Friday, May 31, 2013

No King But Caesar

Work and life alike have been busy all week so I have lots of half finished posts and little else. Some of what I have been pondering has to do with my earlier thoughts on Memorial Day, the Pledge of Allegiance, etc. and what it means for the church. As I was thinking this morning I remembered the account of Jesus, Pilate and the religious leaders of the Jews.

From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, "If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar." So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, "Behold your King!" They cried out, "Away with him, away with him, crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar."  (John 19:12-15)

What an odd statement that seems to be. We have no king but Caesar? This from the leaders of a nation that knows quite well that they have a real King? Perhaps this speaks to the warning from Christ about why we cannot have two masters. The religious leaders of the Jews seemed to be trying to have it both ways but what this revealed is that they ultimately were more concerned with their own security in prestige and position than they were about honoring their true King. Make no mistake, they knew who Jesus was. They knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that He healed the lepers, returned sight to the blind, raised the dead and was fulfilling Scripture over and over again. I don't think they saw Him as a political figure or a revolutionary, they knew who He was but they preferred to preserve what they had rather than forsake all to follow their King. They chose Caesar over God because Caesar gave them security and Christ offered them the cross. There are some interesting theological implications of that for another day.

How foolish! How sinful! I am so glad that we are not like that!

We aren't?

Dave Black weighed in on this topic yesterday at 6:04 AM, an hour so early as to be unfit for blogging or anything else other than coffee, and had some pretty sound and unflinching words on this issue, especially as it pertains to the blending of politics and religion with a smattering of Christianese to paint the worldly aspirations of politicians and Christians alike with a veneer of religious respectability...

Herein lies one of the greatest challenges of modern American evangelicalism. Today God and conservatism have practically merged into one. The "wonder-working power" of politics now drives a large segment of the Christian right. But sin is our trouble, not liberalism in government. To treat cancer by temporary measures is to endanger the victim still worse. David Kuo will probably be considered a neurotic pessimist by his cheery fellow-preachers, but he is right and they are wrong, even if he learned his lesson the hard way. Modern political machinations – whether by the right wing or the left wing of evangelicalism – are nothing more than fads that work up mere optimism and positive thinking. Whenever government tries to make men good without being righteous – something the devil would love more than anything in this fallen world – the professing church becomes cluttered with hosts of superficial saints who never sell out to Christ.

We think our political struggles of the day are so critical that they seem to consume everything in the church. Meanwhile the world burns down around us and our biggest concerns are borderline frivolous and often outright sinful. We seem to think that if (on the right) we can just make being bad illegal, people will stop being bad or (on the left) that if we can just shuffle enough money around from one person to the next we can eliminate poverty. I can only imagine what Paul and Peter and James would say if they saw how much effort we put into our political fighting and how much we elevate our worldly citizenship, we who have every advantage and wealth to squander and yet reach so few people (unless they are willing to come to "our church" of course).

So what is the solution? It is not just more blogging. I think Dave might have an idea....

If there is to be today a new politics of faith based on the cross of Christ, it will have to meet critically these issues. This means for me personally that it is not enough to question the just war tradition or to condemn the Constantinian compromise in the abstract. Nor is it enough to rail against the Christ-washed militarism being offered in His name by our politicians. Nor can I merely exegete Jesus' mandate in the Sermon on the Mount disinterestedly. The only responsible Christian ethic is for me to become an active participant in service and sacrifice for the sake of the Prince of Peace. I must discover what it means to rid myself completely of the baggage of self-will and to plunge into the tranquil sea of God's will where alone I will find joy. There are countless situations in my life in which I must decide to put the interests of others above my own life-interests. The power of nonviolence is an important step on the downward path of Jesus, but only if I deliberately chose such a path can "peace on earth" begin to be realized.

So just talking about peacemaking and ministering is not quite the point? I need some real grace on that. I am part of the way there with an acceptance, and quite a begrudging one, that the way of the world which demands violence, exploitation and coercion in the pursuit of my own security and comfort is not only not compatible with the values of the upside-down kingdom of Christ but is in direct conflict with those values. I keep remembering something about being able to serve only one master.... When it comes to acting on that and living it out I have so far to go.

These entanglements with the political and economic concerns of the world are incredibly seductive but our obsession with security and comfort is a far greater impediment to our mission and witness than Islam or militant atheists or even Barack Obama! Because we are so concerned with "security", being protected from the "others" in our society, we fail to see that they are the people we are supposed to be reaching.

I think if most of us had any real exposure to the world all around us, a world we drive through going to sporting events or on our way to "church", we would be terribly disturbed. Perhaps that is why we don't spend any more time outside of our religious enclaves and suburban bunkers than we have to and even then with our car doors locked. It is a world where women are forced into prostitution by criminal rings, where getting to school each day means dodging drug dealers, murderers and rapists, a world where "where are you going to college?" is not even a thought for most kids, where parents often make the choice between food and heat. We rarely see them and when we do we ignore them because they make us uncomfortable or we avoid them because they frighten us.

The questions that are raised regarding nationalism, patriotism, militarism, conservatism/liberalism are not largely irrelevant theoretical discussions. They are not just question posed by lib'rals and 'Murica haters. They are questions that get to the very core of what it means to be a disciple of Christ and why we are warned against trying to serve two masters. We need a much broader conversation in the church about these questions. I am starting to see some signs of it but I would love to see more of the "popular" teachers in the church asking them. When John Piper suggests pretty gently a position that sounds even vaguely non-resistant people jump all over him. Maybe when we lose our wealth and privileged position in America we can start getting serious about the downward path of Jesus.

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