Monday, April 16, 2012

Following Jesus in New Ways

Alcoholics Anonymous, which is a spiritual approach to living with alcoholism, owes a lot of its ideas and structure to Christianity. Though one is free to define God or the Higher Power however one sees him or it, the 12 steps do take one through a process that is analogous to repentance, confession, restoration and restitution. It is one of the most successful methods of getting and keeping alcoholics sober. Still not everyone who goes to A.A. manages to defeat the disease. That's because, as one of the programs sayings points out, "It works if you work it."

The same can be said of following Jesus. As G. K. Chesterton put it, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." Critics of Christianity do go after the doctrines, only to show that they usually have at best a half-remembered Sunday School understanding of the main tenets of the faith. Often they describe a form of Christianity that is barely recognizable or which reflects the theology of a small minority of those who call themselves Christian. What they mostly trot out are grievous failings of the church, such as the Crusades and the wars of religion. "See what you get when religion is in charge," they say. Putting aside the fact that the Encyclopedia of Wars shows that only 7% of wars were ever fought for religious reasons and account for only 2% of all war casualties, the best response is to point out that all of these actions were done in direct opposition to what Jesus said. Jesus was not the holy warrior people expected. When Peter used his sword to wound a servant in the group seeking to arrest Jesus, our Lord tells him to put down the sword because it is an instrument of death that invites retaliation. Jesus then heals the servant whose ear was sliced off. Now these are people who are about to hand Jesus over to be crucified. Peter's reaction is the typical human one, and as old as the hills--fight your enemy. Jesus' response is something quite new and divine--love your enemy.

The greatest failings of the church has been not so much what it does as what it doesn't do: it doesn't follow very closely key teachings of Jesus. That's one of the reasons why Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible by cutting out Jesus' words from a Bible and pasting them in a blank book. He left out miracles and theology but he felt he was a Christian because he tried to follow those words. (However, I wonder how much of John's gospel he used.) There are people today who call themselves Red Letter Christians; that is, they follow Jesus' words which in some editions of the Bible are printed in red.

But even if we accept the entire Old and New Testaments as God's Word, we have a poor record of following what they say. Even so-called Biblical Christians tend to overemphasize some passages while ignoring or explaining away others. A lot of the hot button issues that divide Christians have little or no Scriptural support. And both liberals and conservatives treat the Bible as a buffet, picking and choosing what they like and leaving the rest. Isn't all Scripture given for our edification?

So what are we to make of this form of socialism which we find arising among the early church? Today's passage from Acts 4 says, "Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet and it was distributed to each as any had need."

This looks like something new. Is it just an aberration? Not exactly. In Acts 2:44, 45, we get this description of the first converts: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." This isn't all the early church did, of course. We are told just before this that "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." In other words, they came together to learn about Jesus from those who knew him, to form a community, to share the Lord's table and to communicate with God. Let's take a closer look at the Greek word for "fellowship." It can also be translated "partnership." Christians are supposed to work together for the good of all. They learned this from the apostles' teaching. It was reinforced by their social interactions with other believers and taking communion together. They would have prayed for any who needed help. So you can see how the sharing of goods arose. Jesus said that what you do to others, especially the unfortunate, you do to him. So if any were needy, this group of Christians did what they could, including selling property so they could help their brothers and sisters in Christ out. They did it so well that no one was in need.

There was the precedent of the apostles who, while following Jesus, kept a common purse. It seems likely that they still held to that arrangement and that Matthias, who was selected to replace Judas as one of the Twelve, replaced him as treasurer as well. Luke tells us that a number of women whom Jesus had healed used their resources to help him.

This generosity, the fact that Christians cared for one another in concrete ways, was noticed by the pagan populace and remarked on by writers of the time. One of the things that changed popular opinion about Christianity was that during outbreaks of plague, rather than fleeing the cities, as did those who could afford it, Christians stayed and cared for the sick at great personal risk. As Jesus said, the world knew his disciples by their love for one another.

