What the sci-fi film “Arrival” reminds us about a Theology of Language

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“Language is not only a part of human activity, it is the most characteristic feature of human behavior…perhaps the best evidence of the essential function of language as a transmitting mechanism is seen in the almost total failure of meaningful cultural contact when effective communication is lacking” –Eugene Nida, Customs & Cultures

As I sat watching the new sci-fi movie, “Arrival” I was almost brought to tears. This was one of the most remarkable films I have ever seen – precisely because it may be telling us precious truths about how to navigate this incredibly divisive time we currently live in – all by using the image of human communication with aliens from another planet.

In Genesis 11 we read about the Tower of Babel. Up unto this point humans spoke one language and together, in this moment, they began to build a tower to heaven to “be like God” with their new technology: the brick. Now, we must assume that God wasn’t just upset about their idolatry – but also the inherent oppression that would be involved in building such a spectacle (enslaved workers, etc). So God comes down and “confuses their language so they cannot understand each other.”

While there is not indication from the text we have traditionally seen this as God cursing humanity by giving us different languages. But what if we have this all wrong?

What if different language are not a curse, but one of the greatest blessings God has ever given us?

Stay with me.

In my anthropological studies for missions we constantly talked about the importance of languageimagelanguage. I, like you, live in the matrix of language barriers – both within the vast cultural diversity of the English language and across language barriers. What is remarkable is that language reveals and reflects how we think. Languages are not formed in a vacuum – they are formed by real people, living in real circumstances and play a huge role in our how we think and process thoughts and see the world. We know what we know only because our language has within its capacity a way for us to receive and express certain thoughts.

The availability of words impacts how people in any culture form thoughts. When translating across languages it becomes apparent that some languages do not have any equivalent translations. Apparently French does not have the word “entrepreneur,” Chinese does not have the word, “romance,” you can’t say that you “miss” something in Japanese and English has no singular word for “open minded.”

All of these examples, and the thousands more we could come up with, all affect how we think, how we see the world, how we interact with each other.

The problem we have is simple: We think that the way that “we think” is the way that “everyone thinks.” We think that the meaning we are attaching to a certain thought through language is the meaning that everyone else is attaching to the thought.

This is inevitable but incorrect.

Usually, communication works fine as long as we are interacting with people who are language2imageincredibly similar to us and have been taught to think, speak, and use the same word association as we do. This probably explains why we, as humans, are highly drawn to befriend people “just like us.”

But…you can see where the problems come in…life in our highly connected world demands we spend our days interacting and communicating with people who are not “just like us.” This is hard and can be frustrating and often causes misunderstanding.

But maybe it is one of the greatest blessings God has ever given to humanity.

Maybe we should take more seriously a Theology of Language.

I won’t spoil the movie for you, but Arrival thrusts us into the emotions and fears of the first arrival of aliens from outer space, arriving in 12 pod-like space ships “landing” in different spots around the globe. Of course, our first instinct as humans is to declare war, but within this incredible stew of fear, curiosity and survival we attempt the courageous task of communication.

Specifically, we need to ask our visitors the question: “What are your intentions?”

Simple question, right? Wrong. In order to answer this question the main character, a PhD in linguistics, walks us through the thought process needed to understand each other when asking and answering this “simple” question. Do they understand what we mean by the formation of a question? “Intention” is a difficult word to understand that conveys future consequences – do they have an equivalent in their language? Do they understand the difference between “you” (singular) and “your” (collective)? Do they even think as individuals? Or do they always think collectively? She goes on further…

Oh my!

review-arrivalAnd so the linguist goes to work. Teaching and learning and listening and trying to understand the meaning behind a completely alien communication. It takes time. She has to decipher. She has to ask question after question to try to establish how the aliens process thoughts to understand the meaning of the words they are conveying.

One of my thoughts in the movies was: Ok – these aliens are obviously far beyond our technology – can’t they just use some sort of language translator? But then I thought – what if they could, but choose not to. What if they were forcing humanity to try to understand – try to listen – try to decipher. What if the aliens knew our future survival depended upon us investing the hard work of learning to listen and understand one another.

Then I realized. Babel is not a curse – its one of the greatest blessing we’ve ever been given. We are now being forced by God to listen with such intensity to one another, to invest ourselves in each other cultures so deeply – all in an effort to understand what the other person is truly meaning with their words.

Language and culture can divide if we are unwilling to listen. But if we are willing to put in the hard work then our differences can bring us together in ways that we never thought possible because it forces us to listen, to try to understand, to let go of our fear, to receive, to be blessed, to learn from each other.

Language barriers can bring us together as humans and allow us to get so deep into each others lives that we cannot help but become friends.

As we navigate the difficulty of politics, race, religion, sexuality and so many more issues we have to be willing to put in the difficult work to try understand what the other person is saying. Otherwise, we’ll never get anywhere.

There is an incredible scene in the movie. For a while, the whole world is talking to each other and sharing information about what they are learning. Then, in a pivotal moment…one nation gets spooked and cuts off communication and every other nation responds in turn by cutting their communication as well.

Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? When the moment gets difficult – we shut down, we cut off, we stop listening and stop trying to understand. When times get hard we “hear what we fear” as my colleague Althea often says.

Maybe language and cultural barriers are a blessing. Maybe they uniquely force us to know each other in deep, deep ways.

emraceWhen the Holy Spirit came in Acts 2 and gave the disciples the ability to speak other languages and gave the audience the ability to hear their own language – this became one of the identifying markers of the early Christians – they have been empowered by the Spirit to hear each other. The Spirit is empowering them to cross any cultural barrier in such a way that they can speak, listen, hear, understand and be reconciled with each other. The Spirit empowered the early church specifically and primarily for the purposes of reconciliation across divides.

But yet – today, the Church is as divided as ever.

I wonder if our division and inability to truly listen and understand each other reveal our lack of reliance upon the Holy Spirit?

I think the Bible gives us a compelling Theology of Language. Each language and culture is beautiful and valuable and good and we need to do the hard work of learning each others words, meanings, thoughts and intentions so that we can be reconciled to one another.

This is the hard work of being a Christian. But it’s what we’ve been empowered to do!

As for the movie. I sat there and almost cried. Arrival reminded me of something I had almost forgotten. The importance of seeking to truly learn one another’s thoughts, one another’s words, one another’s meanings. I cannot think of a better message that a movie could convey in this most divisive time. Maybe it takes communicating with aliens for us to understand that our future depends upon us all thoroughly listening to one another right now.

Yes, I think Babel is a profound blessing.

