘Babylon’ of Revelation is, first, Rome. It’s the Babylon Israel are still enthralled by; to the extent that when Jesus came, they joined the Romans in executing him. Israel is still in exile, they don’t have new hearts, and they haven’t recognised God’s king. They’re part of this Babylonian kingdom. It’s a picture of a beastly kingdom that has set itself up in total opposition to the kingdom of God. The kingdom we see launched by the death and resurrection of King Jesus. It’s a kingdom whose values are both the opposite of Jesus’ values, and that are so totalising, coherent, and integrated, that once you let just one bit creep into your heart, it’s a trojan horse that lowers your ability to fight the rest. When John starts describing ‘Babylon’ in Revelation he paints this vivid picture of a powerful and beautiful woman who rides a beast, and seductively takes people away from God:

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. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

Babylon the great

the mother of prostitutes

and of the abominations of the earth.

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. — Revelation 17:4-6

This isn’t some mystery where we need a decoder ring, or to get in touch with our inner Nostradamus…

“The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” — Revelation 17:18

For John, in his day, this is a description of Rome. Rome who loomed large as the totalising persecutor of Christians, but also as a compelling, integrated and coherent picture of civilisation; where order was kept and maintained and the seduction of beauty and power was never far away from the stick of its military. The carrot and stick of Rome were the threat to Christians aiming to maintain their distinction as citizens of heaven who bow the knee to Jesus, not Caesar, so we have a little exchange between governor Pliny and Emperor Trajan where Pliny is trying to figure out what to do with the Christians, and Trajan says “if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.” And this lure, which caught Israel, also threatens the church — when John opens Revelation by directly speaking to the churches who first read this apocalyptic (revealing) text; that showed the real lay of the land, he warns the churches ‘not to forsake their first love’, not to be lured by Jezebels and the promises of false worship, not to become ‘lukewarm’ because of their own economic might within the empire… people in the church are in danger of forsaking Jesus and ending up in judgment, in Babylon.Everyone is an exile — you’re just either exiled from God, or from the beastly Babylon. Whatever happens their lives are lived in the physical reality of Babylon. They’re not home. And they’re treated like exiles too, by the world. The church is facing persecution for not bending the knee to Caesar.

Escaping persecution was so simple. You just had to sign up, totally, to the empire. To give in to Rome; to the empire; to Babylon; was to become an abomination; to become “children of the mother of the abominations of the earth.” Now this is pretty strong language, and for a long time the church has got itself in a spot of bother by using versions of the Bible that seem to single out sexual sin as the only sort of ‘abomination’ and abomination as a particularly insidious different type of sin. All sin is fundamentally an abomination to God. Stuff we might give a hall pass to out there in the public square — like greed — but also stuff we’re thoroughly conscripted into and captivated by as Christians — like lust, gluttony, and, umm, greed.

An ‘abomination’ was something put in the place reserved for God — in the Temple, at the altar, but also, fundamentally, in our hearts. An abomination is anything you replace God with. It’s the thing that turns us, as it conscripts us and deforms our behaviours (and so the image we bear in the world), in such a way that we become more like Frankenstein than human. We become vaguely human, in terms of what God’s kingdom looks like. The whole Roman enterprise — though much of it looked beautiful, ordered, and admirable — was built on an abominable rejection of God as God and Jesus as king.

When the Maccabees revolted against the Seleucid Empire (a hellenic kingdom), they were motivated, in part, by that empire fulfilling what they thought were Daniel’s prophecies about the abomination that causes desolation. It was all about God’s temple, and the altar, and the purity of whole-hearted worship that Israel was able to offer to God. So 1 Maccabees describes this abominable moment:

Now on the fifteenth day of [the month] Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah — 1 Maccabees 1:54

This sacrilege is later described as an abomination.