However, the financial arrangement we find in Acts chapters 2 and 4 wasn't copied in every city where Christians met. As the church became more mainstream, this kind of communal life diminished. But it never disappeared. Communities of Christians who owned no personal property and lived together, sharing the fruits of their labor, continued. They were the monastic orders. They arose in the 300s AD, about the time that Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. They may have been a reaction to it. And when the Empire fell, they turned out to be the next best thing.

One of the things that Christians are blamed for is the so-called Dark Ages. The idea is that the church took over society and everyone sunk into ignorance. In fact, it was the non-Christian barbarians who were responsible for the lack of literacy and the decline of Greco-Roman culture. In the 400s they sacked Rome repeatedly and destroyed the western part of the Roman Empire. They were warriors and had no use for reading and writing. And we wouldn't know anything about such times were it not for the monasteries. The earliest chroniclers were monks. They also copied books and in their libraries were the legacy of classical civilization. But there was no longer a Southern European, pan-Mediterranean empire to offer political stability, to protect these beacons of light in the Dark Ages, the monasteries, or to maintain the connections between them so they could communicate what knowledge they had and preserved. Unfortunately, many of the barbarians saw the monasteries as undefended treasure houses. They looted them and burned the books, only interested in the covers of Bibles, provided they were jewel-encrusted. It was pagans that made the Dark Ages so dark.

The Huns, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and other barbarians eventually settled down and were converted, or at least told to get baptized by their newly Christianized kings. Now that they had castles and lands that provided wealth and income, they realized they needed literate persons to keep their books and inventory their lands and property. Without irony, they turned to the clerics to help them. That's where we get the word "clerk," from the clerics who could do on paper what their barbarian overlords couldn't.

Christianity brought light back to the Dark Ages and it was largely Irish monks who did so. Their island was spared the early barbarian invasions that hit the rest of Europe. Instead, a Welshman captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland, escaped back home, became ordained and returned to the land of his captivity. In the mid-400s, St. Patrick not only brought Christianity to Ireland but literacy and copies of classical literature as well. In Ireland, the power in the church was held by abbots, not bishops. So throughout the Emerald Island, monks copied the works of ancient Greek and Roman writers and filled libraries that replaced the plundered ones of Europe. And beginning in the 500s it was Irish monks, sent as missionaries to a fractured Europe, who brought culture and literacy back.

Historians credit the Carolingian Renaissance, the flowering of art and literature around 800 AD, to Charlemagne bringing the English monk Alcuin to the Frankish court to teach at the palace schools. Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, learned to read and write a little. He in turn founded monasteries to preserve ancient texts and to teach reading and writing.

Sociologist Rodney Stark says that capitalism got its start in monasteries, which, if they did well, had surplus wealth to invest. They also became centers of innovation, producing things like the clock, which was invented to keep track of the hours for prayer. Monks and nuns set up and ran hospitals. They raised and dispensed herbs as medicine. They started universities and men like Roger Bacon and William of Ockham laid some of the foundations of science.

More germane to our purposes, these communities of people trying to live the Christian life in a purer form, one that gave them ample time to pray, study and think, also became incubators of social and church reform. Sometimes they were reacting against was the corruption they saw in their very midst. Whenever the church got too far from the ideals of Christ, reformers tended to arise from the monastic orders: Bede, Benedict, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther. Few people remember that Luther was originally trying to reform the Roman Catholic Church, not start a new one. The Protestant Reformation he started triggered a counter-reformation in the Catholic Church which dealt with some of the excesses and corruption.

There are still monasteries and nunneries, including Episcopal and Lutheran ones. There are also small non-denominational Christian movements which live on communes that are little different from monasteries.

