Monday, December 9, 2019

Resurrection, Success & Eternal Peace

I saw the movie Risen (2016) recently, which stars the British actor Joseph Fiennes as the main character. He plays Clavius, a Roman tribune detailed to investigate the disappearance of Jesus' body from the tomb he was buried in. Most of the film includes the traditional material from the gospel accounts, but more from a third-person perspective than offerings such as The Passion of the Christ (2004) or The Son of God (2014).
Clavius, a Roman tribune, investigates Jesus' resurrection in the film Risen (2016)
I identified with Risen more than any other faith-based movie. Whereas many Christian films merely portray cultural dilemmas, Risen challenges the status quo in the same way Jesus himself did. Toward the beginning of the movie, Clavius tells Pontius Pilate – the governor of Judea – that he hopes to rise through the Roman hierarchy, perhaps as prefect or even emperor. Yet, he reveals his true goal is to have peace and a life without death. This stands in contrast to Clavius' livelihood as a soldier, in which battles and killing are frequent disruptions to the peace he seeks. Pilate asks him, "All that for peace?" As a military veteran, this line really got to me. When I was a senior noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army, the position was nothing more than a job to me. I served not because I believe in the recruiting posters or political slogans, but to have a secure future for my family. I did not serve for twenty years because of patriotism or national service. Rather, like most soldiers who are honest with themselves, I am investing in a future with peace.

Nonetheless, I am painfully aware that military retirement does not promise a life without problems (e.g., disability, PTSD). The benefits that I receive from the Department of Veterans Affairs cannot save me in this life, nor in the next one. There are still bills to pay, and health insurance does not actually guarantee a healthy existence. Even if I had achieved the next higher rank, it may have included more money, but also less time with God and my family. Clavius laments this in Risen, knowing that ascending even to the office of Caesar will only ever mean warfare and death. He understands that he has to kill people and compete with fellow soldiers for recognition, when his real goal is an estate with his wife and children. Toward the end of the film, Jesus meets with Clavius briefly, telling him that he can have a life of peace in both this life and in eternity – without hurting anyone or gaining a higher socioeconomic status. I am not ashamed to say that I was in tears, because I am struggling with the same questions.

Clavius stands next to the apostles during the Great Commission
Greatly Commissioned to be Children of God

An encounter with the risen Jesus changes us, if we are but willing for it to happen. In Risen, the Lord never directly told Clavius to remove his uniform or to surrender his military rank. However, his time with Jesus and his disciples resulted in a total renewal of his inner personhood, his goals, dreams, methods, and relationships. When we meet Jesus for real, we cannot be the same as we once were. If we forgo our lives of deliberate sin, especially our desire to hurt another individual to get ahead, God restores his image in us – that coveted imago Dei we too often neglect in ourselves and others. Remember when Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" (Matt. 18:3-5).

Oftentimes, church leaders interpret "become like children" to mean eschewing formal education and prohibitions against intellectual pursuits. Conversely, Jesus was certainly not advocating for ignorance, but something completely different. A child has no money, status, title, or position in life. In other words, children do not compete with each other over socioeconomic status like adults do. We can observe this innocence on the playground, where children play with anyone regardless of skin color or how much money their parents make. To "become like a child" is to stop classifying people according to race and income level, but to make friends of all individuals made in God's image. This is our Great Commission ("Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" [Matt. 28:19-20]), to take the gospel to people of all ethnic groups (Greek: ethnos; G1484), not just "nations" in the sense of foreign countries. In order to genuinely celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, we must respect the image of God in all of our neighbors, not just the ones we approve of. Being a child before God means the denial of self, and playing with the other kids on the playground without looking for excuses to divide and accuse. Oftentimes, adults tell children something to the effect, "You will understand when you are older." Stop it! That kind of statement is the directly opposed to what Jesus taught us! To be sure Jesus does not want us to be ignorant, keep this lesson in mind: "Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16). We are supposed to be engaged with the world around us intellectually, but to avoid committing its sins. You cannot dismiss education and be wise, but maturing into adulthood does not require us to contextualize reasons for ignorance and bigotry, either. Simply put, God does not recognize our political boundaries nor our socioeconomic strata, but only our hearts and minds. Remember, Jesus commanded us to love one another. It is sinful to complicate that by being an adult, or making excuses that others "need to understand."