… that they had torn down the abomination that he had erected on the altar in Jerusalem; and that they had surrounded the sanctuary with high walls as before, and also Beth-zur, his town. — 1 Maccabees 6:7 

The Romans, when they destroy Jerusalem in 70AD, build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Temple. And some believe this is what the ultimate abomination Rome is going to carry out looks like. It’s abominable, no doubt.

But I think the ultimate abomination was what Rome — and ‘captive’ Israel — did to God’s ultimate temple. They executed him; utterly rejecting his rule; holding up a mirror to what the beastly kingdom looks like against the face of God’s king. The great irony is that this is where king Jesus is enthroned and his kingdom begins — the kingdom that would ultimately be the undoing of Roman rule and the downfall of the Caesars (if you take the long term view, and of course, the eternal view). We repeat the abomination that causes desolation whenever we put anything but God in the place of supremacy in our hearts — we were made to bear the image of God; to be walking ‘temples’ for whatever it is we worship (the things we love and serve).

The church’s job, according to Revelation, is to bear faithful witness in Babylon as people distinct from Babylon because we bend the knee to a different king — the king described in Revelation 1 who brings the kingdom described in Revelation 21-22, after Babylon is destroyed. In the meantime we’re to be faithful witnesses (see the letters to the churches at the start of Revelation), who call Babylon to repent; who speak truth to power; even to the point of sharing in Babylon’s treatment of our king. Or, as Revelation 11 puts it, when talking about the faithful ‘lampstands’ (which is what the churches are depicted at in the start of the book):

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. — Revelation 11:7-12

Avoiding ‘Babylonian Captivity’ in the early church

Avoiding Babylonian Captivity after Jesus is a matter of right worship; it’s a matter of being part of the return from exile promised in Ezekiel (and because we’re not Jews, most of us, a return from the exile where we’re humanity was kicked out of Eden). It’s a matter of participation in God’s kingdom, the church, following his king, Jesus, and having him rule our hearts via the Spirit; a removing of the ‘abomination’ of false gods that rule our hearts.

The point is — it’s not sexual sin per say that is the ‘abomination’ (it’s a form of it), it’s idolatry. It’s the participation in worship of things other than God, through undifferentiated participation in kingdoms that are not God’s. It’s captivity. And the thing about Babylon, ‘the mother of abominations’ is that it’s not just sex that captivates us and so makes us captive; it’s not just the ‘sexual revolution’ that aims to restrict our freedom… there’s politics (power), and economics (money), and philosophy/wisdom (education and a vision of the good life) in the mix too.

Early Christians, knowing what was at stake, were more William Wallace like in their ability to avoid this sort of captivity. They refused. They maintained a distinction that included sexual fidelity, and an approach to marriage that was counter cultural in the Roman world, but it included much more than this. Here’s a passage from a second century document called the Letter to Diognetus. It’s about how the Christians avoid being caught up in the trappings of Babylon.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.

They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead.

The writer of this letter says some other stuff too, including this passage on the stupidity of the idolatry of ‘Babylon’ from earlier in the piece…

“Are they not all deaf? Are they not all blind? Are they not without life? Are they not destitute of feeling? Are they not incapable of motion? Are they not all liable to rot? Are they not all perishable?

You call these things gods! You serve them! You worship them! And you become exactly like them.

It’s for this reason you hate the Christians, because they do not consider these to be gods.”

This is what it looks like to really fight for freedom — to be poor and make many rich, to be lowly, dishonoured, without power, marginalised, but to bless, honour, and do good. To be sexually distinct, to share a common table, to be living a different story because we follow a different king.

Getting out of Babylon now (or getting Babylon out of the church)

I look at how we play politics as the church and feel like there’s not a huge amount of difference to how politics get played by other ‘religious’ groups. The politics of power, of zero sum games where it’s our way or nothing. The politics of picking the people who best represent our views, rather than the people most qualified for the job. We try to play politics with everyone else, we’re just not very good at it (bizarrely, perhaps, because other people have cottoned on quicker that we’re more shaped by our loves than by ‘knowing the facts’, and so they tell better stories).

