Tag Archives: Trump

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The Image of Trump or the Image of Jesus: on Trump’s sacrilege and the toppling of idols

In the last two posts I’ve explored how the practice of destroying statues — the damnatio memoraie — is an ancient one, and how public space has always been sacred and contested (and how when Jesus turns up in a contested public space, both sides of the contest joined sides to kill him).

There’s a picture of this for those who would follow Jesus in the book of Revelation; John’s apocalypse. Up front John writes to some churches in the Roman world. He pictures these seven churches as lamp stands. Churches who are meant to bring light to the world as they reflect the glory of Jesus. By the time you get into the ‘apocalyptic’ stuff — the vivid picture of life in this world that John offered, the seven lamp stands are reduced to two. Two faithful churches — witnesses to Jesus — are pictured as martyrs, and we’re told they speak up, and the beastly world kills them, celebrating the sacrilegious erasure of their voice from the public square like first century statue topplers. John says, of these witnesses, “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 11:8). To follow Jesus in the world is to be treated like Jesus because we act like Jesus because we worship Jesus.

The book of Revelation serves up a picture of beastly worldly power as opposed to God; it ties Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and Jerusalem together as pictures of an economically motivated monster opposed to the kingdom of God; in love with the things of this world, and the prince of this world, Satan. The desecration of these faithful churches — these bodies pulled down in the public square is paralleled with the desecration of Jesus, the image of God, in the public square of Jerusalem.

It’s fascinating that the debate about the tearing down of statues — images cast in metal or stone — in public squares around the world — the outpouring of anger of the sort evoked by sacrilege that we’re hearing from one side of the ‘history wars’/’culture wars’ divide because statues-as-history are being destroyed in such a sacrilegious manner, and the outpouring of anger we’re seeing from the other side of the same conflict in the desecrating destruction these of statues happened at the same time that the President of the United States so ‘sacrilegiously’ (or desacrilegiously) set himself up as a pixelated image in a brazen photo opp on the footsteps of a church.

Trump’s photo opp was straight out of the playbook of the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes, whose cultural and religious conquest of Jerusalem was framed by the writer of the inter-testamental book 1 Maccabees as “the abomination that causes desolation.”

And perhaps the most distressing part of this scene was not Trump’s following the image-erecting playbook of the idol-kings of the ancient world; it was the way he was cheered on by the faithful — the sort of lamp stands in Revelation who forsook their first love, Jesus, to cosy up with the Beastly Roman empire; the new Babylon, Egypt, and Sodom.

Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Apocalypse just means ‘revelation’ — it’s not pointing to some future moment of cataclysmic end times so much as revealing the cataclysmic results of siding with anybody but God; given that ultimately the victory of Jesus won at the cross will turn the whole world on its head. Revelation talks about the Spiritual reality behind political realities; there is no ‘secular/sacred’ divide — everything is religious; every political act is an act of sacrilege or sanctification — an act of elevating some thing or other to holy status, or applying a religious paradigm to the organisation of life in the world, in terms of how we organise communities of people and how we make and enjoy created things. That those kingdoms that set themselves up to oppose Jesus because they love money and the things of this world are collectives of people — systems, structures, cultures — that have rejected Jesus and picked Satan. Instead of being bearers of the divine image — and so being treated like Jesus and executed in the public square; they’re joining with corrupt power in order to reject God’s king and kingdom, and to destroy their own enemies (those who would take from them the things they really love). In Revelation you’ve got the image of Israel as a harlot, jumping on the back of beastly Rome.

1 Maccabees condemns Israel for not being desperately offended by the sacrilegious act of Antiochus Epiphanes; instead of tearing down the idol and seeking to rededicate the Temple to Yahweh (after Antiochus dedicates it to Zeus), “Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath” (1 Maccabees 1:43). Israel’s hearts have been captured by this beastly foreign ruler and his promise of order, and status, and the benefits flowing from belonging to such a powerful empire.

Trump’s photo opp — secured through violent action (this Washington Post composite of smart phone footage and police radio audio puts the idea that he didn’t use tear gas or equivalents squarely in the ‘fake news’ column) — was an act of sacrilege; co-opting the symbols of Christianity — the Kingdom of God — for his own political agenda (so much so that even his military has since distanced itself from the photo opp). This was the digital equivalent of the erection of a statue; a pixelated bust. An image that he hoped might spread frictionlessly around his empire to shore up his rule, and a call to worship his image. In Empire and Communication (1950), Harold Innis argued that empires rose and fell, historically, based on how well and widely they were able to communicate. Statues were an expensive but long lasting way to share an imperial imagery through the landscape an emperor ruled. They were fixed in place, but would last for a long time. They were limited. Trump is the master of harnessing the digital landscape to create imagery and words that spread through the empire; a master of propaganda and pageantry. He doesn’t need statues to spread his image; there is now a permanent picture of Trump with a Bible, in front of a church, engraved in the American pysche. The Roman empire followed other ancient near eastern practice by using coins as propaganda; the emperor’s image was carried in the pockets of the average Roman citizen (see Jesus on coins ‘the image of Caesar’ v ‘the image of God), when Trump wanted his name on the cheques sent out as stimulus to citizens during the Covid-19 lockdown he was again borrowing straight from the ancient playbook.

Just as Revelation depicts a faithful church who stand against the empire and so get slaughtered, 1 Maccabees tells the story that not all in Israel succumbed to Antiochus’ attempts to profane the Temple, while glorifying the image of his gods.

But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. (1 Maccabees 1:62-63)”

These were the #NeverTrumpers of the first century B.C.

My observations of peers in the U.S who won’t bend the knee to Trump is that it’s more costly within Christian community to refuse than it is for an NFL player to bend the knee during the anthem. Leader after leader seem to be coming forward to pledge their allegience to the Trump re-election campaign; excited by his fusion of the sword of empire with the sword of God’s word… while ignoring the picture God’s word paints of the empire while telling Christians to submit to its authority — to the point of martyrdom; just as Jesus did. Now, this is complicated of course, and people of God are able to be a faithful presence working for change in idolatrous foreign governments — the guiding principle from Joseph, to Daniel, to Esther, to Nehemiah, to Erastus in Corinth, to the early Christians in the Roman empire — seems to be a refusal to worship at the feet of the emperor because Jesus is their Lord and King — their spiritual and political leader. Daniel, the courtier, was chucked in the lion’s den explicitly for his refusal to bend the knee to the king he served. Serving in the courts of the king isn’t the problem — that’s precisely where God’s people can act as a faithful presence to see actions aligned with God’s kingdom (so when Esther doesn’t mention God, that’s not because God is absent in the story, he’s present through the faithful presence of his people). In Daniel, in case the symbolism needs to be any more overt, Nebuchadnezzar literally becomes beastly as a result of the pride he takes in the size and scope of his power.

“Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” (Daniel 4:33)

Trump is the embodiment of the worship of the things of this world. He is beastly in every sense of the word, as the Bible describes it. He is the personification of the vice list in Colossians 3 that Christians are told to put off as they are restored in the knowledge of the image of our creator. Find one thing in this list that Trump hasn’t proudly demonstrated in his tweeting, rallies, and photo opps.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices (Colossians 3:5-10)

He is a living, breathing, idol, erecting pixelated statues to himself and inviting all to bend the knee to him (and getting angry when they take a knee to any other god).

But when he stands in front of a church, co-opting it to maintain his position in his empire, church leaders in America aren’t falling in behind the example of the two faithful lamp stands in Revelation 11; they’re the five who left. And it’s appalling. It’s a symptom of a Christian culture that cares more about results and appearance and power than about virtue, and faithfulness, and following the example of a crucified king. It’s the sign of a church who learns nothing from history, because it cares nothing about history; or the role of narrative — both from the Bible, and through history, and its foundational role in shaping character; a church obsessed with technique, coopted by the forms and strategies of the world, because those are the ones that for good and for ill, have provided influence (and, on the whole, less martyrdom).

Christians might ‘bend the knee’ while holding their nose; but there was no space for that in Jerusalem when Antiochus swept to power, and none in Rome in John’s revelation; the faithful church was martyred for its refusal to take a knee. There’s even evidence of this in Pliny’s letter to Trajan. The trial Pliny devised for those accused of being Christians was simple; straight from the pages of Daniel. They were asked to worship an image of the emperor.

“Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and also cursed Christ – none of which those who are really Christians can, it is said, be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.”

Trajan’s response is a model of reasonableness — he doesn’t want a witch hunt; but, if people are accused of being Christians and fail this test, then they are to be punished.

“They are not to be sought out; 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.”

There’s a whole swathe of Christians failing this test; putting Supreme Court seats, religious freedom, political influence, abortion law reform, and victory in the culture wars against the evil “woke left” as justification for joining in Trump’s profanity. But it’s not just the church of the right co-opted by the empire… by the lure of worldly power — they’re not the only Christians lured by the sides going toe-to-toe in the culture wars and backing their chosen champion to the hilt; not the only ones taking a knee… There’s a whole swathe of Christians also failing this test by becoming political and spiritual progressives who deny the resurrection, reject any created norms in terms of biological sex, sexuality, or sexual morality, where allegiance to the institutions of the left seems to require a particular stance on the lives of the unborn, who take on the more radical ‘deconstruction’ aims of the extremes of the left not only to dismantle oppression but the idea of any construction outside the self-constructed authenticity we all want to pursue as tribes of individuals… The litmus test might not be invoking the gods in words supplied by the agents of the empire, but it sure feels close; the Christian leaders who paraded out in lockstep to praise Trump’s strong and god-annointed leadership, and to celebrate the photo, have something to learn from Daniel, from Esther, from the faithful Israelites in the time of Antiochus, and from the faithful churches in Revelation…

Both the ‘Christian right’ and ‘Christian left’ — when they’re expressions of the culture wars, and the fight to control the empire (at the expense of the other) — have forsaken their first love. And it might seem like this is a world away from Australia, and America’s narrative — especially when it comes to civic religion — is a very different animal to Australia; but the same symptoms are there in Australia’s own version of political Christianity; especially, I think, on the Christian Right, with the Australian Christian Lobby and a variety of similar bodies spearheading the charge. There’s, frankly, not enough calling this out from leaders of the institutional church in Australia because our temptation to idolatry is often aligned with the right; we Christians (apparently) want a government that will make life comfortable for us (religious freedom), that will keep the invocation of God’s name in the parliamentary process (the Lord’s prayer), and who will give conservative Christian voices access to the throne room (even if it means justifying a vote for One Nation).