Clavius' life was never the same after he met the risen Jesus

Sometimes, it is awesome to watch films like Risen to understand how Jesus changed the world, and how he still renews it. If you are wondering how I went from talking about seeking a life of peace in a world of violence and discrimination to "becoming like a child," they are really answers to the same question: How should we treat fellow human beings – our neighbors? God did not create our world so we could fight wars and step on others to get ahead, but for us to live in harmony. The peace of Jesus is available to all people, regardless of their status in life. The Great Commission is our calling to offer God's peace to everyone while we, too, seek a life without war, violence, socioeconomic posturing, or hatred.


New Revised Standard Version. New York: Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989.

Risen. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, Columbia Pictures, 2016. Film.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Distributism: The Distribution of Resources to Meet the Needs of All

Two men exchanging some ancient Roman coins.
". . . they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute
the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:45).
Most people believe they must decide between capitalism or socialism when it comes to their sociopolitical choices. To properly understand what each of these theories represent, I give the academic definitions for each. Capitalism features the private ownership of production which establish free markets that guide and distribute income with minimal government regulation. Conversely, socialism calls for public ownership of production and property, mainly with a central government to oversee it. The primary reason I am writing this blog entry is to provide a solution for those who feel disillusioned with both capitalism and socialism. Then, I offer a middle-ground option, which I believe is most in line with scripture. This political theory is distributism, and I will return to it later in this essay.

A Jewish man appears before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
"If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans
will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation" (John 11:48).
Synagogue and State in the First Century

So, how does a post about distributism relate to the overall historical-grammatical theme of Christian Origins/Current Faith? Granted, it is anachronistic to read a modern political theory into scripture. The early Jesus movement could not fathom a society in which they influenced government, let alone voted in a democratic republic. Rome enforced military occupation throughout Judea and did not extend citizenship freely. The relationship between the Romans and the Jews was already tense, so the followers of Jesus inherited this tension. Moreover, it intensified when Christians rejected the empire's mandate, "Caesar is Lord," while openly proclaiming Jesus as king. Whereas we see the title "Messiah" primarily as a religious one, the Romans knew exactly what it meant: Jesus is a king to rival all the kings of the world — to include their emperor (cf. Luke 23:2; John 19:12; Acts 17:7).

Let me be clear: neither Jesus nor his apostles laid out a system of government in their time, and they would not do so today. To be sure, Jesus himself taught, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:21). Likewise, Paul of Tarsus wrote, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God. . . . Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due" (Rom. 13:1, 7). Any thinking adult should know that Jesus is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, neither Conservative nor Labour. Instead, he asks us, "Look, those who wear soft robes fancy suits are in royal palaces ornate government buildings. What then did you go out to see?" (Matt. 11:8). Okay, so in the immediate context, Jesus was asking this question to Jews who went out to the Jordan River to meet John the Baptizer. In short, these people ventured out to see one of God's prophets. We must seek God's kingdom before we trouble ourselves with this-worldly politics. That is not so we should ignore them, either.

"Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean" (Matt. 8:2).
To Meet the Needs of All

When I first started Christian Origins/Current Faith in 2013, one of my goals was to leave politics behind and have fellow Christians focus on biblical theology instead. Too many churchgoers link Jesus with their sociopolitical beliefs rather than more spiritual concerns such as compassion or salvation. I have not completely abandoned this idea, but I have since learned about a political theory I think best increases God's concerns laid out in scripture. In other words, I have a solution instead of just decrying politics as too this-worldly. Although the kingdom of heaven is not of this world, we must show compassion and meet the needs of others before we can introduce it into the hearts of people. However, we must be vigilant in not letting politics be our religion. No politician, no matter how honest or effective, can meet all of our needs. They cannot save us from sin or the consequences of evil. Inner peace and salvation belong to God and to God alone. For this reason, our Jewish brethren often recite a short creed known as the Shema: "Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD alone" (Hebrew: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echadDeut. 6:4).