I look at how I approach money, and career, and security, and experience, and toys, and I think that there’s not much difference in my approach to consuming and my pursuit of luxury, than anyone else in my life (except perhaps that I earn slightly less because of career choices, but this just means I crave slightly more in an unrequited way).

It’s not just about sexual difference, this Babylon thing — though that is important, and our marriages should be rich testimonies to the love of Jesus, and we should love and nurture our kids. And we should fight the temptation to sexual immorality and the corrupting of our imaginations by a ‘sexular society’… but there has to be much more than that in our kit bag.

If we want to be people who aren’t captives, people who live as though ‘every land is like a homeland’ and a ‘land of strangers’ we need to be people who are so caught up in the vision of a kingdom greater than Babylon and a sense of certainty that our future is greater than the present, and the past. That the picture of life in Revelation 21-22 doesn’t just surpass Babylon, or Rome, but Eden.

This will mean a totally different approach to politics that is not wedded to a sort of conservatism where we’re trying to restore paradise lost (and end up building Rome)but a progressivism that shoots for the kingdom of heaven — the kingdom we are citizens of even now.

This will mean, in some corners of the world, divorcing ourselves from worldly political establishments (and not shooting for a wedding with any particular political party here in Australia).

This will mean we don’t seek to be at the centre of the empire culturally, or politically, or economically — to be at the centre would require the ’empire’ being at the centre of our hearts — an ‘abomination’ and a form of captivity… like Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. We won’t seek to be at the centre, but nor will we seek to be at the margins to the extent that we don’t participate in life with our neighbours. But we do need to be close enough to those at the margins to bless the people there, hear the people there, and be champions for the bringing about of change for the benefit of those Babylon treads on. Our distinctives on these fronts are to be prophetic and the noticeable and part of our appeal (think Daniel in Babylon).

This will mean listening to voices from the global church, from marginalised communities (from people who aren’t white blokes with multiple university degrees).

This will mean a totally different approach to economics. When John describes the downfall of Babylon he describes it with reference to its material prosperity — its luxury — and in terms of the downfall of a worldly economy built on the powerful controlling the goods of this world for their own benefit (and at the expense of other people — like those sold as slaves (Revelation 18:11-13) — and of the world itself which John says is “corrupted by her adulteries” (Revelation 19:2-3). The Babylon lost when God judges is not just built on sexual excess (though that is part of the picture), but on economic and political excess — a beastly and abominable approach to God’s world created by the worship of these things in the place of God. This sort of idol worship is totalising

This will mean a different approach to arts, and culture, and storytelling. The appeal of Babylon, in any form, rests in its counter-gospel and the way its gods are dressed up as appealing counterfeits to the real God. It’s no coincidence that even the word Gospel is ‘Babylonian’ (in the Roman sense); the proclamation of the marvellous victories of king Caesar. We need to be people who proclaim a different king in ways that call people to worship the one who ends our exile from God; the one who brings us out of captivity.

This will mean a different approach to personhood, discipleship, and education, that doesn’t see us just as solitary brains to be educated towards sanctification, but worshippers whose worship is cultivated in the ‘heart’, by practices, by stories, and in community where we follow our king by imitating him together, and show and reinforce our distinctive ‘story’ together.

This will mean a different approach to being the church. One that is not defensive or inwards looking, but that cultivates hearts that in looking to the king, and his way of life, joyfully and hopefully look to the lost sheep in our world; those crushed by worldly kingdoms, and offer them good news. Our practices and disciplines and the rhythms of our life together should, like the church from the Letter to Diognetus, be aimed at ‘making many rich’…  There are plenty of people at the margins of our society where the gospels of our ‘Babylons’ are exclusionary. Get an education; get a job; buy a house; collect experiences; be ‘free’… there are people for whom this vision of the good life is a millstone pulling them into depths of despair, not a picture of freedom at all. These are the people the freedom of the Gospel is for, and yet we spend our time hand wringing because the ‘elites’ don’t like us.