They all go back to that new idea practiced by the first believers. Still, what happened in the early church makes some people nervous, like Jesus' command to the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor. They think it sounds anti-capitalist, despite Stark's historical argument that it led to capitalism. What these passages really are, though, is anti-individualistic. We put such a premium on individualism and individual happiness that we are repulsed by anything that infringes on what we think of as God-given individual rights. We forget that that comes from the Declaration of Independence, not the Bible. Jesus tells us that we are to disown ourselves before taking up our crosses and following him. That is what the early Christians and monastic Christians tried to do by literally giving up personal possessions and living in a community with only Christian rules. These ideal societies never succeeded for long and were never the practice of the vast majority of Christians, but as we've shown, such communities did a lot of good. The history of the world would be the poorer were there not these places where Christians were experimenting with new types of communities.

In researching these passages from Acts, I found very little commentary on them and nothing dealing with what we should take from these parts of God's Word today. I think it is so foreign from our current mind set, which has grafted our current social and economic philosophies onto Christianity, that we can't process it. And I think we are secretly afraid of even considering this passage too closely lest we discover that it might be God's will for us. It is sad that monastic vocations are at an all-time low. People going into religious orders are considered quaint at best and at worst, a little crazy.

But even though this communal lifestyle isn't mandatory for all Christians, these scriptures tell us that we need to be more concerned about taking care of each other's needs. True, in Jesus' day, there were no comprehensive governmental programs to take care of the needs of the poor. Today there are. And yet there are also moves to reduce what the government spends on the poor, the sick, the handicapped, the aged, children, the homeless and other disadvantaged people. It has nothing to do with saving money. Each US penny, which is 97% zinc, costs more than 2 cents to make. Last year we lost $60,200,000 minting pennies. We continue to do this because of a powerful zinc lobby. The poor, of course, have no large well-funded lobbies.

Churches and charities are trying to take up the slack but they've been caught on the horns of this recession's dilemma: they are experiencing reduced giving at the same time they are receiving increased requests for help. Recently Dr. Joel Hunter, the pastor of a mega-church in Orlando that helps the homeless and works with schools to help feed low-income children, said that all the churches in America would have to double their budgets and spend all of that extra money simply to feed our nation's hungry. And nothing would be left over to help with all the other needs that have to be met. The churches cannot do it alone.

For a "Christian" nation, we don't seem willing to follow the practical implications of our Lord's command to love one another, or to see Christ in the least of people and thus do for them what we would do for Jesus. Part of it is a fear that we are sliding into socialism. That's like worrying about being in a plane crash when we are in far more danger of being killed in a car wreck while driving to the airport. C. S. Lewis pointed out that we are often told to fear that which is least likely to happen, with the result that we fall prey to the opposite temptation. One example is how we are constantly cautioned against sexual repression when that seems to be the last thing threatening to engulf the world. The real spiritual danger facing us is our becoming a more callous, less compassionate society. And this has nothing to do with endorsing any specific political or economic system. Christianity has managed to exist in all. Jesus lived in one of the worst, in which none but a few who were granted Roman citizenship had any rights. The overwhelming majority of the populace were slaves and subject peoples. Jesus didn't call for a political or economic revolution. He called for a spiritual one. He called for us, whatever our status or wealth or situation, to treat everyone, even an enemy, with love. He called for us to put God before money. He told us to go out of our way to help others, as the Samaritan did in his parable. We are to be ready to help the needy anywhere and anytime, as we would family.

The first Christians came up with a creative solution to meeting the needs of others. We need to do the same. I'm not an economist, nor an expert in political science but anyone can see that Christians are not coming up with new ideas these days but are borrowing entire platforms from political parties. They forget that it was Christians who approached Madison to put the separation of church and state in our constitution in order to keep the faith from being corrupted. Now we have a unique privilege. For most of history Christians never had to participate as active citizens in a democratic country. We can and we should. But we mustn't put our trust in politics as we do God. We need to listen to the Spirit and not be afraid of doing things never attempted before. The old human responses don't work. We need to try something else. Fortunately, ours is a God who does new things. And, as he acted through those small groups of Christians, so he will do through us, provided we are willing to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow.

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