 

The Spirituality of Stranger Things

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Like many of you out there, I’m in “Stranger Things Withdrawal” or STW for short. This Netflix summer hit was soul candy for us Gen Xers as its landscape of Dungeon & Dragons, Realistic walkie-talkies, Star Wars references and even a He-Man cameo reminded me of when I was 9. The directors lean heavily on 80’s classics such as The Goonies, Close Encounters, Indiana Jones and Poltergeist to draw the audience in through classic reminiscence but then took us on an adventure that was absurdly unique.

I’m limited in what I can share here because this is not a spoiler post but rather a reflection from a Christian point of view. Don’t worry – this is a spoiler free zone.

The opening scene of the series starts with 4 boys playing Dungeons & Dragons – and the introduction of the Demagogen – an ancient and powerful demonic force. I can remember as a child how much I wanted to play D&D but my mom wouldn’t let me go near it. Ugh. But that’s not the point. The point is the whole plot of Stranger Things is based on this idea of there being another world, “the upside down” world, among our real one – we can’t see it or feel it but its there, always close, right beside us. This upside down world is a toxic world of decay and death, that consumes and uses humans. Secret government experiments have opened up a portal to this world that unleashes “the monsters” from “another” world upon a sleepy and unsuspecting town and the only hope for salvation is Eleven (or El) – a child product of these government experiments who has incredible powers to manipulate things with her mind. She is the only one who seems understands this “upside down” world.

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If you have not already discovered for yourself let me tell you – this is a deeply spiritual series. I had trouble at first watching it due to its horror like suspense and dark tones (just personal preference), but once I began to see what was happening the story became incredibly fascinating. Eleven’s name was shortened down to “El” – the ancient word for a god, the monster was refereed to as a demon, and every character in the film is dealing with deeply spiritual issues of hurt, grief, betrayal, love, manipulation and on and on.

The obvious is obvious – the “upside down” world is evil – it’s always so very close, in another dimension but can come into our realm at any moment and well, is intensely horrifying and can consume and destroy us. Yikes! But the genius of this show is the not-so-obvious connections which make us question if our world is any better than this new evil one we’ve just discovered?? Let me explain…

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How about the teenage Nancy who is being manipulated by ever-so-popular-teenage-dream-who-drives-a-BMW Steve and eventually looses her child-like innocence and her best friend in her acceptance of Steve’s pursuits…or Steve who is being manipulated by his two friends who are deeply cruel and unwavering in their dedication to hurt those they do not like…or Chief Hopper who we slowly begin to understand is living in a constant state of grief after loosing his beloved daughter to cancer which apparently resulted in the loss of his marriage and a substance abuse problems…or Joyce who is a single-mom barely making it and living on the margins of society…or her ex-husband Lonnie, the dead-beat-dad who leaves a trail of destruction over his two boys’ lives and finally re-engages to try to opportunely profit off of tragedy…or the two bullies who make life miserable for our three main middle school misfit heroes…or Jonathan who carries around the burden of caring for his mother, the hurt of a dead-beat dad, and being excluded from the community of friends and treated as a pariah. We could go on…

And this does not even begin to take into account the despicable actions of a secretive government agency that kidnaps and manipulates children and turns them into weapons which ultimately open up the portal to the other world. Oops.

So the question I believe Stranger Things is asking us is this:

How is our dimension similar to the “upside down” evil dimension?

Yes, we are all familiar with the Apostle Paul’s words that remind us of the evil we fight against as followers of Jesus when he said in Ephesians,

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Growing up I was taught that this “evil in the heavenly realms” was something akin to the “upside down” world. Demons and Satan coming to manipulate and destroy us – but as I have grown older I see things a bit differently. Yes, evil and Satan and demons are real but I don’t think they take the form of the “monsters” – rather, I think they look a lot more like you and me manipulating each other to get what we want, bullying each other to prove our own worth, abandoning our friends for acceptance, isolating those who are different from us, failing to care for those in need.

Yes, our fight is against these things that destroy the very fabric of our own humanity and leave us isolated and in pain. Stranger Things shows us, in fantastic fashion, that evil is all around us, in us and is often no different from that terrible governmental agency or those faceless monsters – we are all being manipulated by unseen forces that have the capacity to dictate our lives and the lives of those around us.

But here’s what I love about this show – it reveals our own depravity but also gives us the antidote to regain our own humanity: Love & Commitment to one another.

stranger things3The antidote in the form of the love of a mother who refuses to give up on her son and risks her reputation and mental sanity; the love of friends who have the courage to overcome their own fear and personal obstacles to search for their friend; the love of Mike who befriends an unusual and desperate Eleven; the commitment of Captain Hopper who overcomes his own loss to rise to the true example of a leader; the love of Nancy who searches for a friend and in the process shows kindness to another. The love of Eleven who…

 Yes, there are stranger things out there, but the strangest is not the realm of evil in some upside down world, it’s right here among us – it is strange how we often allow evil to consume us as we hurt and manipulate the world around us and in the process abandon our own inherent divine life spark. It is strange how we give ourselves to human diminishing pursuits in order to gain more power or popularity.

Can it be then, ironically, that love is truly the strangest thing? Love is what saves us from damaging each other and ourselves. Love is what searches for a friend who is hurting and afraid. Love is standing up for those that are being bullied and left out. Love is never giving up. Love is being a leader when others are too injured to lead. Love is sacrificing for our friends.

Love is the most powerful force in the world and it never fails.

Love is what makes Stranger Things so compelling – and it is what makes our lives so compelling too. Maybe love shouldn’t be quite so strange or obscure or hard to find, maybe love should be more obvious…maybe love is what makes us human…maybe that’s what Stranger Things has been telling us this summer.

And I, for one, enjoyed that reminder.

 

Pentecost: The Alternative to Empire’s Domination & Division is Birthed

Pentecost2imageAs we prepare to celebrate Pentecost and reflect upon the birth of the church there is a part of me that is deeply sad. As I look out upon the landscape of church in America I feel a deep need to lament.

As the Spirit fell and the disciples and those gathered stepped out of that upper room it is was clear that an alternative had been birthed – not a system based on division or power or domination or the status quo, but rather one based on love and compassion and sacrifice and equality and justice where Jesus was Lord.

The babbling divisions of the tower of Babel had been replaced by the declaration that the Spirit was being poured out on all people – the young and the old, women and men, servants and free, the rich and poor!

To me, this is the clearest picture of what this new alternative, this newly created church, would be based in: equal flourishing for all. No longer would the ethnic, gender or economic division operate unchecked. Now, the Spirit was let loose and the primary indicator of the Spirit’s move was reconciliation.

In this new community, there would be no divisions.

