Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I’m a Social Justice Christian

Most readers of this post are by now familiar with the statements made by the Fox News commentator, Glenn Beck, warning people of faith that if their places of worship speak about social justice, they should run away. Many Christians, from various denominational and political backgrounds, have already spoken out against Beck’s comments and his equating social justice to Nazism and Communism. Indeed, there is a video circulating the Internet in which Christians from all walks of life declare, "I'm a Social Justice Christian".

I am a social justice Christian. I declare this neither because I can say it better than others, nor because such a movement needs my voice to be effective. I want to add my voice because I desire to join a growing chorus of voices that can move beyond simply responding in opposition to Beck’s comments to bring attention to the need for social justice in this country and in the larger world in which we live.

If there is anything positive that may come of Beck’s comments, and indeed this is already happening, it is that the idea of social justice has come into the forefront of public discussion. That is a very good thing, which I assume Beck did not intend. His remarks have opened the door for us to take this opportunity to reclaim the social justice message that is still at the heart of Jesus’ life and teachings.

I am a social justice Christian, but I have not always been a social justice Christian. The church in which I grew up never talked about social justice. In fact, I was raised in the racially divided south, where the Bible Belt culture of white southern America is perhaps the most stalwart bastion against social justice we might find in this country. The church in which I grew up was more concerned about the salvation of individual souls than the human dignity of a person that justice can bring.

But over the last two decades, since I started honestly reading the Bible, and particularly the stories about Jesus, I have discovered something very transforming. If there is anything at the center of Jesus’ teachings and his actions it is the message that the kingdom of God has come, and that God’s kingdom is no spiritual idea that only promises eternal salvation to lost souls. No, God’s kingdom, as it is announced by Jesus, is the idea of justice, social justice for the outcast, the oppressed, the poor, and the sick.

Given this understanding of Jesus’ message, I am willing to say that if we are not social justice Christians, then perhaps we might want to consider that we may not be followers of Jesus. To use Beck’s parlance, I would say that if your church does not talk about social justice and does not act to bring about progress towards social justice, then perhaps you should run away, or at least you should raise this important issue as fundamental to the church’s identity and mission.

If we are not for social justice, then we have abandoned our following of Jesus and have become followers of an institutional religion that has discarded justice for the poor and oppressed for some sort of salvation for the soul. Moreover, institutionalized American religion has embraced the American idea of individualism above community and the pursuit of wealth above the pursuit of justice.

Yet, to be followers of Jesus means that we are on the side of God who has a heart of Justice. Indeed, the idea of justice runs throughout the Bible as a unifying thread, and most of what is said about justice has to do with bringing justice to others who are victims of a cruel world in which systems have been created that offer power and comfort to some and oppression and pain to others.

I know that some will argue that the church is to care for justice through personal giving and Christian service toward those who are hurting. I would offer an Amen to such a view, but only if this is part of the solution. While some argue that government cannot bear the burden of bringing about social justice, I would argue that neither can the church if it simply encourages individual giving and service.

Yes, Christians should act individually and corporately by living simply and by giving generously to provide for the basic needs of all human beings. But Christians and their churches can only do so much.

We should also take up our responsibility to work together with others to accomplish justice in much broader and sustainable ways. To work for social justice means that we are to utilize our personal generosity and service to help others. But we must also use our voices to support governmental legislation and programs that provide for the welfare of all our citizens, through health care reform, education reform, and yes, tax reform that benefits the least among us. In doing so, we can work to ensure that the programs that bring help to the poor are effectively sustained. Our Christian duty is both individual and personal as well as cooperate and political.

But being a social justice Christian is far from being a socialist or a communist. Indeed, equating socialism with communism is also a mistake. Beck and others use these terms interchangeably as a way of ratcheting up the rhetoric. But caring for the people all around us in ways that lifts them up out of their state of poverty and restores them holistically is not communism; it is the gospel of Jesus.

Broken systems that continue the status quo of marginalizing, oppressing, and holding down those who need to be lifted up must be changed. There must be a redefining of our values that leads to a redistribution of wealth and power so that all may share. Jesus, in line with the Hebrew prophets, challenged the systems of his day that continued the cycle of injustice that not only entrapped the poor and marginalized in their troubles, but also prevented them from experiencing the fullness of human dignity as equal members of the larger community.

Followers of Jesus must stand for social justice that calls us to do more than simply acting as individuals and as churches through our giving. We can give and give to others in order to bring them help and comfort, and indeed we should. But, unless we act as a collective society through enacting just social and economic policies, we will only continue the plight of the poor, the sick, and the suffering.