There’s another interesting dynamic to Antiochus Epiphanes and his abomination that causes desolation. The temple he profanes is empty. It’s a shell. It stopped housing God’s glorious presence in the exile. When Solomon builds the temple in 1 Kings, the glorious presence of God shakes the foundations of heaven and earth, and God speaks, as he comes to dwell in Israel as their God. The Temple is the seat of his political and spiritual rule; his footstool in the earth. The curtain in the temple marks off the ‘holy of holies’ — as a sort of boundary marker between heavens and earth.

The second temple never witnesses God’s glorious presence arriving (well, it might, I’ll get to this below); the Old Testament ends in anticipation of God gloriously dwelling with his people again. Israel, with the help of the rulers of Persia, rebuild and rededicate the Temple.

There’s a sense in Ezra that things just aren’t the same; first, people who remember the original temple mourn the difference as the foundation is laid: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.” (Ezra 3:12), and then, the whole thing launches with a party without any divine intervention.

“Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel, twelve male goats, one for each of the tribes of Israel.” (Ezra 6:16-17)

And that’s it. It goes off with a whimper, rather than a bang. There’s no ground-shaking arrival of God in his house from the thunderclouds. No cloud of glory. The house that Antiochus desecrates has not yet been resanctified; the Day of the Lord has not arrived; Israel is still essentially exiled from God when this house is renovated by Herod, when Jesus turns up as the Messiah and calls it a ‘den of Robbers,’ he turns up as an entirely new temple.

And, just in case you think this is some weird over-reading of a lack of cosmic fireworks in Ezra, the prophets anticipate a future ‘day of the Lord’ when the temple would be restored…

“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Haggai 2:6-7)

Haggai also has this change coming with a judgment on beastly empires.

“I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.” (Haggai 2:22).

The sort of destruction longed for, and promised, in the closing chapters of Revelation. The one that comes when Jesus returns to ‘make all things new’ — the sort of kingdom — political and spiritual — that Christians are now meant to anticipate that allows us to faithfully avoid being co-opted by the empires of this world.

The same Bishop of the Episcopal Church of Washington (the denomination St John’s, the church in Trump’s photo, is part of), Mariann Budd, who said “Mr. Trump used sacred symbols to cloak himself in the mantle of spiritual authority, while espousing positions antithetical to the Bible that he held in his hands,” also said, in a widely quoted (now deleted) blog post “The truth is that we don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death, anymore than we can know what will happen to us. What we do know from the stories handed down is how Jesus’ followers experienced his resurrection. What we know is how we experience resurrection ourselves.” There’s every chance Trump stood in front of an empty house, just as Antiochus re-dedicated an empty house to Zeus. Denying not just the ‘in the flesh’ nature of the incarnation, but the resurrection, was something John (who by-the-by, I think is the same John who wrote the Gospel, and Revelation) had pretty squarely in mind when he talked about anti-Christs in 1 John (see more on this here).

I’m not here to play the theological witch-hunt game or to be a watch-blogger railing against the wishy-washy world of the Episcopalian Church; the bishop might have had a bad day, and this might be why that post is now deleted and the quote found circulating elsewhere on the interent. As an Aussie Presbyterian, I don’t have a dog in that fight. But the left hand side of the culture wars demands allegiance just like the right does; you get to be part of an empire on that side if you give up the spiritual reality of the Gospel in order to pursue the political vision of justice that was part of Jesus’ kingdom. Christians explicitly taking sides in the culture wars — championing or being championed by visions from the left, or the right, end up doing eschatologically odd things, and aligning themselves with empty temples. You get a pass from the left for championing feelings and desires above the created reality of our bodies, and the ‘feeling of resurrection’ over the embodied reality of resurrection, and the goodness of humanity over the darkness of sin and God’s holiness and so the reality of judgment (and exile from God). You get a pass for the left for sharing its political vision, and so sharing its spiritual vision — because there is no secular/sacred divide. You get a pass for totally over-realising your eschatology; and, just like the right, seeking to build your vision of the kingdom here and now through whatever levers of power are on offer. So you play your own part in the culture wars, and bend your knee to your own alternative gods when you should stand. And yet, again, a caveat — Christians can be faithfully present in the institutions of the left, just as they can in the right, the question, ultimately, is about allegiance (and one of the signs for who your allegiance is to might be in how you make space for Christians on the other side of the political fence).

We followers of Jesus should have no part in sacrilegious abominations that are not the destruction of our own image in the same way that the image of God was destroyed in first century Israel, in the public square of that beastly city. We’re not meant to jump on board with the erection of other images that represent worldly power; not to nail our colours to those masts; not to bow the knee to other emperors — we’re to stand, and die, with the one who stood and died for us. To pick a side in the culture wars is to pick an idol, and to sign up for a particular form of iconoclasm, and a particular form of idol construction. And the Bible consistently calls the people of God away from idols because to participate in such image making conforms us into a particular image… As Psalm 115 puts it, when it comes to idols, “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” You lie down with dogs, you get fleas. You side with Antiochus, you get the Pharisees executing Jesus. You side with Satan, and the rulers who rule using his playbook, you become beastly. You follow Trump and suddenly you lose all public credibility when preaching Jesus. You join young Martyn and his political revolution aimed at securing access in the corridors of power through endorsing One Nation, and you get… And here’s the thing, you sign up as a card carrying supporter of Black Lives Matter, the organisation (as opposed to participating in the conversation and using the statement)… well, it’s very likely you’ll be conformed to its view of the world. The trick is figuring out how to be in an empire but not of the empire; to serve in the government of Rome without worshipping the emperor. To work in the public service without campaigning for the leader, which is hard — a lesson a certain general, and stacks of other ex-Trump staffers have learned the hard way: you refuse to be in the photo opp, or facilitate it, you say “no,” you differentiate yourself in words and actions, you speak up clearly and with conviction to call out bad behaviour, you recognise the good and the humanity not just in your own side, but the other, you love your enemy and practice forgiveness, you draw a line and you hold it with integrity, you preach Jesus even rebuking those in power on your own side, when it costs you everything… You stand when you’re called to bow. And look, I get that my friends on the right see that this is an issue with Black Lives Matter TM, and so don’t want to take a knee — but I’d like them to take the same stance when it comes to those idolators on the right, not stay silent when it suits them. You stand against racism and for the plight of the marginalised and oppressed; and you stand for J.K Rowling as she gets cancelled. You do both. 100%, or 50-50, not chucking stones at the other side and its excesses with a caveat about the goodness of their diagnosis of the issue, not defending the excesses of your side with a caveat that Trump is really bad “but”… You use “and” instead of “but” — a pox on both their houses… Both houses are empty.

Revelation 11 gives us a picture of faithful image bearers of Christ, and what that looks like in the public squares of beastly empires.

They’re dead.

Killed. Hated. Rejected. Mocked. By everyone.

Right and Left, without Jesus, are just beastly versions of the same beastly game of rejecting God in favour of self; both are insidious expressions of and co-opted to a political system that loves money and power and autonomy; both are idolatry.

We might well get thrown to the lions, but not bending the knee, is also how to patiently and faithfully bring about the sort of change and reform that shook the world, it’s also what we do in the hope of real, embodied, resurrection.

Choosing either side of the culture wars has a cost for our faithfulness, and deforms us into false images of false gods… and I’ll explain in a future post why I write so much more about the dangers from the ‘right’ and Trump, than from the left… but for now let me conclude by saying that Trump’s photo opp, like the original ‘abomination that causes desolation’ is the product of the fusion between the political and the spiritual; there’s no secular/sacred divide.

Trump’s photo opp was a profane and idolatrous act as he sought to glorify himself by creating an image to spread through and support his empire; and that should be massively problematic for Christians, and we should faithfully speak out not just in opposition to that, but to testify to the same Jesus who was executed in the public square of a beastly city by religious people who should’ve kept the faith, but whose track record was being the descendants of those who did not oppose Antiochus. How could they do anything but cuddle up to worldly power?

If you’re upset about statues of ancient white dudes being toppled, but not by this old white dude erecting pixel images of himself while surrounded by symbols of Christianity, then I think you need a little more iconoclasm in your diet.

Images are powerful. That’s precisely why not only are those statues ‘powerful’ — but the pictures of statues being toppled get sent around the world.

And if you can’t bring yourself to condemn Trump’s image-building, without qualification, as an act of political beastliness, rather than godliness — I’d ask you to check your motives. Your enemy’s enemy is not your friend. The lesser of two evils is still evil (and may actually be the greater danger if you can’t call it evil). Trump’s image, because we’re now in the digital age, is likely to be harder to remove than a statue. It will be reduplicated and distributed as part of the historical record; unlike a statue, it’s going to be very hard to erase.

When it comes to the culture wars, without a differentiated Christian presence challenging the idol building game, the temples on both sides are empty; devoid of life and the presence of God. A St. John’s without the proclamation of the Gospel of the resurrected Jesus, if indeed this is the case, is a profane building already; empty and de-sacred (‘desecrated’). God is present through his Spirit; his Spirit is present in those who recognise and proclaim the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus. Trump’s digital statue exercise and rededication didn’t significantly change its spiritual state.

Israel’s exile from God didn’t end with her return from exile; the captivity of their hearts continued. The return, and even the building of an inadequate, empty, temple was a precursor to God’s plans to return to his people and re-create us in his image again; to give us new hearts. The day of the Lord required an empty Temple, so that god’s presence might fill his new temple as his spirit created new images.

And that happens with the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. I think, for some reason I’d always pictured this moment at Pentecost happening in “the upper room” (because the events of Acts 1 happen there). But Luke is at pains to tell us that the disciples practice was to ‘meet daily in the temple courts’ (Luke 24:53, Acts 2:46). The events of Pentecost happen in front of lots of people — heaps more than you’d expect in an upper room where the disciples met in Acts 1. There’s chronological distance between Acts 1 and Acts 2. So I think the events of Pentecost happen in the empty-of-God’s-presence Temple; the Temple that was judged when the curtain tore, that has no claim on being the dwelling place of God because of the way Israel participated in the ultimate desolating abomination (the destruction of Jesus).