Yes, this church was out of control. Breaking down all barriers and divisions to level the playing field so that everyone could be part and have a role of leadership in what God was doing.

To me, this is the primary message of the book of Acts: Reconciliation. The grand coming together in the name of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, to be a unified people where no divisions or status markers exist any longer. Where the truth is told and forgiveness is offered and a place is set at the table for everyone – no matter what.

As Willimon & Hauerwas say in their book, “Holy Spirit,” “Now, because of the descent of the Spirit, all, even those who were previously voiceless and hopeless, would be enabled to speak up and speak out in God’s name.”

And at every stage through the story of Acts we see more and more people being welcomed and given a voice. The outcasts, the ethnically different, the poor, the sick, the outsiders, women…

The church in Acts is a church dripping with power to be a liberating force to any and all people who have been caught up and crushed under the heavy wheels of the empire’s power, division, inequality, misogyny, violence, ethnic supremacy, and economic brutality.

The church, empowered by this Holy Spirit, was wild and uncontrollable, breaking out in places and with people previously unimagined. There were no limits to its disruption and no place it could not reach. As Hauerwas says, “The claim [of Jesus is Lord] was not an attempt by Christians to grab power and to take over the role of Caesar; they proclaimed that Jesus’ Lordship was more radical [and threatening] than Caesar imagined. It is therefore not surprising that the disciples found themselves constantly in trouble. Why was the church so disruptive and so threatening to controlling politicians? Blame it on the out-of-control Holy Spirit.” The church was proclaiming and living out the alternative politics of the Kingdom of God.

While the Spirit is still clearly moving over and through the waters of the church today I am saddened by how often the (predominately white) church in America embraces the systems of power present in the world [empire] around us as markers of success.

We so often define our success by numerical growth – believing that somehow bigger is better and “more” represents the blessings of God. When in reality the blessings of God and outpouring of the Spirit are represented in people selling their stuff, having less, and giving it to those that don’t have enough.

Of course, growth is not necessarily good or bad, but using it as a maker for health is out of touch with the history of the Church.

We inherited a legacy of radical reconciliation and inclusion from Acts but yet our churches and lifestyles today are incredibly segregated and exclusive and often based in and propagate white systems of power and control as we use words like “church plants,””satellite campus,” and “church growth strategy” to put a modern rhetorical spin on our age-old colonial exploits.

We read of an early church who was radically inclusive of those that society and religion said were “outsiders” and not worthy of God’s movement and time after time we see the Spirit breaking down those barriers to include everyone, everywhere in this new alternative reality. But yet today in so many of our churches, inclusion (real & full) is often based in the parameters of sexual ethics, economic class, family stability, physical “health,” language, and the color of our cultural values.

If we are honest, we need to realize we have taken the uncontrollable Spirit and built in a secure system of controls.

Moving forward I would recommend a new set of criteria for judging the health of the Church that is not based in the empire’s markers of success but rather in a new alternative reality of love, compassion and justice. Here are some ideas….

  • How many foster care children are being cared for in your church?
  • Is racial reconciliation actively being preached, pursued and happening in your church?
  • Are you learning from and including non-white communities in the life of your church?
  • Are people selling their stuff or intentionally living on less to help the poor?
  • Is your church going out of its way to include developmentally disabled persons?
  • Does your church faithfully serve and include your elderly?
  • How many teachers are working with special needs children or in under-resourced schools in your church?
  • How many hungry families are you partnering with to get food every week?
  • Is your church empowering people get jobs?
  • How are you actively standing up for economic justice and equality in your church?
  • Are you participating in efforts to engage sexually exploited children in your area?
  • Does your elder board represent ethnic and economic diversity?
  • How many landlords do you have in your congregation offering quality and clean affordable housing in your city?
  • How many people in your congregation are working in prisons or with recently freed people?
  • How many kids is your congregation mentoring and tutoring and helping to get to college?

Yes, I am biased as these are things we seek to embody in our church but there are many more “markers.” What I am suggesting is that we stop trying to use the empire’s systems of status (that end up controlling us in the end) and allow the Spirit to move in uncontrollable ways through the life of our congregations. And when the spirit moves it always disrupts our comforts and pushes us towards compassion, reconciliation, love and justice.

This will cause disruption. This will bring people to us that present challenges to the way we have always done things. This will stretch our resources beyond our capacity. This will lead us into places that are controversial. This will cost us power and privilege. We may get put in jail. But is there any other way?

On this Pentecost, let us stand together and pray the simple prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit, Come.” And as we do, “it will be as if we pray: Bring it on, Holy Spirit! Shake us up, send us forth, kick us out, and make us a more interesting church than we could be if you had left us alone!” (Willimon/Hauerwas, “Holy Spirit”)

Amen! Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

 

I See Satan Falling: Mimetic Contagion, Vulnerability, Violence & the Christian Alternative

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When Christians embrace violence as a means to bring peace we betray our distinctive and undermine our message. In essence – when we embrace violence (in action or rhetoric) we are killing ourselves.

In Luke 10 Jesus sends out the disciples with a mission to go proclaim peace to the surrounding villages. When they returned and Jesus responds by saying, “I saw Satan falling like lightning from heaven…”

What in the world does this mean?

To understand we first need to understand “desire.”

In his incredible book “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning” Rene Girard, a foremost professor of anthropology at Stanford University tells us how desire is the chief identifying factor of human beings (anthropologically) by saying,

“We assume that desire is objective or subjective, but in reality it rests on a third party who gives value to the objects. This third party is usually the one who is closest, the neighbor. To maintain peace between human beings, it is essential to define prohibitions in light of this extremely significant fact: our neighbor is the model for our desire. This is what I call mimetic desire.”

Desire originates from our neighbor and only by me seeing what is important to my neighbor will I develop desire in myself. If something is not valuable to my neighbor then I won’t desire it.

Girard introduces us to this word: mimetic desire. This is describing the idea that we, as people, mimic one another and want what each other wants.

This is why in large part that the 10th commandment says, “Do not covet/desire your neighbors stuff.” The only way we can live in harmony with each other in a community is to root out desiring what is not ours. God understands this…obviously…and is trying to get us to understand it.

But what does this have to do with violence?