Continuing along a path that fails to work for social justice in our world will mean that we will not progress as a society that values all humanity as made in the image of God. Rather we will perpetuate and expand a gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, and the sick and the well that will inevitably plunge us deeper into an abyss of materialism and narcissism, and we will fail in our following of Jesus.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mark’s Unsatisfying, but Compelling Ending

Since the early days of the movement that would become known as Christianity, the story of the resurrection of Jesus has been celebrated across many Christian traditions throughout the span of church history. If there is one thing that unites all Christians around the globe, even if they are only loosely united, it is the resurrection story.

In the reflections that I have been writing recently, my focus has been on Mark’s portrayal of Jesus and his disciples traveling toward Jerusalem, the place where Jesus was tried and put to death by the political powers of Rome. Yet, the story does not end at the cross, for it continues to the resurrection narrative, and, in a very real sense, continues to this day.

To understand the distinctive nature of Mark’s resurrection story, as opposed to the other three Gospels, we have to deal first with where exactly this Gospel ends. Anyone picking up an English translation of the Bible can turn to the 16th chapter of Mark and find that verses 9-20 are bracketed off and the reader is directed to a note that generally reads, “Some of the most ancient authorities end the book at 16:8.” This means that the best textual sources available to us have the Gospel of Mark ending in 16:8, while other sources include verse 9, and still others go all the way to verse 20.

This is all too complicated to discuss here, so I will simply state what has become the majority consensus on this issue. The overwhelming number of recognized scholars of Mark believe that the Gospel ends at 16:8. Of course, there is the very slim chance that there was an ending that has been lost, but we have no evidence of this.

It is easy to see why the precarious verses that follow 16:8 would have been added later. All we have to do is read 16:8, where we discover that the women who go to the tomb, where they are told to go tell his disciples to go to Galilee, actually leave the tomb in great fear and they tell no one. Moreover, and perhaps even more troubling, the resurrected Jesus does not appear again in Mark’s story.

This ending must have been very unsatisfying to someone who felt the need to add a more interesting ending, one in which the disciples are told of Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrected Jesus does appear. In fact, Matthew and Luke, who write after Mark, but who generally follow Mark’s outline, were both unsatisfied with Mark’s ending, and thus they included an appearance of Jesus after the resurrection.

But if the ending of Mark is at 16:8, why would the author end the story here without including something other writers felt was needed?

Of course, we cannot travel back in time to talk to the author of this narrative we call the Gospel of Mark. Indeed, Mark may not even be the author’s name. Church tradition ties Mark to this Gospel, but the story never mentions that he is the writer. But we can read what is there in the last chapter of the story and propose some reasons why the narrative ends at 16:8 and what this might mean for our own faith and discipleship.

While having the women leave in fear and tell no one is problematic for us, and while not having the resurrected Jesus appear in the story is even more difficult for us, these may really be the best clues we need to solve the problem of Mark’s ending as it is understood within the framework of Mark’s overall narrative.

First, although Mark does say that the women were afraid and told no one, we must assume that the message of the young man in the tomb did get out somehow. After all, we are readers of Mark’s story, and thus the message was passed on. Since only the women go to the empty tomb and none of the male disciples receive the message directly from the young man at the tomb, we can be fairly certain that these women told someone, even if this is not included in the story itself.

As to their fear, we should take a close look at similar responses to numinous experiences throughout Mark’s story. Responses of awe, wonderment, and fear characterize the way many characters react to Jesus’ miracles in the narrative. The women’s fear is not a fear as if they are scared from a threat. Rather, they have experienced something from beyond the realm of creation; the in breaking of God.

Concerning the missing Jesus, while Matthew and Luke, as well as John, were concerned with this problem, Mark is not worried the least about this. In fact, the absent Jesus works well for his story.

What we should understand is that Mark’s story is not about believing in Jesus’ resurrection. It is about how one follows Jesus. It is a story of discipleship; perhaps even a manual on discipleship.

Indeed, we should notice that this Gospel does not begin with a birth narrative, as do Matthew and Luke. Instead, Mark begins with the baptism of Jesus. Thus, Mark’s story begins at the place where Christian discipleship begins, baptism, and takes us through the life of Jesus, a life defined by challenging the religious and political powers. In this way, Mark’s Jesus is the paradigmatic disciple, who proclaims God’s rule of justice, and who, in doing so, takes up his cross unto death.

The message the young man tells the women, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee,” is a commission to return to the road of discipleship, where one continually follows Jesus to the cross. Thus, Mark’s resurrection story is not so much a promise of what is to come, nor does believing the story require us to believe that Jesus was actually physically raised. Rather, the resurrection story is a story that empowers us to perpetually return to the road of discipleship to follow Jesus.