There, in the temple that had been waiting all those years to be renewed by God’s presence coming back, God’s presence comes to those who believe in the resurrection of king Jesus. It comes in the same glorious firey way that God came into the Temple in 1 Kings, only it lands not in the holy of holies, but on God’s holy people. People made holy (sanctified… made ‘sacred’), by the Holy Spirit. Holy just means ‘set apart’ from the beastly people around them. The Holy Spirit is what gives animating life to God’s living, breathing, images — the representatives of his kingdom — as we live in the world as his ambassadors; those who might be present in the corridors of power in different empires, but who won’t support or bow the knee to the elevation of abominations — those who call people to worship something other than the living God. To pick a side in the culture war — to choose an empire with its associated imagery — and to be excited or upset about the image games played by your side (or the other) — is to choose an idol.

One way to avoid the appearance of picking a side — even while seeking to be a faithful presence within an empire and its machinery — is to call out this idolatry, the idolatry of your own particular political ideologies or inclinations, another is to keep faithfully proclaiming the death resurrection of Jesus and seeing his kingdom as one that challenges the beastly regimes of this world so much that they put him to death; such that to follow him means a commitment to a certain sort of martyrdom; to being desecrated by the world.

As John himself puts it in 1 John…

We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:19-21)

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How to make saying “Jesus is still king” actually something comforting, not something jerky and dismissive

Trump has been president-elect for a week now. And Jesus is still on his throne.

The fallout from the election has been pretty interesting, but perhaps the thing I’ve found most frustrating in it all… apart from the damage Trump’s election may or may not do to Gospel proclamation when it turns out the white evangelical American church was seduced by a narcissist who’d promise them anything and everything so he could get into power, and perhaps that he doesn’t really want to share that power with anyone… apart from that the thing I’ve found most frustrating is the rush to the Spiritual high ground in the midst of genuine lament. Which is what the statement “Jesus is still king” actually feels like (even if its well-intentioned and absolutely true).

One of the great failings of our modern western version of Christianity is the death of lament. I know this because this was one of the things I fought hardest against in college before giving up my objections. I didn’t think lament was important, I thought truth and the enlightenment that comes from it was what should give us comfort in the mess of life and suffering. But that’s terrible and inhumane. I’m now convinced from how we see lament play out in the Bible (in the wisdom literature and the prophets but especially in the words of Jesus on the cross) that lament in itself is part of the process of being human, and being comforted.

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). — Matthew 27:46

This is pure lament. In fact. It’s a quote from one of the Psalms of Lament (Psalm 22). It’s a deep irony that in the moment that Jesus is enthroned; he laments. We’ve lost that paradox. I suspect it might have been of little comfort to Jesus if someone had run up to him at that moment and said “but you are now on your throne” and “this is God’s grand and infinitely complex plan for the salvation of the world”… what sort of jerk would you have to be to do that in his moment of great suffering, in his moment of lament.

There is much to lament about when it comes to Trump’s election, especially if you’re already feeling marginalised in a society that favours the strong and dominant, or if you care deeply about such people, especially perhaps if you’d love more people at the margins of our society to know that the Gospel of Jesus is good news when many spokespeople for the Gospel of Jesus have started also proclaiming the counter-gospel of Trump. And by this I’m meaning ‘gospel’ in the political (and original) sense in which it is good news — the proclamation of the arrival of a king and their kingdom; and by counter-gospel I mean compare everything Trump says and stands for with the Cross and the beatitudes and anything Jesus ever said or did… There’s lots to lament, and perhaps some things to celebrate if you like your Supreme Court judges conservative and if that’s why you voted the way you did…  but that you are celebrating (which 81% of the white evangelical church may well be, though most of them apparently voted while holding their noses) does not give you space to invalidate the lament of others, or to simply proclaim this fundamental truth — the real Gospel — about Jesus being enthroned as though that should pull them from their grief. There are much better ways to make that truth ring out as a comfort to the grieving. Here are two things I think need to happen before people will hear this proclamation in any way that is helpful; those words are a necessary comfort, this isn’t a ‘preach the Gospel, when necessary use words’ thing, but a recognition that preaching is never just words. Ethos and pathos are part of the package of any proclamation of the ‘logos’. That is who we are, and how we say things, will always shape the way what we say is received and whether it is heard and effective.

Listen to, and join, people in their lament.

Evil sucks. Suffering sucks. Lament is a good response to that because the God we lament to does not stand apart from our suffering. Jesus is king, and that is meant to make a difference in the world, starting with the church. I’m as keen as the next person to scoff at the universities who are giving their students playdough and colouring in books to help them through grief… or to think people taking to the streets and looting probably isn’t really helping… that represents our prevailing culture’s paucity of resources when it comes to genuine lament and processing tragedy. And perhaps we’d have a counter-example to offer if we hadn’t systematically beaten lament out of the life of the church in pursuit of nodding head-smart piety. We need to rediscover how to lament; we need to make space for it, which means we need to listen to those voices who haven’t given up lamenting… those people who are suffering, without simply shouting truth into, or over the top of, it. And this, the election of Trump, is an opportunity.

Just because you aren’t lamenting doesn’t make lamenting invalid; maybe the victims of injustice have a better proximity to that injustice to decide how to respond… maybe, for example, white evangelical men (like me) aren’t actually in the best place to assess what Trump’s election means to women, or people of colour. Maybe we should listen to stories like this one about being an abuse survivor in church and reacting to Trump’s election before jumping in with the platitude that Jesus is king. We could also have listened to abuse survivors talking about the detrimental impact of Christian support of Trump before his election too… it wasn’t like there was no warning that a significant portion of our community would feel like this. Maybe we should be listening to the communities at the margins — the non-white communities, the LGBTQI communities, etc, and hearing their concerns — whether they’re in the church or not, before jumping in with proclamations that seem to make no difference to their day to day experience of marginalisation and fear? There is a way to make a difference, I think, and we’ll get to that, but the first step is to listen before we speak. To understand. And to join in the grief and lament we hear from our friends at what is wrong with the world.

What I learned in college, and continue to learn as I pastor people who are suffering, is that sometimes saying technically correct things can be true but unhelpful. Sometimes it’s best just to sit in and share the pain for a while; and to cry out in protest, anger even, to the God who is sovereign and the king who is enthroned. Sometimes you should shut up for a while and listen. Sometimes you should live out a truth in such a way that it allows you to enter suffering because you know it is temporary not just invalidate the reality of that suffering because you know it will pass.  One time where this is true is while people are grieving. And that’s one of the lessons we learn in the book of Job.

Job’s friends are jerks. Some of them say things that are just wrong; they tend to spiritualise a bunch of Ancient Near Eastern wisdom and give Job answers for his suffering that are just totally off base; that he’s being punished for doing wrong. That he’s not the righteous dude he thinks he is. That he’s experiencing retribution from God for sin. But the narrative of the book of Job consistently upholds Job as actually being a righteous man. The first three friends are rebuked for having Job wrong… but there’s this other guy, this other friend, who I think isn’t speaking Ancient Near Eastern truth to Job, but Biblical truth, only I think he’s not speaking this truth in a commendable way, and the narrative helps us get there if we read it carefully. Elihu, says things that are true, but just seems to be not all that much of a comfort or a friend to Job. Elihu is the guy who posts “Jesus is king” the day after Trump is elected. Elihu turns to the lamenting Job (who is lamenting for very good reason) and instead of being a human shoulder to cry on, he claims to speak for God, and he says:

“His eyes are on the ways of mortals;
he sees their every step.
There is no deep shadow, no utter darkness,
where evildoers can hide.
God has no need to examine people further,
that they should come before him for judgment.
Without inquiry he shatters the mighty
and sets up others in their place.
Because he takes note of their deeds,
he overthrows them in the night and they are crushed.
He punishes them for their wickedness
where everyone can see them,
because they turned from following him
and had no regard for any of his ways.
They caused the cry of the poor to come before him,
so that he heard the cry of the needy.
But if he remains silent, who can condemn him?
If he hides his face, who can see him?
Yet he is over individual and nation alike,
to keep the godless from ruling,
from laying snares for the people.” — Job 34

Basically he’s saying: “God rules. You won’t understand what he’s doing but he’s doing something so shut up with your yammering”… the pre-Jesus equivalent of “Jesus is king.”

I read Elihu’s words and think about the scale of tragedy that’s just been inflicted on Job — he’s lost his whole family, his wife, his children… everything. And I think “Elihu, you need to get out more” and many other swear words that I can’t write. When I read the opening of Job I imagine myself in his shoes, and the loss of all those I love… and that’s precisely what his friends should be doing when they approach him. Imagining and empathising. And it’s precisely where they fail… and where we often fail too.

There are plenty of pietistic readings of Job that jump on board with Elihu because he’s a brash, young, truth teller who seems to be doing the Biblically wise thing of starting wisdom with the fear of the Lord and speaking accordingly. But being a brash, young, hothead isn’t typically what a wise person looks like (when wisdom is described in Proverbs), so that Elihu is described as a bit of a hot-head should be a warning sign that all is not well when it comes to his words, even if they’re totally right (for more on this see my friend Arthur’s analysis of how the narrator treats Elihu). Pietism like this often feels like a case of leaving your humanity at the door and being God in a particular situation — seeing the world God’s way — and that’s a problem because we can’t throw our humanity out, and we’re not called to. A significant amount of the Biblical response to God ruling through evil despots is lament at God’s judgment even amidst the knowledge that God’s judgment is just and that God does rule. Habakkuk, for example, opens up his book with lament…

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.” — Habakkuk 1:2-4

He’s totally on board with the idea that what’s going on via powerful foreign kings who don’t stand for God’s kingdom is part of God’s sovereign plan, but he asks this totally legitimate question… And even if this suffering is God’s judgment, that doesn’t mean we just sit on the sidelines while people are suffering because it’s God’s job to judge and our job to be the cheer squad. Our job is to be human, and to love our neighbours. Or, as God condemns those who stand on the sidelines while his judgment is playing out in Obadiah 1… not being moved by the plight of those under judgment earns us judgment…

Because of the violence against your brother Jacob,
    you will be covered with shame;
    you will be destroyed forever.
On the day you stood aloof
    while strangers carried off his wealth
and foreigners entered his gates
    and cast lots for Jerusalem,
    you were like one of them.
You should not gloat over your brother
    in the day of his misfortune,
nor rejoice over the people of Judah
    in the day of their destruction,
nor boast so much
    in the day of their trouble.
You should not march through the gates of my people
    in the day of their disaster,
nor gloat over them in their calamity
    in the day of their disaster,
nor seize their wealth
    in the day of their disaster.
You should not wait at the crossroads
    to cut down their fugitives,
nor hand over their survivors
    in the day of their trouble. — Obadiah 1:10-14

Our job isn’t to jump in to God’s judgment as sword wielding head kickers like a little brother keen to dob on his sister so she gets more anger (and credit to Mark Baddeley from QTC for both pointing this out, and this example), our job is to be brother and sister, to be the friend who comforts our loved one as we see them suffering… whether they deserved the smack or not.