Yes…we’ll get there…

At this point we must understand the cycle of mimetic desire. It goes something like this:

  • First, we desire what our neighbor has. That might be a natural resource, power, money, lifestyle, ideology, safety, etc. Where do think you the phrase “Keeping up with the Jones’” comes from?
  • Second, left unchecked, this desire begins to snowball and captivate the consciousness of a group of people (tribe, family, ethnic group, nation). This is what Girard calls, mimetic contagion (contagious like the flu), and everyone begins to get this fever. In this place, violence will ensue as violence is the ultimate solution to desire.
  • Finally, there’s relief in a scapegoat. If the people can identify a scapegoat – the object of our frustration, then the people can unite in common hate of that one enemy. Usually the scapegoat is someone different from us and weaker than us (so they cannot fight back). We can destroy the scapegoat (Muslims, refugees, African-Americans, Steve Bartman (for you Cubs fans)) and experience a momentary unified “peace.”

But the problem with this peace-through-scapegoat-and-violence is that it is no peace at all. It is the illusion of peace that is based in the system of violence where violence still has the final word and the ultimate authority.

And when I say peace I mean “shalom” – peace, harmony, tranquility, wholeness, prosperity, completeness – the reconciled hope-filled state of human flourishing with God and our neighbor.

This peace is not attainable through any means of violence because as Dr. King has so wonderfully reminded us – violence only gives birth to more violence. Violence is a power we cannot control – it will consume us and incorporate us into its own desires.

So when Jesus sends out the 72 he tells them, “don’t take anything with you, don’t take a purse or bag or sandals…”

Why is this? Because of mimetic desire. The disciples were not to take anything but their message. The message they carried was the thing that was to be desired, not anything they owned or showed up with. They had to embrace vulnerability as part of their method and message.

They couldn’t take anything to rely upon or defend themselves with or impress anyone with. The life of a disciple of peace is a constant endeavor in becoming vulnerable.

Further, Jesus told them, “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house’…”

Jesus was sending them out into the surrounding villages with a message of peace, with a message of flourishing which included the absence of violence.

Now, if you’ve been in the church for any amount of time you’ve read this text a lot and probably interpreted it as Jesus telling the disciples to go proclaim a message of “accepting Jesus as the personal Lord who forgives sins and gives eternal life.”

While this is indeed part of our message as Christians it is not what Jesus sent the disciples to do here.

Jesus sent them to literally proclaim peace – shalom.

Why this message of peace for these people? Because these people were full of a desire for violence. Israel was about to erupt in it. The text even tells us so as just before this scene in Luke 9:51 we see the disciples want to rain fire down (bomb, drone attack?) on the Samaritans and destroy them.

This is related to that.

The towns that the disciples are being sent to are full of vengeance and are ready for battle. The Rev NT Wright helps us to understand why Jesus sends them with this message saying,

“Jesus’ contemporaries [in these villages] were for the most part not wanting peace – peace with their traditional enemies the Samaritans, or peace with the feared and hated Romans. They wanted an all-out war that would bring God’s justice swiftly to their aid and get rid of their enemies once and for all. This explains the urgency and sternness of Jesus’ charge to the 72. They were not offering people a new religious option which might have a gentle effect on their lives. They were holding out the last chance for people to turn away from Israel’s flight into ruin, and to accept God’s way of peace.”

The people wanted vengeance. They wanted war. They had identified their scapegoats – the Samaritans and the Romans and this thirst for violence had overtaken their senses. The people were contagious and the disease was spreading.

But Jesus was calling for peace. This is why Jesus told the disciples that they’d be like sheep among wolves, that they’d get eaten up out there.

To be a disciple of peace in a world of violence takes courage.

And when the disciples return Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven…

And here we are…

Jesus is saying that there’s a better way to live. He’s telling everyone that Satan is being exposed for the liar that he is. You see, in order for the myth of violence to have any power, it must stay hidden. It must operate without us knowing that it is operating behind the scenes.

Once it is exposed, it becomes powerless. Once we see that the myth of redemptive violence doesn’t actually solve problems, but just makes them worse, then the myth looses its power to dictate our actions and relationships with one another. But it is deeply hidden inside our collective subconscious and is difficult to expose.

But understand this: In this hidden state Satan plays both sides. Satan simultaneously stirs up conflict and then presents the solution to peace as scapegoat and violence. But when we play by Satan’s rules, Satan is always in charge. When we seek to solve our problems through violence we just give Satan more power over us and will have to perpetually seek out violence as the answer to all our problems.

Girard says, “Satan stirs up the mimetic snowballing and then the unanimous violence that makes everything peaceful once again.” Satan plays both sides.

But this “peace” is not peace – it is the nightmare of the cycle of violence.

And we are living in it and drinking it and lapping up its vomit all the while we think we are “being Christian.” Prominent Christians leaders are telling their congregations and universities to arm themselves and prepare for battle. Guns are proclaimed as “peacemakers.” We are living in a war of everyone against everyone. This is a betrayal of the message of Jesus.

What Jesus is saying here is that Satan is being exposed for what he is – a liar and a cheat. This cycle of violence will only beget more violence and Jesus is giving us another way to operate with one another – a way of shalom.

Guns will not bring peace. Ever.

War will not bring peace. Ever.

Hate and exclusion will not bring peace. Ever.

Blaming refugees or Muslims or some other ethnic group for our troubles will not bring peace. Ever.

Jesus is exposing and overcoming Satan as this mimetic contagion of violence that is consuming us. Paul addresses this by saying, “And having disarmed the powers Jesus made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

How did Jesus do this? Jesus exposed the powers of Satan and violence for the lie that they are, showed they have no power to bring peace, overcame the violent contagion, became the scapegoat and then overcame it all through the resurrection.

And never once used the tools of the enemy – violence or hate.

As Girard closes his text he says, “To break the power of mimetic unanimity, we must postulate a power superior to violent contagion. If we have learned one thing in this study, it is that none exists on the earth. It is precisely because violent contagion was all powerful in human societies, prior to the day of the Resurrection. The Resurrection is not only a miracle…it is a spectacular sign of the entrance into the world of a power superior to violent contagion.”

This is why, as Girard points out, that the message of Jesus is the only message the world has ever received that destroys the cycle of violence, that delivers us out of this cycle and brings us into shalom by exposing violence as the dead end cycle of nightmare and the lie that it truly is.

This is the Christian alternative.

Our Lord is the Prince of Peace and we are the people of peace – the people of shalom – the people of flourishing. We cannot then operate in the lie of Satan’s violence because it will always steal, kill and destroy.

Violence in any form or function will always destroy us – that is its primary aim and concern. It is a power we cannot wield and should not try because any attempt to use violence as a means of peace or protection will result in us being consumed and controlled by the forces of this violence.

We need someone stronger – we need Jesus.

Satan is falling…his ways are exposed and defunct because Jesus is giving us another way – the way of peace.

So Christians, do not be deceived, violence will not drive out violence – violence is not the way of Jesus – violence will only destroy us and everything we hold dear.