Babylon is a totalising system that aims for all of us — our desires, imaginations, beliefs, belonging, and actions… much as the Kingdom of God is a totalising system in a totally counter-Babylon, counter-Rome, way. These are where some of my misgivings about Christendom as an enterprise historically are located… we like to think the church civilised the barbarian empire… and in many ways we did… but we’re not so aware of the ways that this also allowed the empire to barbarianise the Church… and this was part of what Luther was getting at, in the Reformation he launched of the ‘Roman Church’ in a text like The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This is the scale of the challenges we’re facing as the church now, and it might not be the Benedict Option that gets us to where we need to be, but we don’t really have the option of not changing if we’re already captivated by the trinkets and baubles of Babylon and just waiting for the last little bit of resistance to crumble while we fight for ‘religious freedom’… we need to fight for religious freedom, certainly, but more than that we need to fight to be free from abominable religions that pull our hearts from God.

When Luther described his task of pulling the church out of what he perceived to be a Babylonian captivity, he recognised how hard this would be because the captivity was so entrenched by the traditions of the church…

“I am entering on an arduous task, and it may perhaps be impossible to uproot an abuse which, strengthened by the practice of so many ages, and approved by universal consent, has fixed itself so firmly among us, that the greater part of the books which have influence at the present day must needs be done away with, and almost the entire aspect of the churches be changed, and a totally different kind of ceremonies be brought in, or rather, brought back. But my Christ lives, and we must take heed to the word of God with greater care, than to all the intellects of men and angels. I will perform my part, will bring forth the subject into the light, and will impart the truth freely and ungrudgingly as I have received it.” — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Like many things, Luther saw the corruption of the way church was happening — removed from truths of the Gospel — as the work of Satan, work achieved through idolatry (any worship without Jesus); he says where we lose our centre — faith in Christ — we end up in judgment,  “removed from our own land, as into bondage at Babylon, and all that was dear to us has been taken from us.”

In this our misery Satan so works among us that, while he has left nothing of the mass to the Church, he yet takes care that every corner of the earth shall be full of masses, that is, of abuses and mockeries of the testament of God; and that the world shall be more and more heavily loaded with the gravest sins of idolatry, to increase its greater damnation. For what more grievous sin of idolatry can there be, than to abuse the promises of God by our perverse notions, and either neglect or extinguish all faith in them. — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

We need to be prepared to change; we, the church, need to acknowledge where we are captives, and we need to be prepared to reform. It’s a big deal, and it’s about much more than what goes on in our bedrooms.

“But you will say: “What? will you ever overthrow the practices and opinions which, for so many centuries, have rooted themselves in all the churches and monasteries; and all that superstructure of anniversaries, suffrages, applications, and communications, which they have established upon the mass, and from which they have drawn the amplest revenues?” I reply: It is this which has compelled me to write concerning the bondage of the Church. For the venerable testament of God has been brought into a profane servitude to gain, through the opinions and traditions of impious men, who have passed over the Word of God, and have set before us the imaginations of their own hearts, and thus have led the world astray. What have I to do with the number or the greatness of those who are in error?”

How the Reformation went viral

The 95 Theses were the beginning of a social media campaign which went viral. This is an interesting take on the Reformation – but hear it out.


Image Credit: Art.com (you can buy this as a print)

Does social media cause change?

The Reformation, like the revolution in a famous Malcolm Gladwell piece, may or may not have been fuelled by social media. Or Luther’s equivalent. Propaganda 1.0.

Here’s Gladwell’s summary of the argument he doesn’t agree with.

“The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns.”

Gladwell thinks it is high risk activism that brings change – rather than “social media” – but this is a bit of a category error. He thinks people are trying to argue that social media is the basis of activism rather than a channel for communication, and he’s dismissive of “one-click” activism (as am I – especially in the form of awareness raising).

“Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement—are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised. Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.”

Activism, be it Martin Luther King’s rallies, or Martin Luther’s nailing of 95 theses to the Wittenburg Door as a highly symbolic and evocative PR stunt, requires both a medium and a message. Further, this package requires channels and connections by which it is transmitted. Which is where social media comes in now, and where the virality of the reformation and its use of social media gets interesting. This is where Gladwell’s piece is perhaps too dismissive of the technology.

The Reformation went viral

The Reformation was another grassroots protest movement, which according to this fascinating history published in the Economist, which is wonderfully rendered and somewhat persuasive, was aided by the social media of its time.

“It is a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.

That’s what happened in the Arab spring. It’s also what happened during the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther and his allies took the new media of their day—pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts—and circulated them through social networks to promote their message of religious reform.”

Luther understood something of the way to spread his message via the media of his day. The response to his initial PR stunt was a bit of a “tipping point” to borrow another Gladwellian phrase.

“The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.”

Luther’s message went viral, between 6 and 7 million pamphlets were circulating in German speaking nations…

“Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.”

Too busy to pray? Get some pre-blessed food

Saying grace is so passe. Buy your food pre prayed over and eat with an easy spiritual conscience. Out-sourced prayer is nothing new if the Catholics are your exemplar.

Happy 493rd anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation everybody.

YouTube Tuesday: Reformation Rap

You think you done something spectacular?
I wrote the Bible in the vernacular!
A heretic! [What?] Someone throw me a bone.
You forgot salvation comes through faith alone.
I’m on a mission from God. You think I do this for fun?
I got ninety-five theses but the Pope ain’t one.

Luther: A hippy?

Some people see eschatology as a dirty word thanks to the Left Behind mob – and I’ve always been pretty wary of people who define themselves by their views on “end times” – but here’s a second post tagged eschatology in two days. There was a comment on my post about how your eschatology shapes your actions that is worth sharing with everybody.

Joanna – who based on her email address I assume used to be a Richardson – but that’s a guess… pointed to a famous quote attributed to Luther:

“Interestingly, Martin Luther – who certainly agreed with you that preaching the gospel was an urgent task in the light of the return of Jesus – when asked what he would do today if he knew the world was ending tomorrow, answered ‘I would plant a tree.’ Was he a man with a poor eschatology, or just a strong theology of creation? Or both, do you think?”

From what I can gather – the quote, more accurately rendered is:

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.

I’m not about to throw stones at Luther’s eschatology, that would be profound arrogance on my part. I am curious as to why he would answer the question that way – so I’m doing some research. At the outset I’d posit that either he really enjoyed gardening, or he thought that guessing games concerning the end of the world were pointless and that we should go on living life regardless, others speculate that Luther’s vision of the New Creation features a redeemed version of the current one, and a tree would be a part of that…

There are a few seemingly reputable sites that cast some doubt on whether or not he actually said this at all… but it turns out he did enjoy gardening.

From my initial googling, Option 2 seems to be the favoured interpretation around the online traps.

However, there are others who run with it more literally, like those planning the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses… who plan to plant 500 trees in the Luthergarden as a visual celebration.

Then there’s the TreeLink mob who claim Luther as a tree-planting champion

Personally, and this is probably again shaped by my “bias” – and the weight of Luther’s teachings regarding the importance of evangelism against this one quote of dubious origins – I think if he did say it he was probably emphasising the fact that “nobody knows the time and place” so we shouldn’t live as though each day should be our last – but should go on living in readiness. Which, given the weight of Luther’s teachings and the picture we have of the life he lived would involve bold proclamation of the word as a priority.

Some poor souls who run a repository of “spiritual quotes” attributed this one to Martin Luther King Jr.

Incidentally my favourite Luther quote for a long time was this:

Be a sinner and sin strongly, but more strongly have faith and rejoice in Christ.