Now back to Job and Elihu… and the question of responding the right way to lament and suffering…

The God of the Bible, the God who speaks to Job, and who Job trusts in, is more than a distant God who sometimes chooses to remain silent. He is a God who lives, and who speaks, and who enters in to our suffering. That’s what Job’s friends should’ve done. Job’s friends — including Elihu — could’ve learned a lot from Jesus who joins us in lament to the point of his crucifixion where he takes those famous words of lament upon his own lips… as he suffers the world with us, and death for us. Jesus both models the human response to suffering, and speaks and lives God’s response to suffering… and it’s not simply platitudes. He gets alongside us in our suffering, and he also joins in the lament… then he does something about it by pointing us to what is good, and true, and beautiful, and eternal.

Cultivate a kingdom-within-the-kingdom where an alternative to Trump is lived out in a compelling and comforting way

When Trump was elected last week there were a bunch of people rushing to be ‘Elihu’; running to the Spiritual high ground to piously speak real truth in the face of genuine lament as though truth alone is enough to pull people from their grief into comfort. The spiritual high ground isn’t actually where Job wants us to end up though… it wants us on the ground looking up at truth about God, next to the grieving, not speaking down at them. The low ground might just be where real spirituality, and real knowledge of God, can be found. Especially if in Jesus we see the face and hands of the God who speaks to Job… and the answer to Job’s confident declaration in the face of his friends’ terrible advice (and terrible friendship).

I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me! — Job 19:25-27

Speaking truth is really important; but so is where you speak it from. Truth without the attachment and emotion that come from empathy doesn’t actually comfort (in my experience giving or receiving it). Life doesn’t work like that. We’re more than simply brains on a stick waiting for a good argument to pull us out of our feelings. Feelings pull us out of feelings. Truth is helpful for this — but we feel truth emotionally as much as we know it intellectually; and providing an intellectual answer to someone who is lamenting, whether you think they should be lamenting or not, is a pretty jerky thing to do.

When we say “Jesus is king” and aren’t really living like it we’re actually undermining the truth of this statement and its power. We’re putting all our persuasive eggs in the basket marked ‘head’… When we say ‘Jesus is king’ to an abuse victim grieving that a bloke who turned abuse into a badge of honour, or worse, simply ‘locker room talk’ is now the most powerful man in the universe but aren’t at the same time creating a church community that thoroughly repudiates that sort of behaviour, well, I’ll let this anonymous storyteller’s words do the job

“So when I hear Donald Trump talking degrading women and talking about using their bodies, that’s not objective for me. He’s the representation of my abuser, writ large on a television screen and given a powerful platform.

However, my abuser wasn’t the only one by whom I felt violated. Christians failed me badly as well. When I revealed what had been going on, my family and I were advised by the pastor to leave the church. In our absence, lies, rumours and accusations circulated the church which were eventually fed back to us. “Everyone knows he’s a bit handsy – why is she being so sensitive?” [Why was the ‘handsy’ guy allowed to be a youth leader if everyone knew?] “Maybe she asked for it.” “It was just once.” [It was 2 years of planned assault, by his own admission.]

So when I hear Donald Trump brag that the women he assaulted enjoyed it, it’s personal, because the same things were said about me. And when I hear others minimise what he did, it’s personal, because my testimony was also despised.”

The way this case was handled is terrible, and we can’t say it’s isolated (nor is it perceived to be isolated). We have a Royal Commission going on in Australia that makes it pretty clear that our house isn’t in order on this stuff. This story is terrible precisely because it represents a failing to live the truth that Jesus is king — the king who came to bring sin to light and destroy it — in such a way that might bring comfort and security to this victim or to others… So when Christians say “Jesus is king” in response to genuine lament, what this person hears is something quite different.

When we say Jesus is king and aren’t living it by pursuing a community that looks like his kingdom (especially if we’re not living it by running to attach ourselves to the centre of worldly kingdoms) the effect is the same on every community marginalised by the community-at-large; and when we respond to tragedy just with these true words, but without pursuing his kingdom with our actions, we’re not actually engaging with where real truth and change and comfort happen. This is a failure of our church to fully imagine the sort of world that this deep truth will ultimately create; that it starts creating through us now.

Imagine a church where abuse victims feel not just heard, but safe. Where their testimonies bring real change because they are taken seriously; where the community is committed to bringing dark things into the light on the big stuff, and that shapes how we approach life together on the small stuff.

Imagine a church that is able to thoroughly, and with real integrity, speak against the abuse happening outside its community because we’re known for taking it so seriously within our community.

Imagine how much more comforting this proclamation would be if our ethos matched our logos; if our community matched our proclamation. If we were a place where the LGBTQI person grappling with their identity and their sense that despite the popular rhetoric they’re oh so very different from their neighbour felt loved and welcomed and safe and able to explore what “Jesus is King” might mean for them?

Imagine if we were a community not just dedicated to treating people as equal regardless of their skin colour, but pursuing justice even at the cost of our own privileged place in the world, and our own comfort.

Imagine if we were trying to tackle racism not just in our affirmation of the image of God in all people at an individual level, but in figuring out what it means for our gatherings and communities to be shaped by different cultures and hearing different voices, not just the dominant white male voice that has tended to make marginalised or minority communities feel like participating in church means becoming white or leaving their own cultural expressions at the door (or not creating the phenomenon of churches that are mono-ethnic and drawn from these minority communities, who create these communities for various reasons that mostly look like our failure to imagine church life together in which the Gospel is plausible for different cultural groups, thus meaning we lose the opportunity to hear their voice).

Imagine the richness of a church community that made space for many voices and many cultures rather than building mono-cultures. Imagine the comfort that’d come from those many voices together proclaiming “Jesus is king.”

Imagine if those words; which are basically the message of the Gospel; were not an empty platitude but a political mantra that described our approach to life in the world; lives dedicated to living out his coming kingdom together.

Imagine if we understood the words “Jesus is king” as where real power lies, and the source of real politics and so didn’t run as fast as we could to attach ourselves to worldly power; be it the democratic process, popularity, or the powerful leader; but instead ran to our suffering neighbours to live with them and comfort them in their suffering, and to the powerful to rebuke them; where in both cases our lives and words model the truth we proclaim.

Imagine how those words “Jesus is king” would be heard then, if they weren’t simply a detached platitude, unmoored from the life we live in the world; or a social media ‘hot take’… the words of young angry hotheads (typically removed from the suffering) who are desperate to tell the world that God really is in control (and he is) in a way that shows how very wise we are.

You may have just imagined what the church should look like. What’s it going to take to get there?

I think it’s going to take less people rushing to be wise like Elihu, and more people responding to suffering and lament, like Jesus. Who joined the chorus while absolutely doing something about it; while securing a lament free future by becoming the enthroned king.

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). — Matthew 27:46

That Jesus is king is a great comfort; but it is made truer and greater still when you sit with the suffering and look up, understanding what’s really at stake, than it is when you stand apart from suffering and look down.

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The Last of Us, the zombie apocalypse, identity politics, and the Benedict Option: Christian presence in a post-Christian world

Just how much can you learn about being a Christian in the post-Trump secular age of identity politics from playing a video game about the zombie apocalypse? What does survival even look like for Christians? Who knows. But I had fun writing about it.

sam_and_ellie

I just finished playing through the Zombie survival thriller The Last Of Us. Like many other high quality story driven gaming experiences, it really hit me in the feels. Perhaps especially this scene between Ellie and Sam; discussing the soul, or the humanity, of the infected (you can watch the scene here). Note: There’ll be some spoilers in blockquotes throughout this; but they aren’t super essential to this piece.

Sam: How come you’re never scared?

Ellie: Who says I’m never scared?

Sam: What are you scared of?

Ellie: Scorpions are pretty creepy… Being by myself… I’m scared of ending up alone. What about you?

Sam: Those things out there? What if the people are still inside? What if they’re trapped in there without any control of their body? I’m scared of that happening to me.

Ellie: First of all, we’re a team now, we’re going to help each other out, and second, they might still look like people, but that person is not in there anymore.

Sam: Henry says they’ve moved on, that they’re with their families, like in heaven, do you think that’s true?

Ellie: I go back and forth, I mean, I’d like to believe it.

Sam: But you don’t?

Ellie: I guess not.

But it also got me thinking. How would I go about surviving in a world where all my neighbours, the people I live with in my city, seemed determined not just to want to understand me, but wanted to infect me with a deadly, soul stealing, virus in order to make me just like them. And why does modern life often feel like that? Not just when it comes to my faith in Jesus and what life in modern Australia seems to want me to do with that; but with any view I hold that someone else disagrees with? You want a scene that looks like something out of a zombie survival movie where a bunch of people are operating with some sort of narrow-focused hive-minded propensity for violence and the destruction of the brains of another…

Well…

anti-trump-protests
An anti-Trump protest

Sadly I suspect this would’ve looked almost exactly the same if Hilary had won and Trump’s supporters had hit the streets.