There’s a better way to live, a new set of rules to follow – the rules of peace. And true peace never comes through the hands of violence – it always comes through the power of sacrifice, love, embrace and resurrection. This is our message, our distinctive and the path that leads to life.


 

For a more in-depth discussion of this you can listen to the sermon I gave on this listen here: I Saw Satan Falling

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternative Christmas Shopping Guide

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Did you know that Americans will spend over $600 billion on Christmas gifts this year.

What?!!!

That’s a lot of money. And what do we have to show for it? Sure, some people give gifts that we really need and really want but stats show that most gifts are discarded, thrown away, or forgotten in 6 months. Seriously. 6 months!

Most of our lives are overstuffed with stuff. We have more clothes than we need. Our kids have more toys than they need. Our teens have more video games than they need. We just have too much stuff. We even have to buy bigger homes to store our stuff…what! All the while, there is so much pain in the world around us.

Imagine if we spent $600 billion on alleviating poverty, investing in education for our under-resourced kids, investing in homes for trafficked teens…

My kids don’t need more toys. I don’t need more clothes. In fact, my kids need to learn from a young age that we reject consumerism and embrace justice, mercy and life. We disciple our children in the way of consumerism and wonder why they grow up and give so little?

Every year at Transformation City Church we try to encourage our members to spend less on Christmas gifts and give more to organizations that bring life to the world.

Christmas is about life. That’s what God is giving us – so why in the world have we made Christmas into a no-holds-barred consumerist extravaganza that buries any sign of true life? (Are we disciples of consumerism too?)

This Christmas – let’s tell our friends, our families, our kids that we didn’t get them a gift (or got them less) because we made a donation in their name to an organization that brings life, feeds people, invests in hope, gives a future and provides freedom.

What if every Christmas in America spent zero dollars on gifts and invested it all in organizations that give life. Imagine what $600 billion could do in the Kingdom of God.

Would you consider this?

Here at TCC, we have list of places you can give to our partner organizations. Instead of giving an ugly sweater make a donation to one of these organizations and then make your friends and family a hand made card with a note explaining the gift you gave in their name, what the organization does and why it is dear to your heart.

Now that’s a gift!

TCC Alternative Christmas Giving Guide:

Send kids & teens to summer camp:

Buy an $25 ornament & send a kid or teen to summer camp.

Each year we take over 20 kids and 30 teens to summer camp in northern Wisconsin to have an incredible time and learn about Jesus. Many of these kids cannot afford to pay for their trip. This year we have had special red ornaments made up with TCC’s logo on them and we are selling them for $25 on Dec 6, 13 & 20th at TCC. Each ornament will pay for 1 day of camp for 1 kid/teen. Feel free to buy several and give them as a gift to others.

Inhabit:

Give to Inhabit and impact an under-resourced neighborhood

Inhabit is our sister organization that rehabs foreclosed homes in Milwaukee’s central city and recruits Christians to live in these homes to serve and invest in these under-resourced neighborhoods. Through this ministry so many are being trained in urban ministry while at the same time impacting lives in a deeply relational way – introducing people to Jesus, helping to meet need, loving both kids and adults and so much more. Your gift of $25 or $50 will help continue these relationships and help build more of these homes. www.inhabitmke.org

Exploit No More:

Give to Exploit No More and help provide aftercare for a Milwaukee teen rescued from sexual slavery.

Your gift will go towards helping provide a home for girls rescued from local trafficking and sexual slavery. I don’t think I need to say more. Every dollar counts.  www.exploitnomore.org

International Justice Mission:

Buy” a gift from the International Justice Mission Christmas Gift Catalog

Help this organization rescue people from modern day slavery and human trafficking and provide the needed aftercare to help them establish a new life. Pick one of these up at TCC’s Info table in the cafe or look at it online at: https://ijm.org/gift-catalog/gifts

There are so may other great organizations to give to. Find them – give to them – and give life this Christmas. After all – that’s the best gift we could ever give to anyone.

Let’s remember what Christmas is all about – not giving gifts that just add to our collection of accumulation…but rather giving gifts that bring life.

 

Review & Interaction: Between the World and Me

ta-nehisi-coates-between-the-world-and-me-1c2From time to time I have the privilege to read a book that thrusts me underneath the awakening weight of the universe and allows me to understand how small I am and how little I understand about the world. Between the World and Me is exactly one of those books.

As I read the closing words of this narrative that leave me with an image of the downpour of rain upon the soul of a city I am left speechless and shaking, wondering what the future may hold for us all. Numb from this shock sent through my personal experience I am left with one haunting question.

The disrupting self-revelation that this book brought me to is simple in its soul crushing complexity: How is this possible?

As a white man I feel as if he is describing an alternative dimension or a parallel universe or Middle Earth. But he isn’t, and this is exactly the reason for the chill that runs down my spine. He is simply describing a place just down the road from where I grew up and of an experience of a person who is so like me in every way but one.

He is simply describing [in a letter to his son] what it is like to grow up in America with dark skin, as a black man.

Thus, I am left stunned and confused. I had no idea. Yes, I am deeply committed to racial justice and equality. I am pale skinned but I have studied the civil rights movements, read and embraced James Cone, Baldwin and Cornell West. I have been captured by King’s sermons and tried to preach with the same zeal of prophetic hope in a world held captive by the economic and social divisions of the American dream. I fully support #blacklivesmatter…

But I did not know.

I did not understand. And let us not be silly – just because I read some words on a piece of paper about the black experience does not mean I now miraculously understand. I do not. And this is precisely the crushing beauty of this work for me.

Between the World and Me turned on an unbearably bright spotlight to the reality that I, as a white boy, grew up in another world, another universe, and I do not and cannot understand what it is like to be black in America.

The theme that weaves Coates’ message together is the urgent task for the black community to protect their bodies. Speaking of his childhood on the streets of Baltimore he says,

“To survive the neighborhoods and shield my body, I learned another language consisting of a basic complement of head nods and handshakes…fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not – all of which is to say that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing my body.”

He alludes to being jealous of the white kids living in the suburbs whose only fear was of poison oak – while each day his whole community was dominated by fear that their bodies would be destroyed and their legacy spilled like a glass of wine on the street.

As I stop to consider my own childhood I have trouble pinpointing a consistent fear that dominated my days. I was one of the children he described.

Again, speaking to his teenage son from the depths of his own experiences of fear and survival he says,

“…But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful – the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements…You have to make peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold.”

But his communal memory does not stop there. Coates goes further and leaves nothing to be shielded from this history – as it should be. As Americans we want to believe that the idea and dream of America is “just.” We want to be naïve in our understanding of American history but to be naïve is to lie to ourselves and our children. Coates reminds us of the truth, of what the American dream has cost black bodies.