Zombies, Trump, Identity Politics, and civilised self

Playing The Last Of Us, thinking about Christianity in a post-Christian world, and watching the fallout to Trump’s victory got me thinking about the way we’re increasingly not individuals in public and social life, but tribes, and about how sometimes this tribalism plays out in what people are calling ‘identity politics’… which has been the subject of some of the more fascinating analysis of both Trump’s victory and the protests in response. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Identity Politics as:

“The laden phrase “identity politics” has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorising founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups. Rather than organising solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalised within its larger context. Members of that constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant oppressive characterisations, with the goal of greater self-determination.”

This is made all the more interesting by this piece reacting to Trump’s victory and the fallout amongst those who practice identity politics in the Stanford Review.

Stanford has come to embrace a particularly narrow definition of identity politics – one that almost exclusively focuses on the struggles faced by racial minorities and that refuses to acknowledge the plight of any group that does not fit in this reductionist narrative.

It’s fair to say identity politics has largely been a plaything of the political left, until Trump.

In The Last Of Us there’s both the meta-tribes of ‘survivor’ and ‘infected’ and the splintered identities within the survivors who look for survival by belonging to different factions or adopting different strategies. These sub-groups don’t like each other much; they pose just as much danger to one another as the infected; and as a result, undermine the human enterprise. It’s the times that people join forces across tribes that provide some of the most poignant moments in the game. It’s a moment like this that brings Ellie and Sam (and their guardians) together; but the conflict across these sub-groups; these tribes; these identities involves people treating other people as something less than human. As you play the game you’re every bit as likely to sink a bullet or an arrow into another person as you are into a zombie; which requires, ultimately, thinking of anyone who opposes your vision for human flourishing as though they are something less than truly human. It’s an identity politics thing; you operate in this wasteland where survival is everything as though your neighbour is your enemy if they don’t belong to your tribe, and those enemies are in competition with you for resources and a threat to your group’s survival because they’ll either steal from you, or lead the infected to you and undermine your whole social enterprise.

Your identity and your understanding of how identity works in the life of others will, and should, inevitably shape the way you approach and understand politics. I approach politics in a way almost totally formed by my Christian convictions and the sense of self and what human flourishing looks like, that comes from this identity. Where identity politics and tribalism get a little dangerous (and combative) happens along the same fissure line in our view of the other that turns The Last Of Us’ Joel and Ellie into human killers, not just zombie killers; it feels like when we’re trying to survive in the cultural wasteland of modern, secular, life every other vision of what the flourishing life looks like has the potential to eat away at the core of my identity; thus the core of myself and my tribe; thus it is a threat that we must guard ourselves against; tribally. I suspect this is, in part, an explanation for the Benedict Option (which I’ll get to below).

As Joel and Ellie travel through the post-infection wilderness they come across several failed utopias, including one where a small breach in the tribal boundaries — in the wall — was enough for the infection to slip by and destroy the community; other communities, particularly the tribe Sam and his brother Henry belonged to, were destroyed by hostile humans who wanted their stuff. Survival in the world of The Last Of Us seems to require keeping your guard up; and it’s this practice that drives the narrative, and the tension, between Joel and Ellie. Joel loses his daughter in the first cut scene of the game, early in the outbreak of the virus; years later he meets Ellie and takes responsibility for her well-being; his nature, hardened by surviving in the post-apocalyptic wilderness, is to remain emotionally buffered; to avoid attachment to Ellie because his own survival depends on it; well, at least that’s what he thinks. There’s a scene where Joel and Ellie are discussing a toy robot she gave to Sam. It does contain major spoilers so maybe skip the quotes.

Ellie: I forgot to leave that stupid robot on his grave. What should I do with it?
Joel: Ellie…
Ellie: What? I want to talk about it.
Joel: No.
Ellie: Why not?
Joel: How many times do we need to go over this? Things happen… and we move on.
Ellie: It’s just…

To say more would be to spoil the game even more; and you should play it; but Joel’s view is not uncommon in the game, or in the real world. In fact; it’s modern, even if we tend to live tribally around shared identity rather than as individuals. We have this sense that letting down our guard enough to understand an other person, or an identity counter to ours, is a threat to our survival, because it undermines our ability to keep the walls up and may lead to some sort of nasty infection where our identity is ripped apart. The modern, secular, human is by nature, at least according to philosopher Charles Taylor, a ‘buffered self,’ and by this he means a few things.

“This term, as I’ve been using it, has in fact a complex meaning… To be a buffered subject, to have closed the porous boundary between inside (thought) and outside (nature, the physical) is partly a matter of living in a disenchanted world. It comes about through… the replacement of a cosmos of spirits and forces by a mechanistic universe, the fading of higher times… but these changes were furthered, and in turn intensified by subjective changes, shifts in identity, like the rise of disengaged reason, and the transformations wrought by disciplined self-remaking, including the narrowing and intensifying of intimacy and Elias’ “civilising process.”” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.

The world of The Last Of Us, like ours, is thoroughly disenchanted. Ellie is haunted by the possibility of an afterlife, but the virus causing the infection is very real, and very scientific (and the attempts to fight it are really playing out in a lab, and via the shotgun). Where in our secular age, at least as Taylor understands it, the ‘buffered’ self is a self cut off from the divine, or from a sense of enchantment, in the post-zombie secular age, the self is also buffered from other people; especially those outside the tribe… the introduction of this horrific and community-destroying infection has undone the ‘civilising process.’ The zombie apocalypse in The Last Of Us is fundamentally uncivilising; all the hallmarks of our civilisation fall apart.  Train stations are abandoned, health care is a thing of the past — you’re left bandaging your wounds with salvaged alcohol and torn off strips of fabric, cars have all fallen into disrepair, and people behave like animals, even to the point of cannibalism. This ‘civilising process’ Taylor cites is a reference to Norbert Elias’ book The Civilising Process (which according to Wikipedia describes a basic evolution in human behaviour over time from ‘uncivilised’ to civilised); that has all come undone simply because an unexpected plague hits, and hits hard. It might not take as much as we think to turn us into savages. The scenes in the world of The Last Of Us aren’t so different from the scenes we see around mass protests where the trains no longer run on time, health systems fall apart to some extent, and people start looting and pillaging… There’s also a risk that if we see the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for rise of Trump, or the rise of ‘identity politics’ or even the rise of secularism where the brainless masses walk the streets wanting to devour people not like them, and it’s a fight for survival, we’ll adopt strategies — like tribalism — that’ll bring about the undoing of civilisation.

The Last Of Us is a sort of warning shot in the days and weeks post Trump as we figure out the role of identity politics and tribalism together… The sort of tribalism that assumes the zombie apocalypse has hit, that everyone outside the tribe is basically the walking dead, and so turns identity politics into a wasteland survival game is deadly to us all. It’s deadly to civilisation, and deadly to the self. There’s a risk that identity politics, both in theory and as practiced, dehumanises the ‘other’ and because it diminishes the humanity of the other, it also comes at a cost to our own humanity. But this risk runs two ways — there’s also a risk that if we don’t listen to those minority voices championing the identity politics movement, that this will be to our own detriment if we’re operating in a position of relative privilege, or operating seeking the safety of our own tribe. When we attempt to silence, or simply dismiss the concerns of those voices our tribe naturally desires to exclude — those who offer an alternative understanding of, or pattern for, humanity — we’re essentially dehumanising them, seeing them as something akin to zombies, or like you see those pesky other humans in The Last Of Us, as a threat standing in the way of our colony’s surviving and thriving.

If there’s anything I learned from reflecting on The Last Of Us it’s that dehumanising the other has a profound impact on our own humanity. I shot lots of non-infected people simply to advance my own cause; survival. I could do that, morally speaking, so long as they were simply other bits of meat standing between me and survival, but Joel and Ellie find a cannibal tribe rightly repugnant, recognising the risk that their approach to other humans taken to an extreme dehumanises everyone; even if, as the game’s protaganists, we didn’t go quite so far, we end up as monsters who take just as many lives as the infected. As I thought about the body count in my quest for survival I considered that I (or Joel/Ellie) would’ve probably been far better to see some sort of dignity and humanity still underneath the skin of the infected, such that the humanity of the person from outside our tribe with a different utopian vision was not in question. There is some sense in which the human villains you stare down the barrel at in The Last Of Us are worse than the zombies; they have all their faculties in place, but are still driven by baser instincts; those pushing for survival at the expense of others. They’re worse because they choose it; and in order to fight back, we choose it too; and so we are all diminished.

This is the cost of identity politics as it plays out now; which is to say identity politics that is conceived adversarially as tribe against tribe. At worst this sort of identity politics involves a vicious cycle of interpersonal destruction; via the dehumanising of the other, and the assertion of the supremacy of my identity over yours, or, like in even the most utopian post-virus view of human identity in The Last Of Us, it requires a walled-in alienation from the rest of humanity (and the infected).

The real shame here is, of course, that some sort of identity politics is vital to survival in a secular, pluralistic, democracy, and in this sort of context, the key to real survival doesn’t lie in wiping out all competing views of identity, but cultivating the type of world where different identities and different visions of human flourishing can truly co-operate.

This means listening to people who own an identity other than your own (ie, for me, non-anglo people); or perhaps whose identity both overlaps and is differentiated from your own (so for me, for example, an anglo woman, or a Christian woman, or a non-anglo Christian), is vital to the human project. By which I mean it’s vital to true politics and to real survival (that isn’t simply predicated on wiping out the other tribes). Listening like this; and really hearing; might mean laying down some of your rights, or privilege, or capacity to wield power, for the sake of these other groups. Nothing illustrates the potentially positive role a type of identity politics, built on listening to the other, has to play in the post-Trump world if we want to avoid de-civilisation like reading this lament about his election. Hear this post. Read it. Consider it. Here’s why identity politics matter, so long as we keep them from being de-civilising and adversarial, because we so often ignore the identity (and issues) of those outside our own tribe, and there’s always a human cost for that, both for those we ignore, and potentially for ourselves in the act of ignoring, or simply not hearing, them.

Whatever your reasons, a vote for Trump required a rationalization.

What he said about “the blacks” is terrible, but…

What he said on mic about sexually assaulting women is awful, but…

How he mocked several people with disabilities isn’t okay, but…

His statement that immigrants are rapists and criminals was out of line, but…

I could keep going. I think you get the idea, though. In order to vote for Trump, something mattered more to you than his mistreatment or discrimination of certain groups. Whatever followed the “but…” is why you voted for him. Maybe it had to do with the economy or the Supreme Court or his anti-establishment vibe or [fill in the blank]. I trust that you had your reasons. Some policy aspect of his was compelling (or of hers was so awful to you that you felt like you had to vote for the person with the best chance of stopping Hillary).