“Here is what I would like for you to know [son]: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor – it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be causal wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial.”

And this destruction of African-American bodies does not stop with slavery. Speaking of the modern-day ghetto he says,

“And I knew that there were children born into these same caged neighborhoods on the Westside, these ghettos, each of which was as planned as any subdivision. They are an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we all, all again, plundered of our dignity, of our families, of our wealth, and of our lives…The killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit were created by the policy of Dreamers, but their weight, their shame, rests solely upon those who are dying in them. There is a great deception in this.”

Yes – I have been deceived. I have been lied to. I have been told that the American dream was open to everyone and that it grew through God’s blessing, just laws and equal economic opportunity. I was told that my world was the way the world was.

I’ve been living in a dream world and I’m one of the “Dreamers” he speaks of when he says,

“The Dreamers accept this as the cost of doing business, accept our bodies as currency, because it is their tradition. As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guestroom, their finished basement. And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodes are a natural resource of incomparable value.”

My white life has always been so greatly valued, so greatly protected. I have been at the center of the American experience and felt so comfortable – like a fish in an ocean of water created just for me to swim in. The “mastery of the galaxy” was my aim and within my grasp, I was told.

But Coates forces me to contend with a world that I have not known, a world that I have been protected from, a galaxy of fear and disembodiment. Further, he forces me to recognize that my dream world has been built upon his nightmare.

No, this book was not written to me – it was written as a letter from a father to his son so it is as if I have overheard a conversation, kneeling at the door listening to what is being said inside another room. But yet, this is part of its power. As I stand and begin to walk away from my listening position my head is swimming – dizzy with the awakening reality that I do not and cannot understand the experience of black men and women in America.

This realization is simultaneously haunting me, challenging me, liberating me, convicting me and pushing me towards a new hope; a hope that we can commit ourselves to truly hearing the truth from one another, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable this truth may be. That we would stop telling and believing lies about what really happened at Wounded Knee or with the lynching tree or with Travon Martin. Because as one much greater than I has said, “The truth will set you free.” Thank you Mr. Coates for telling me the truth. Your work has truly left an monumental impression upon my inner most being because you have helped me to understand that:

I do not and cannot understand your experience, or your pain, or the weight your community bears living underneath the suffocating exhaust of white supremacy – or should I say, the normal day-to-day white default worldview.

And it is precisely within this space and beneath this weight that I, and so many like me, must now proceed if we are to wash ourselves clean of the American dream built on and for the superiority and prosperity of “whiteness” and embrace a new dream of dignity, hope and mutual flourishing for everyone, everywhere.

The curious case of Jesus’ radically inclusive Jubilee Kingdom & John the Baptist’s question: “What is going on? This can’t be right…”

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Remember John the Baptist?

John the Baptist and Jesus were cousins and probably grew up together. They must have been close, right? We don’t know a lot about John the Baptist but he plays an incredible role in the early part of the Gospels and a highlight comes when Jesus comes to JB to be baptized.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, at the baptism John seems to completely understand that Jesus is the Messiah and to be fully on board with Jesus’ messianic movement. Wouldn’t you agree?

But just a few chapters later things seem to have changed. As we in Luke 7, the now imprisoned John the Baptist sends a delegation to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one, or should we expect another?”

Wow. This is a tough question.

This is not a question that seems to affirm faith in the ministry of Jesus.

This is a question of doubt…of uncertainty.

Just a few chapters earlier John was fully on board with the Messianic movement of Jesus but now it seems he’s not so sure. So what has happened between chapter 3 and chapter 7?

Luke 4-7 happened.

Jesus was doing what no one expected.

You can read for yourself…Luke 4-7 is an unrelenting deluge to the reader of Jesus’ mission of embracing the outsider, crossing ritual purity boundaries, standing up for those who had been left out of the covenant community (the “sinners”) and giving hope to those who had been marginalized and cast aside – including those who had previously been denied access to God’s mercy such as Gentiles, widows, tax collectors, lepers and women.

Jesus is preaching about loving your enemy, forgiving and releasing people from debt, Jubilee economics and thus re-framing poverty as an issue that the rich and powerful are responsible for by saying “blessed are the poor” and “woe are the rich.” Jesus is flipping the script on the root cause of suffering and exclusion.

To this, the religious elite were having freak out breakdowns – the text of Luke here is building a tremendous amount of tension as the elite are plotting a way to rid themselves of this upstart populist leader.

The text seems to be indicating to us that reports of Jesus’ radical and unexpected messianic mission had reached John. And from John’s reaction it seems clear that:

John is now questioning Jesus’ authenticity.

John is now questioning Jesus’ mission.

John is now questioning Jesus’ faith.

Are you the one or should we expect another?

Jesus’ ministry of radical inclusion of the marginalized, the outcast, the “unclean,” the enemy, the indebted, the ethnically different, the vulnerable and the isolated was not what John was expecting.

Considering it on a personal level, this must have stung a bit for Jesus to hear – here is his cousin, probably a close friend, one who had already declared his support…now questioning.

Jesus keeps his cool and gives a simple reply, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

This is the messianic vision of Isaiah being fulfilled.

Jesus is inaugurating a Kingdom which looks like a festival of salvation. He’s embracing those who have been pushed aside and exploited. He’s challenging the unjust power of the elite and opening the doors of God’s grace wide to all for all to enter.

To borrow a line from Eugene Peterson – “Jesus is more political than any of us imagines in a way that none of us guesses.”

Jesus seems to be intentionally finding those who have been most excluded from power and privilege and building the new Kingdom work on their leadership. This makes the privileged angry as they begin to question Jesus’ authority (“who has the power to forgive sin?”) – which is a way to challenge his faith, his authenticity.

And so was John.

Unfortunately it seems, things haven’t changed much…

When a church or ministry begins to embrace those who have been “kept out,” those who are not “ritually pure,” those who are not seen as “valuable,” and embraces those who are most vulnerable…people will question your faith.

Friends will ask you, “Are you a Christian?”

When you begin to build friendships of mutual reciprocity with those who have been excluded from the economic bazaar of American capitalism and you realize that inequality is out of control and the root cause for the suffering of your friends – and when you speak up about this issue people will call you a socialist, a communist and maybe even “un-American.”

These are all ways to discredit your ministry.

I was having coffee one day with a leader of mega church from the suburbs and we were inviting them to be part of our ministry that seeks to offer a place of sanctuary for underage victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking and he looked across the table and said, “No, we are not going to partner with you because we believe you teach liberation theology.”