But here’s the deal: Your policy stance followed the “but…” Our personhood preceded it. — Shannon Dingle, I Want To Help You Understand My Lament

It’s weird that a zombie game got me here. I get that…

Zombies, Survival, and the Benedict Option

But let’s talk about how sometimes it feels like being a Christian in the secular age is like being surrounded by zombies who want to eat your brains; and perhaps other religious groups who see you as a threat to their survival. Because this is a mistake it feels like we’re making when assessing the new status quo, and the Christian’s place in it. Just as it’s a mistake for the identity politics driven protesters to take to the streets in protest while burning effigies and like it was a mistake for Trump voters (particularly white voters) to buy into his dehumanising rhetoric about the other without listening. We don’t, as the church, want to model repeating that mistake in our interactions with the world do we? And so contribute to de-civilisation? We’re not a tribe of sole survivors trying to live in a post-apocalyptic wilderness, we’re certainly an apocalyptic, or eschatological, community living in the light of the end of days as we see it in the resurrection of Jesus and showing what a utopian future might look like, but I’m not sure that’s only meant to happen in our little buffered enclaves. It’s meant to be infectious; if anything we’re like the zombies, the infected, the ‘walking living’…

I’m sure just about every identity group who do the identity politics thing can play through The Last Of Us or watch a zombie movie and identify with the survivors… I think thinking this way is deeply problematic, and here is my point, I think at times we think of the church as an island of zombie survivors, a community-as-bunker, that’ll keep us safe if we guard the boundaries to keep us from infection and ride out the waves. And here’s my concern about the popular Benedict Option, even though I’m possibly misrepresenting it, as it seems everyone does, according to founder Rod Dreher.

People who say that I’m talking about everybody running to their bunkers hidden in the mountains need to stop it. It’s not true. — Rod Dreher, Everybody Row Or We’re Going Over The Falls

I don’t think he’s talking about bunkering down in the hills, and there’s lots he says about the sort of thick community he’s after that I think is great, sign me up (though I just call what he’s talking about ‘church’ and think we should be doing it already), but I do think he is talking about a movement that is primarily a defensive response to a sense that the world outside us is full of infected ‘secularists’ who want to destroy our brains and feed on our children. Here’s something Dreher actually said about the Benedict Option.

“There is no question that the Ben Op calls for a much greater sense of withdrawal than the church has today. The idea is not to create a “utopian enclave,” as if that kind of thing could exist, but rather to live within stronger boundaries between the church and the world, for the sake of better Christian formation, both of individuals and local communities. Most of us will continue to have a “faithful presence within” the structures of the world outside the church. The Ben Op intends to shore up the “faithful” part, because the church has failed miserably to do so. The current moment is an “apocalypse” in the strict sense of an “unveiling”: a revelation of the nakedness and powerlessness of the church before the modern world. This is simple reality.” — Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option and Faithful Presence Within

I do think despite his protestation about being misunderstood by all sorts of very smart people (and he’s writing a book that everyone should read obviously), that the Benedict Option will create a more buffered community (and these words suggest that with its ‘stronger boundaries’, rather than a community that is porous (and being porous means probable movement in and out from both directions. There’s a certain amount of theological truth to the fear that there are monsters crouching at the door waiting to turn us from Jesus, obviously; and these ‘monsters’ don’t always look like zombies, it’s much more likely that identity politics and listening sympathetically to the voices and desires of different minorities and the majority view on, say, sexuality, will pull people from Christian community… and Christians do believe that the key to being truly alive is Jesus, and anyone who doesn’t follow him is basically a member of The Walking Dead… but that doesn’t mean we should be building walls and buffering ourselves from the world at large. In part, because a buffered community is a community that doesn’t listen as well as it should to voices and perspectives from outside the community which may contain necessary criticisms for a community to hear in order to survive. But also, because if the church is going to succeed in any age we need to be porous rather than buffered, not just open to the presence of ‘the divine’ but open to the other, so that people can easily come in; we can’t simply be a community within the wider community, a ‘tribe’, or an ‘identity’ where we shore up the faith of believers by defining ourselves against unbelievers, but a community that grows believers and makes new ones. We’re made to be dynamic, to be on the move, to bring a cure to the infected, not to be static while hoping that infected people will simply fall through the gaps of our defences so that we might isolate them and cure them while they’re cut off from the disease. We can’t approach survival in the world as Christians the way Joel and Ellie face it in The Last Of Us.

The Benedict Option (even with the caveat that I might be misunderstanding it) seems to operate on the assumption that those outside the walls are zombies to be kept out, and that defence is the best response from the church to the changing world — it assumes we need to educate our kids in our own institutions, we’ll probably have to get out of the public service and the legal system, etc and we should do this rather than maintaining (and risking) a presence in these institutions calmly listening to others and offering a cure for their virus, even if doing so comes back to bite us.

It seems designed to mitigate against the risk of infection, and as a result, it creates a community that is less porous than it should be; The Last Of Us (and just about every zombie text) provides pretty strong warnings for minority groups wanting to politic on the basis of their identity that it’s important to keep the walls up. And the Benedict Option, though its proponents would claim otherwise, seems to be a defensive, risk-averse (looking internally, rather than considering the ‘risk’ of how society outside the church will treat us) approach to identity politics; predicated on carving out a Christian identity against and apart from the world. Christian community must be risk-taking, with a particular sort of risk in mind.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? — Matthew 16:24-26

The risk of Christian community is that by heading out into a world full of sick people we might get infected by the world (which didn’t worry Jesus so much, and maybe our aim should be to be like him), but it is riskier still to do nothing. The Benedict Option feels too much to me like the guy in the parable of the talents who took everything his master gave him and buried it so he wouldn’t lose anything; where the righteous person took risks with the master’s gifts in order to grow his wealth. That parable contains God’s investment strategy, not for money, but for the church and how we invest ourselves in the world. Porous boundaries are a necessary risk if we want our community to survive and thrive, and if we want to bring real life and hope and cure to the existentially sick beyond our boundaries… I’d also argue it’s actually this task taking up the call to go into the world to make disciples — not simply be in the world trying to make disciples while keeping the infected at bay — that best shores up the faith of Christians. The best form of defence is ‘attack’ (with the obvious caveats that attack for us, following in the footsteps of Jesus, might actually look a lot like losing)…

In The Last Of Us, Joel, the main character, goes on a journey (led by Ellie) where it becomes clear that staying cut off from emotional attachment to anyone (because they might be infected or die at any time) isn’t a great way to live; that being buffered gets in the way of being human. This ultimately leads him to a place of reconciliation with others he’d spurned and scorned; to seeking a greater understanding of life in the world. It’s a beautiful story. He realises survival isn’t just about staying alive, hunkered down away from risk, but about being alive in relationship with others. This is what offers him the hope of a return to civility; in a community that is starting to recapture even some of the technology lost as a result of the arrival of the infection. Our civilisation, in the rise of tribalism and identity politics, isn’t threatened by zombies who can’t be cured, but by humans who are beaten and battered into buffering themselves against everyone not like them; it’d be a mistake for the church to respond to this by forming our own tribe and forging our own identity apart from and against all other comers instead of modelling what it looks like to break down barriers, understand the identity politics of others ,and work towards a civilisation that gives space for all comers, so that we might have a voice to speak of the ultimate cure and the ultimate kingdom, the one that answers the longing of Sam, Ellie and Joel… Even if it bites us.

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It’s time for the church to rediscover her prophetic voice; here’s what that might look like

jeremiah

Image: Jeremiah speaking truth to power

There’s a phrase I’ve often heard bandied about in conversations about how the church should engage the world; it’s often said that there’s a place to speak to the world with a ‘prophetic voice’ as though this is somehow different from all other forms of speech to the world. Usually there’s some sort of sense that a prophetic voice is one that speaks judgment to people outside God’s people, particularly for immorality and by immorality what we mean is often ‘judgment for not keeping the Old Testament law’…

I think a prophetic voice is vital; and rediscovering it, especially now, is essential. We’ve lost our way when it comes to our interaction with governments or with worldly power (especially political power) in general. That’s never been clearer than in the last few weeks as prominent Christian leader after prominent Christian leader bent the knee to the new emperor of the United States of America (it does feel a little bit like Trump’s campaign represented a call for the death of the Republic and the beginning of an Empire). White ‘evangelical’ Christians played a significant role in the election of Trump; not just as a rejection of Hillary Clinton, but because he promised us the baubles of ‘conservative Supreme Court Justices’ and something that looked like a return to Christendom, where we’d have some sort of seat at the table of power. He didn’t just ‘court’ the ‘Christian’ vote; he seduced it; and because the Christian Right is now in bed with power, with a particularly abusive, narcissistic, dictatorial form of power, it’s going to be mighty hard for us to speak truth to it, or not be suckered in by the endless promise of turkish delight and hot chocolate (to borrow from that classic scene in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe). This has rightly distressed many from the evangelical camp in the United States, but also globally, nothing undermines a message quicker than destroying the integrity of the messenger… and the speed with which the church undressed itself and popped into bed for a cuddle with someone who embodies and celebrates everything we’re told to avoid simply because we were promised the reward of worldly power has taken our dignity and integrity along with our chastity.

At the moment it feels like the church is the reverse Hosea. Hosea is the Old Testament prophet whose forgiveness of his serially unfaithful wife was a picture of God’s faithful love for Israel. If we keep jumping in to bed with worldly power because of what it promises to deliver us we tell a story with our lives that is counter to the story of God’s power and faithfulness being found in the Cross of Jesus.

We need to rediscover the prophetic voice.

We desperately need to both live and speak prophetically in a way that demonstrates and articulates an alternative understanding of power and empire because we follow an alternative king.

Speaking prophetically requires us to rediscover an understanding of what prophecy is; and of the ‘prophetic message’ we’re called to speak to our world… we need to rediscover who and what the church actually is; that we’re people of an alternative kingdom bowing the knee to an alternative emperor.