** They were using “liberation theology” as some sort of bad word which makes no sense to me as it very good word to me…but you see what is happening here.

When a ministry challenges the status quo, the power of the religious establishment and the economics of a system that is exploiting the vulnerable and seeks to establish friendship of covenant with the excluded, marginalized and vulnerable…people question your faith.

When you embrace the LGBT community people call you “un-biblical.” When you embrace radical non-violence and call into question the violent ideologies of the American war machine and “holy self-defense” that our extreme nationalism produces – people say you are twisting Jesus’ words and should “stay out of politics.” When you challenge economic systems and embrace Sabbath economics people say you are communist.

As someone said, “When one is accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

When we challenge the church’s hegemony by radical inclusion, radical generosity, racial and gender equality, radical discipleship, sacrificial love and radical solidarity…people feel threatened.

Jubilee is costly to those who have the most to loose. It was in Jesus’ day – and it still is in ours.

Jesus was much more than a spiritual guru who came to improve our lives and offer us eternal security. The message of Jesus’ Kingdom had real economic, social and religious consequences.

Everyone, everywhere now had free access to God without a religious arbitrator. Everyone, everywhere was now part of this new Sabbath economy of sharing and mutual care where everyone had enough, debts were written off, and there would be no poor directly because the rich would find freedom and life through giving up their riches and entering into relationship and seeking the benefit of those living in poverty.

As I heard recently, “the rich and the poor hold the keys to each others liberation.”

And no one, anywhere would ever need to suffer under the shame and hateful bigotry of the religious community excluding them. The ramifications of Shalom meant that you were now fully included in God’s new work. “Go in peace…Go in Shalom…”

The ministry of Jesus was about bringing life…about bringing liberation…about bringing Jubilee.

This was even hard for John to accept.

And from my perspective, it seems that it is still hard for a lot of the Church to accept today.

White Fragility & the Racial Perception of Opportunity

2787_35Let’s start out with the obvious…I’m a white man. I grew up in a mostly white rural environment but now live and work in mostly African-American community and pastor a church that is dedicated to being a multi-ethnic community of faith.

As such, I’ve had a lot of conversations about race and only now am becoming comfortable in those conversations. But I remember the first time race discussions really shook me – I was at a CCDA conference (they equip and empower urban ministry leaders) and it seemed like every speaker was just laying into white men for being the root of evil in our world. Well – they weren’t saying that, but that’s what it felt like to me.

Realistically, they were just calling out the obvious – that white people, and white men especially had held the grip of power for all of American history and the decisions and domination of white men were obviously linked to the current situation of racism and economic isolation of communities of color.

And I reacted. Like I had caught a bad rash. I grew hot with fury. Finally, I could not take it any more and left. I refused to attend any more of the conference.

I said things like, “This is not my fault…” “I can’t help I was born a white man…” “Don’t attack me, I’m not the problem, I’m joining your struggle…”

What I could not realize then, but do now, is that the speakers were not attacking me for being a white man, they were simply calling out the truth of systematic racism and as such I was part of that history whether I liked it or not, whether I was encouraging it or not, whether I was helping in the struggle or not.

But why did I react this way? What was going on? Here’s why:

White Fragility

Dr. Robin DiAngelo, author of What Does it Mean to Be White, defines white fragility as “Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement that we are either not consciously aware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We experience a challenge to our racial worldview as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. It also challenges our sense of rightful place in the hierarchy. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as a very unsettling and unfair moral offense.”

Yep – that sounds about right. This was my experience. I was fragile. I felt like any discussion of race was an attack on me and as such was an attack on my morality – and it was deeply unsettling.

Dr. DiAngelo goes on to explain that “The systemic and institutional control of most of the power in America that white people afford allows those of us who are white in North America to live in a social environment that protects and insulates us from race-based stress. We have organized society to reproduce and reinforce our racial interests and perspectives.”

So when we encounter challenges to our position which disrupts our organized (and subconscious) racial worldview (that we do not normally encounter) we withdraw, defend, cry, argue, minimize, ignore, and in other ways push back to regain our racial position and equilibrium.

A few years ago I was like a white porcelain doll – I had a lot of white fragility. I would crack at the first sign of stress. Thankfully, I’m recovering with the help of some of my non-white friends who are leading me through.

Ultimately I’m understanding that when people talk about racism and the part that white people (and/or white men) have played in maintaining that racism they are not necessarily pointing the finger of accusation at me personally – but they are pointing the finger at a system that I am personally part of, that I personally represent, and still greatly benefit from…personally.

So it isn’t personal – but it is personal.

Why is this the case? Why do I get freaked out when non-white people start talking about “white privilege” or “racism” or “systematic oppression” – why do we respond with “white fragility”?

The big reasons are these –

  1. That white people have had the luxury (for the most part) of living segregated lives from communities of color,
  2. White people have been propagandized (through American history, American media, etc) into a sense of racial superiority
  3. White people have not suffered under the effects of racism therefore it is hard for us to see and feel and thus acknowledge it as “real.”
  4. Finally, white people have benefited greatly from all of the above and have a deep sense of comfort in the way things are racially – in the racial status quo.

As DiAngelo says once more, In the dominant position, whites are almost always racially comfortable and thus have developed unchallenged expectations to remain so. We have not had to build tolerance for racial discomfort and thus when racial discomfort arises, whites typically respond as if something is “wrong,” and blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of color).”

Example: When white people try to claim that #Alllivesmatter in response to #Blacklivesmatter – this is white fragility trying to reclaim the space of the status quo of racial comfort thus blaming the #Blacklivesmatter movement as being “racist” or “out of touch” or most notably, “violent.”

Because white people can’t take it. This shakes us up too much. We aren’t used to hearing this and our defense mechanisms immediately take over to try to stabilize our equilibrium.

What we don’t realize – due to our isolation – is that communities of color have not had equilibrium because our dominant-white-people’s-equilibrium does not allow for it.

This week some great stats came out from PBS and a Marist Poll that showed just how out of touch the white community’s perception of black lives truly is. Before you look at them, how would you answer these questions:

Do you think that white people and African-Americans have the same opportunity in equal justice? Yes or No.

Do you think that African-Americans have the same access to job opportunities as white people? Yes or No.

Here’s what the polls say:

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Now, why do we see such discrepancy between these answers? I think because we live isolated and segregated lives.