Prophets in the Old Testament seem to follow certain patterns; whether its Samuel speaking to Saul and David, Nathan speaking to David, Elijah and Elisha speaking to different kings, Jonah speaking to the King of Nineveh (and I think Jonah is at least in part a parabolic representation of how Israel is meant to speak to the nations around her, just like all the prophets are a picture of ‘ideal Israel’), Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar, or Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Malachi, Obadiah, Amos, Joel, Hosea, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah in their prophetic ministry or writings pre- and post- exile… They are called by God to speak the word of God to God’s people, and often also to the nations surrounding God’s people. Their messages contain elements of judgment, condemnation, mercy, hope, and a call to repentance. It’s a mistake to categorise the prophetic voice as a voice simply of judgment and condemnation. Prophets don’t just analyse the status quo and show how the people they’re speaking to have it wrong. Christian readers of the Old Testament prophets have a bit of bonus insight into the prophetic ministry of these figures whose lives and words are recorded in our Bible; because Jesus says:

“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” — Luke 24:44

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” — John 5:39-40

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” — Matthew 5:11

Somehow this idea from the start of the Sermon on The Mount points to this bit from the end of the same sermon, so that prophecy is somehow geared towards producing Godly behaviour in its hearers:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” — Matthew 7:12

Prophecy doesn’t seem to die in the New Testament either; its ‘end’ or purpose might be caught up in the coming of Jesus, but somehow prophecy continues; it’s both assumed that it happens in our churches (and by our churches, see 1 Corinthians 14), and the book of Revelation itself has widely been understood as both apocalyptic and prophetic (there’s just a lot of questions about exactly where it points).

So here’s what I think we need to keep in mind if we’re going to take up the challenge of speaking prophetically as the church (both institutionally and as members of the body).

1. Know God’s word (hint: it’s Jesus)

“The word of the Lord [that] came to…” — Zechariah 1:1, Hosea 1:1, Joel 1:1, Zephaniah 1:1, Ezekiel 1:3, Jeremiah 1:4, Micah 1:1, Jonah 1:1

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says” — Amos 1:3 (and over and over again in Amos)

“The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi” — Malachi 1:1

“The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.” — Habakkuk 1:1

The prophet in the Old Testament speaks God’s word. They operate as a divine proxy making proclamations from God to people in God’s world about how they are living. They speak words that are inspired and their authority is recognised by God’s people in this way. A prophet is inspired by God and speaks God’s word; his revelation; to the world. They are obviously very engaged with what is happening in the world they speak to and bring some sort of timely message, but if the telos of prophecy is Jesus, then there’s a timelessness to that engaged proclamation too, and a fitting in with God’s Jesus-centered plans for the world.

It would be, at least according to the Bible, a mistake to think that this word [only] comes to someone by some special movement of the Spirit in a vision; it certainly comes by the Spirit’s work on the person or on the institution of the church, because any speech that comes from God is ‘breathed’ this way, but the Bible is pretty clear what God’s spirit-filled word ultimately looks like… What the substantial message of ‘prophecy’ must now involve:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” — John 1:1, 14

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” — Hebrews 1:1-2

There’s been a temptation when others wield a ‘prophetic voice’ to think that it is about what is wrong with the world and the particular sins of people in a particular time; I think prophecy needs to be able to observe where our culture or people are departing from the sort of humanity and worship that God made us for; but the prophetic voice is not a voice that simply raises problems about the world, it is one that speaks of the solution to these problems, to the ultimate telos of the world and of our humanity. God’s word. The Spirit works in us to draw us to Jesus, point us to Jesus, and to conform us into the image of Jesus; so spirit filled words, prophetic words, are also words that point people to Jesus. This is true of the prophets prior to the arrival of Jesus, and true of prophecy now.

The word of God, the Bible, is also ‘spirit inspired’; and it contains the written words of many prophets; when Paul talks about prophecy in the context of the church he doesn’t limit it to the written word of God, but prophecy is limited by the written word of God. It won’t say anything counter to the Spirit inspired written word that points us to the Spirit giving living word (as an aside: there’s a cool relationship in terms of an understanding of the Trinity between God as ‘speaker,’ the Spirit as word-carrying ‘breath’ and the powerful ‘word’ too and we see this in Jesus life which is lived by the Spirit). One of the ways we test prophecy is by seeing how it lines up to the written word of God, and we understand the written word of God according to it’s God given purposes when we read it the way Jesus tells us to; as being about him.

Prophecy points to Jesus; but there is something about prophecy that arises in a particular time and context and is the application of God’s Word to life in God’s world; it calls us to turn to Jesus in the face of God’s nature and by confronting us with the consequences of our nature. This is true of the Old Testament prophets and their messages to both Israel and the nations; and it’s true of what Paul says of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14, where it is for the “strengthening, encouraging and comfort” of believers (1 Cor 14:3), and moving unbelievers to worship God as “they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare.” Prophecy within the church can be reactive, or spontaneous in some way as a response to what is happening, but should be weighed carefully and not be disordered, it seems from Paul’s argument that this means it both stands in line with what is taught about Jesus (including by the prophets), but also in what it produces in the life of the church “for God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:29-33)

Any prophetic voice that is not a proclamation of the word of God — Jesus — is not truly prophetic. Any use of the Old Testament word not caught up in its telos is giving a hollow picture of God; if your prophecy — your presentation of God’s word to the world — could equally be Jewish or Islamic — then it isn’t actually Christian prophecy, even if it observes some true things about the nature of God and the world.

In Revelation, when John wants to bow down before the messenger who brings him the vision he writes, the messenger says:

“At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus.”

The prophetic voice is about Jesus. It’s speaking the message of the kingdom of Jesus to the world and calling people to turn to him from the life people are leading apart from him. It’s not just a call to live a particular way in accord with God’s design; but a call to discover God’s design for humanity in the person and rule of Jesus.

2. Know where the world is; and where it is going (and who people are, and where they’re going)

Prophecy both in the Old Testament and the New doesn’t just point people to Jesus; but it describes their existence in the world in a way that creates a need to be pointed to Jesus in the lives of the hearer. Prophecy is in the 1 Corinthians 14 sense, and throughout the Old Testament, a call to turn from false worship to true worship. It’s a call from idolatry and its fruits to a new way of life. But it isn’t enough simply to observe the idols of a culture and speak against them… nor is it a call to a new way of life without dealing with the idols…. nor is it simply pointing people to the character of God and his judgment…

Prophecy as I think it works consistently throughout the Old Testament, and in the New involves:

  1. Knowing who God is via his word — that he is the source of truth and justice; and that he hates sin, especially the worship of false Gods.
  2. Knowing what the idols of a people are and what it is about their nature (individually and culturally) that pulls people away from truth (whether it’s the nations, or the lure of the nations for God’s people.
  3. Knowing that idols are destructive — that they are folly, but also that they have a sort of power to kill you in the opposite way to God’s power to bring life.
  4. Replacing those idols with knowledge of the true God by living and speaking an alternative way of life that addresses and redirects the part of our humanity that pulls us to idols. The prophets often don’t simply speak to act, they act in a way that speaks (eg Hosea and his marriage, Ezekiel and his weird ‘scroll diet,’ Jonah’s story as an enacted condemnation of Israel and picture of why they’re in exile and what’s wrong with their hearts).
  5. Often this replacement happens in a sort of ‘head to head’ battle with powerful voices from the culture the prophet is addressing; whether it is addressed to the king of God’s people to call them back to God in the face of judgment (ie Samuel and Saul, David and Nathan), or to foreign powers (whether it’s Elijah and the prophets of Baal or Jonah and the King of Nineveh, or other prophet v prophet smackdowns that accompany the rise and fall of kings of Israel or the nations in 1-2 Kings).

It’s a call to the destruction of idols and their total replacement by God; the God we see revealed in Jesus. Too often our modern prophetic voices have only gone down one of these paths. We’ve spoken of the problem of immorality without identifying the idols behind it, we’ve called people to morality without calling them to Jesus… sometimes this is because we’ve identified the prophetic voice of Old Testament prophets as the voices to imitate and missed that they were speaking to Israel, but also missed that the telos of their words, their ‘end’, according to Jesus, is Jesus himself, and that fruitful living flows from the Spirit; it doesn’t lead people to the Spirit.

Interestingly, if this framework is right (and it is a bit of a simplification); it’s also what Paul does in Athens when he engages with the idolatry at the cultural/religious heart of the Roman Empire before he heads off to try to get the Gospel to Caesar, governor by governor, king by king, trial by trial.

3. Speak truth about God’s word and God’s world to God’s people (take the Gospel to the Church)

The Lord warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and seers: “Turn from your evil ways. Observe my commands and decrees, in accordance with the entire Law that I commanded your ancestors to obey and that I delivered to you through my servants the prophets.”

But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their ancestors, who did not trust in the Lord their God. They rejected his decrees and the covenant he had made with their ancestors and the statutes he had warned them to keep. They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the Lord had ordered them, “Do not do as they do.” — 2 Kings 17:13-15

Often when we talk about needing to speak in the prophetic voice what we have in mind is speaking to cultural and political power brokers… but the Bible seems to suggest the prophets had a pretty big role to play in speaking truth to God’s people, and there’s a sense that if God’s people follow the words of the prophet they actually become an enacted example of the prophetic voice to and for the nations and worldly powers to see. A prophetic voice calls God’s people to be different to the world around us; rather than imitating them, and calls us from imitations of worldly power (that’s kind of the point of prophetic interactions with Saul and Solomon, and all the other kings… a call to stop being kings like the kings of the nations and relying on worldly power).

When it comes to the church, and to prophecy pointing to Jesus as God’s king, in response to particular and timely observations about life in the world we live in… this is what Paul says prophecy is, and what it is for:

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified. — 1 Corinthians 14:1-5

In the context of the early church prophecy was to encourage people to be part of a kingdom that was not Rome, to not bow the knee to Caesar (especially when Caesar was using his power against the church), or think that the solution to Caesar’s reign was to be like Caesar against Caesar, or to be like Caesar for their own sake. This is how I think Revelation functions as prophecy; it speaks truth about worldly empires — calling them beastly extensions of Satan’s campaign against Jesus who are ultimately defeated, and in doing so it calls the church not to give in to, or get into bed with, worldly power (with the Pharisees and the crucifixion of Jesus by the agents of the ‘synagogue of Satan’ in Jerusalem-as-proxy-of-Rome as a powerful counter-example of this).

A modern prophetic voice must tell the church the truth about real power (Jesus); and the truth about worldly power, for its strengthening, encouragement, comfort and edification. We must tell people that worldly power very, very, rarely lines up with real power (though it can) and though God appoints and works through worldly powers often in the Bible this is as a means of judgment or to achieve his demonstration of real power as being the opposite of self-serving, Satan-following, empire building (eg Pharaoh, Cyrus, Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar). We must see worldly power as what it is; when power is used for anything but the service of God as an outworking of the love of our neighbours as ourself, and the love of God, following the Word of God in a way that ‘sums up the words of the law and the prophets’ and so treats people as we would have them treat us (Matt 7:12), it is beastly and idolatrous; so we shouldn’t be jumping in to bed with it, even when it promises us delicious fruit that is pleasing to the eye (like the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan in Genesis 3), or life itself, or some semblance of control of the world around us (like the temptation of Jesus by Satan in Matthew 4:8-11). Let’s call what the church has done with Trump what it is… giving in to temptation to have a bit of worldly power… it’s a fall. It’s sin. We need to repent; and we need prophetic voices who call us to do that before we even try to speak to the world.

4. Speak truth to power (take the Gospel to Rome); and truth about worldly power from a position apart from the seat of power

Prophets don’t just speak to God’s kings in the Old Testament. They call all sorts of foreign powers to repent; God’s design for humanity wasn’t simply for Israel, Israel was meant to model it in a way that brought blessing to the nations and the nations to the Temple; but the way to bring the nations to God in ancient times was not convert by convert, but from the top down. Religion was corporate, and cultic, and national — often the kings, or past kings, were not just ‘images of god’ or representatives of a nation’s gods, but gods themselves (Rome did this on steroids with the Imperial Cult where the Caesars, dead and alive, were worshipped, but what they did wasn’t new).  When a prophet called a king to repent they were calling a whole nation to worship God. Perhaps the best example of this is in Nineveh; but it also explains Paul’s mission to the heart of the empire (and why it matters that members of Caesar’s household are following Jesus and he mentions that in Philippians); and it explains what happens with Constantine a few hundred years later.

One thing our modern prophetic voices get right is that they feel called to speak the truth to power; where we misfire, or have tended to, is that we tend to think the solution to the problems we identify is the right application of worldly power to moral issues; so changed laws… where the Gospel requires changed hearts. Our message shouldn’t be confused with worldly power — like lobbying on the basis of votes, or a pursuit of seats at the tables of power — when we speak with a prophetic voice (as individuals or ‘institutionally’ as prophets within the people of God like in 1 Corinthians 14) we must be detached enough from the table of power to be its conscience and to call it to something different; this doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t hold positions in government; but it does seem to speak against the way the religious right operates globally in that it both wants to wield power as a proxy arm of the government (so we see political endorsements from pulpits), and it wants to coerce the government to act not simply based on what governors believe is right for their people, but on what we tell them is right for securing and holding on to power. Christians who are in government — like Erastus in the city of Corinth (Romans 16) have to operate as ‘the sword’ according to their convictions, as members of the church but not seen to be acting totally as the church; or we’ve lost the vital separation between the functions of church and state and suddenly have the church sending us to war or executing people… if you’re occupying a position in the government it makes the prophetic voice very difficult for you; you’re then David, not Nathan. And too often our prophetic voices seem to want to be David, or to be so close to David, as proxies of his reign, that we can no longer be Nathan.

5. Publicly call people to repent (ie to turn to Jesus); but don’t coerce them

Return, Israel, to the Lord your God.
    Your sins have been your downfall!
Take words with you
    and return to the Lord.
Say to him:
    “Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously,
    that we may offer the fruit of our lips — Hosea 1:1-2

Prophets definitely called people to repent. That’s caught up in the prophetic voice both as it is directed to the church and the world. At the moment it feels like our prophetic voices want to force people to act repentant via the wielding of power in a democracy; and it also feels like we’ve misunderstood repentance as being more about turning away from immorality than about turning to God. Neither the Old Testament or New Testament prophets do this; they don’t come to a place and say ‘stop being immoral’ but rather ‘return to God and so stop being immoral.’

Trying to change laws to suit us or to make idolatry difficult is an interesting approach to loving our neighbours; harm minimisation in itself is not a bad thing, and helping people see the potential harm of particular courses of action is a loving thing to do; it just doesn’t seem to be what a prophetic voice does. And if our voice is limited to identifying and stopping harm, all we’re offering is bandaid solutions, or the treating of symptoms rather than addressing the cause, and I’m not sure a doctor who does that is really loving a patient, they’re just starting early palliative care. We’re called to offer more than palliative care to our neighbours; we’re called to bring them the words of eternal life. To bring them Jesus. Identifying the harm of idolatry is part of the prophetic voice; but it’s not all of it; and the prophetic voice outside the people of the kingdom is not a call to obey God in the small stuff, but a call to turn to a life pursuing whole-hearted obedience. A prophetic voice within the church does seem more particularly geared to calling people to act as the people we now are. But if we don’t make the distinction based on who we’re speaking to and how they see God and the world, we’re not being prophetic.

6. Offer an alternative vision of life in the world — of a different kingdom — as living (and dying) examples who do not fear

“But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.” — 1 Corinthians 14:3

There’s a great deal of anxiety in what passes for prophetic voices these days — whether it’s about the rise of the left and their influence on how the world sees marriage, gender, and other things we see as tied to God’s vision for human flourishing… not to mention how much they seem to want to destroy religious freedom and rewrite religion to be some sort of neutered servant of the state, or now about the rise of the hard right and their co-opting of the church for political ends… Prophetic voices should call us not to fear because God is in control; this isn’t to suggest that worldly powers don’t cause real suffering; a prophetic voice will call us to step into the suffering as agents of the kingdom of God and its peace; the kingdom of God is a kingdom oriented towards fighting against the curse of sin and death, and a prophetic voice should bring strength, encouragement and comfort precisely because life in the world is often not good; because their is pain and suffering (and because this pain an suffering is inevitably tied up with the wrong application of human power). A prophetic voice should lead people out of fear — both of man, and God’s judgment, by leading people to Jesus. But this can not be a trite platitude, or a Facebook status; it has to be a thing we are living towards; the prophetic voice always came from an exemplary prophetic life (except with Jonah, but that was the point, Jonah was a jerk, Jonah was a picture of why Israel was tossed into exile — the belly of the whale — the verb used to describe Jonah being hurled into the water and so the whale is the word the prophets use to describe Israel being hurled into exile; it comes after Jonah has attempted to refuse God’s call to speak with the prophetic voice to the nations). Prophets often lamented the state of the world even while understanding that this is a result not just of our sin; but God’s judgment.

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted. — Habakkuk 1:2-4

But these voices do also call us back to God in carrying his answers; and we do see the answer to suffering and pain and injustice in this world in the life, death, resurrection and reign of Jesus; that’s not a call to stand back and point to this truth by words though though, but to step in to the suffering and use our voice to point to where the suffering ultimately ends as we fight against it in small ways.

A prophetic voice calls people to worship God, not idols or the people with worldly powers — those serving ‘the prince of this world,’ Satan. A prophetic voice calls us to Jesus as the true king and the foundation of true living and flourishing in God’s world. It does this in a way that engages with worldly power as we see it being abused in the here and now, both in the political realm but also in the lives of people.

In Revelation, in the midst of the craziness of dragons dying and flailing about, we see these two ‘lampstands’ (the churches from the start of the letter) described as two ‘faithful witnesses’ — they’re a picture of what a faithful and prophetic church looks like in the face of a ‘beastly’ worldly empire — worldly powers that are the anti-thesis of Jesus. This is, in part, what prophecy in this sort of world, serving our sort of king, will involve (and why we’d endure it)…

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

These witnesses don’t look like the sort of prophetic voice that cuddles up to, or wields, worldly power. But they do look like Jesus. Being a ‘prophetic voice’ will often involve being hated. Paul seems to speak of himself, and his partners in the Gospel, in prophetic terms (if the above understanding of prophecy holds water) in 2 Corinthians 2…

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.” — 2 Corinthians 2:14-17

The Gospel is political. The prophetic voice is political. But sometimes it is political in creating an explicitly different sort of kingdom to the status quo. One thing a prophetic voice could, and perhaps, should do is seek to limit worldly power and our understanding of what emperors can take responsibility for; to help people see the limits of political power even now. Living and proclaiming an alternative kingdom might actually look like seeing solutions that are political in this kingdom sense, but not an earthly sense, for the destruction of life (whether its abortion or the treatment of refugees), we might see that there are solutions apart from who occupies positions of power or what the law says for tackling all sorts of dilemmas; a prophetic voice might be a voice that imagines and creates alternative political realities and establishments that don’t look like the wielding of worldly power, but look more like the kingdom — as they serve, strengthen, edify and comfort the church so that we don’t go running to Caesar, whether Roman, or orange, for scraps from his table, a quick tumble, and the promise of true love and a share of his power, but hold fast to Jesus, and so be prepared to lay down our lives for the sake of pointing people to real truth about the sort of human power that was wielded, in self interest, to reject God in the garden of Eden, and arrest Jesus and take him to death in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in doing so to point them to real life.

We need prophetic voices because when the church cuddles up with the sort of power that Satan cuddles up to we start to stink of death not life; and that will destroy us when we should be bringing life to a dying world.

We need prophetic voices because our leaders are human; and there is hope for them, and that they might do much good for our neighbours, if they hear the truth and have it shape them, so long as we are shaping our leaders, rather than being shaped by them.

We need prophetic voices because the world needs Jesus much more than it needs Trump, or any other powerful leader promising to make things great again.

We need prophetic voices because while Jesus is on his throne, and governments are appointed by God, sometimes they’re appointed as agents of God’s judgment and that causes pain and destruction to the neighbours we’re called to love; and when we stand idly by while that happens, the Old Testament prophets show us that’s a pretty quick path to facing God’s judgment ourselves.

We need prophetic voices because real hope is found in the politics of Jesus not in the politics of human emperors.