Finally, Dr. DiAngelo gives us the ways to recover from our isolation, our white fragility, and embark upon a future of togetherness by saying, “The antidote to white fragility is on-going and life-long, and includes sustained engagement, humility, and education. We can begin by:

  • Being willing to tolerate the discomfort associated with an honest appraisal and discussion of our internalized superiority and racial privilege.
  • Challenging our own racial reality by acknowledging ourselves as racial beings with a particular and limited perspective on race.
  • Attempting to understand the racial realities of people of color through authentic interaction rather than through the media or unequal relationships.
  • Taking action to address our own racism, the racism of other whites, and the racism embedded in our institutions.
  • Stop trying to deny someone’s experience by saying, “You are being too sensitive” or “you should not have put yourself in that situation” or “you are over reacting” or “it is your own fault…”

I will admit – I’m recovering. I once broke out in a rash over this discussion and desperately wanted to defend my own position and lash out at the opposing opinion. But there’s a better way – there’s a way of together. There’s a way of seeing the centralized pain of other people and the suffering that racism has caused them and although I may not directly be “a racist” I am personally involved.

That means I have to take personal action.

Not action out of being offended but rather action that seeks the benefit of my neighbor and my friend over my own. This is the call of Christ.

There is a great disconnect in this country when it comes to race as these polls clearly show. What is my role? To stand with those who are suffering, to genuinely listen to their perspective and seek their benefit above my own – not seeking to maintain my privilege, not seeking to justify or rationalize my privilege but rather – to stand with, for and among my non-white friends. To dwell in their story and their experiences.

Because my future is tied to their future – and none of us have a future if some of us are suffering.

White people – let’s be less fragile and more willing to bear the weight of the suffering that racism has unleashed.

This is personal.

Being a “fisher of men” might not mean what you think it means…

When Jesus says to the first disciples, “From now on you will fish for people” in Mark 1 we seem to automatically think that Jesus is calling them to a life of evangelism in order to gather up “people in their nets” thus saving people from this evil world and “saving their souls.” If you grew up in church you probably sang the song and made the craft. This understanding then dictates how we see the ministry of Jesus through the rest of the Gospel narrative as one that is primarily concerned with getting people to heaven.

But this is not what Jesus meant here…at all.

I think Jesus was calling the disciples into something much more radical – and is calling the church to something more radical as well.

We must remember, when Jesus encounters these fishermen in this fishing village alongside the Sea of Galilee – he is encountering people who have been highly marginalized by the oppressive system of taxation, tolls, the ceasing of land and social marginalization. These oppressive economic systems were destroying the common people’s lives. With taxes above 50% the people were left with barely enough to survive on and nothing to support their communities with. This was a far cry from a “free market” of today and we must be careful not to place our capitalistic understanding on the text. Rome and its regional leaders sucked the land dry of all its profit, leaving virtually nothing for the people.

Understandably, the people were desperate and angry that their beloved communities had been turned into plantations that benefited the rich and powerful. Although we would like to overlook these facts of history, to understand Jesus, his mission, and the call of the disciples we simply cannot. Our faith is rooted in the specifics of history.

The fact is, this term “fishers of men” is used previously in the Hebrew Scriptures in several occassions. We find it used in various ways throughout the prophets in Amos 4:1-3, Ezekiel 29:3-5, Habakkuk 1:15-17 and most pointedly in Jeremiah 16:16 that says, “But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the Lord, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.

But who is being rounded up here? Who is the “them.”

Each of these references uses some variation of “fish hooks, hooks, nets, or fishermen” all in reference to one thing: to declare God’s judgment upon whoever oppresses the poor and marginalized. In each of these Scriptures God is using fishermen language to say that there is coming a day when the systems of power and privilege will be overturned and God’s justice and mercy will restore and renew those who have been exploited. The oppressors will be rounded up in nets so that they can no longer oppress and destroy!

This is the great message of hope in the Scriptures and the basis for the “good news” that Jesus declares in the inaugurated Kingdom of God – An upheaval of the social systems that have been based in exploitation, marginalization and greed and replaced by Jubilee.

So when Jesus tells the disciples, “Fear not, from not on you will be fishers of men” he is using prophetic language that is directly rooted in one thing: God’s judgment upon the powerful who have dehumanized the people.

This call is not about evangelism and neither is it about the “saving of souls” or about the eternal security of heaven. It is more radical than that. It is about the establishing of a new Kingdom that directly counters the kingdom of Rome.

These disciples were being called into something dangerous and outrageous. No wonder Jesus told them to “fear not.” (Luke 5)

When we see that Jesus is calling the disciples into a new movement that was proclaiming this new Kingdom (which was good news for the poor and really bad news for those who were profiting off of other people’s misfortune) we begin to get a glimpse of what the ministry of Jesus was all about: Deliverance. Liberation. Renewal. Life.

As Ched Myers says, “The “first” call to discipleship is an urgent, uncompromising invitation to “break with business as usual.” The world is coming to an end for those who choose to follow. The kingdom has dawned, and it is identified with the discipleship adventure” (Binding the Strongman).

The first disciples were being called into a whole new world that would stand with the marginalized and powerless and declare God’s power to set all things right, that would overturn the status-quo, and establish a new revolutionary Kingdom reality where all oppression ceased, people found hope and freedom as they worship and followed this Jesus and where people would find life – true life, deep life, eternal life. Yes, it was even an opportunity for the oppressor to repent of their oppressive ways and find life as they were “caught” and spared.

This is the call of the first disciples, the call of the early church, and also the call of the church today. To be “fishers of men” means that we too, the church of today, will need to break with business as usual, divest ourselves from power and privilege, stand with the hurting, trust in the Lordship of Jesus and stand against any and all dehumanizing activity that would seek to steal, kill and destroy.

Truly, the church is not called to be a social club or a life enhancement strategy but rather a radical and counter cultural force, empowered by the Spirit of God, to worship and follow the Lordship of Jesus, confront injustice, stand with the powerless and vulnerable (never with the powerful), proclaim and live out the economic principles of Sabbath economics, participate in radically generous acts of compassion to those within and outside of the church and to seek to live by the restorative and renewing principles of the Kingdom of God.

I don’t know about you, but for me, this is difficult and I often find myself getting back into my boat and picking up the same nets I once dropped, seeking security and familiarity. For me, following Jesus is a daily adventure of commitment. There are some days it all seems a bit too much, too radical, too revolutionary.  I imagine the disciples probably felt the same some days, wondering what in the world they got themselves into…

But as difficult as it may sometimes be, this is the radical call to be “fishers of men.” It was the call then and it is still the call now.

May we daily drop our nets, get out of our boats and embark upon the Kingdom adventure of radical discipleship. Because truly where else would we go? Jesus has the words of life!


You can listen to a deeper investigation of this text in my sermon “Radical Discipleship” found here.