For national Israel, God did establish a system of government that we would call a theocracy, or the rule of clergy. He wanted the Jews to be a nation in which no one went hungry; no one who worked lived in poverty; all orphans and widows were provided homes and basic needs; no one was ripped off in the marketplace; all government decrees and court rulings were both fair and just; and all worshiped God in spirit and truth. These themes are common to every biblical text, but the most poignant are these words from Jesus:
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . .You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me  (Matt. 25:34-36; 41-43).
To be sure, Jesus began his ministry with a sermon many biblical scholars call the Nazareth manifesto: "[God] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19). This was not just a spiritual message, but a very loaded sociopolitical one. The "year of the Lord's favor" is the Jubilee, in which God expected the Jews to liberate every slave and return all property to the original owners every fifty years (Lev. 25:8-10). Of course, we can say we Christians are exempt from this law, but why did Jesus repeat it several times? Because God's concerns for the oppressed and the poor has not gone away under the covenant of grace.

The early Christians understood this when they first organized their churches. Soon after Pentecost, Jesus' apostles led believers to "sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:45). I can already hear the objection: "Brother, this was between friends and not a system of government." The point is for the church to create a just society, not just a spiritual one. Oftentimes, the church cannot meet the needs of the most desperate people, whether it is a lack of funds or lack of know-how. Sometimes, meeting the needs of the poor involves police protection from all who exploit them. Sometimes, it involves hospitals and insurance. In other words, most churches and individual Christians lack the infrastructure needed to bring justice and life without government support. This was also true of the early church and the Roman Empire.

Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he
distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish,
as much as they wanted. . . . they were satisfied" (John 6:11).
Distribute the Proceeds to All

As a political theory, distributism focuses most heavily on socioeconomic justice for everyone, not just the rich (i.e., capitalism) or the poor (i.e., socialism). Many observers also describe this concept as "Christian democracy" because of its meshing of conservative church teaching with a more liberal view of social justice. It is both center-right (socially) and center-left (fiscally) on the political spectrum. Distributists emphasize the need of a government to defend human dignity, while still allowing education and social values to remain grassroots concerns. They allow corporations to turn a profit, but not to the extent of exploiting workers and the environment without regulation. Distributism calls for the fair distribution of personal property and resources, but also never to overrule basic human rights. For example, an American distributist would have been a strong advocate for slavery abolition and for the Civil Rights movement. However, most distributists are pro-life and against the death penalty. They believe in a doctrine known as the "consistent life ethic," or the "seamless garment." That is, neither government or society has the God-given right to take someone's life no matter what. There is some disagreement over whether war can be justified or if distributism should involve pacifism. At this point, most agree with the traditional Just War Theory.

Historically, distributism is tied most to Catholic social teaching, especially in the writings of British authors G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) and Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953), as well as papal encyclicals such as Rerum novarum (known in English as "Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor"). However, this should be rightly understood as a biblical notion based on Jesus' Nazareth manifesto and how the apostles evenly distributed goods throughout the church. The idea of Christian democracy is open to all believers who want to see God's kingdom in the hearts of everyone. We have no reason to wait for the end times to fix what we should be fixing in the here and now. In fact, this is what we really pray when we say, "Your kingdom, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Or do you just mumble your way through this petition?

"But whoever is joined with all the living has hope,
for a living dog is better than a dead lion" (Eccl. 9:4).

Many European nations already have a distributist party or even laws in place. In fact, Angela Merkel, the current German chancellor and de facto leader of the European Union, is affiliated with the Christian Democratic Union of Germany. The government of Poland is currently led by prime minister Beata Szydło and her Law and Justice (Polish: Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), a distributist party. The fact that women lead these parties shows the egalitarian nature of Christian democracy, in which both men and women may pursue their potential with opportunity. In the United States, the official distributist platform is the American Solidarity Party, which began only in 2011. It is named after the Solidarity (Polish: Solidarność) movement that brought democracy to Poland in the 1980s. However, they also claim "solidarity" as a movement for all people, to bring about a just and equal society in the name of Jesus. That is not to say distributists call for a national religion, but still promote the liberal democratic ideals of conscience and informed decision-making. The official motto of the American Solidarity Party is, "Common Good, Common Ground, Common Sense." This captures the full meaning of its platform, emphasizing the typically liberal concern for social justice; the need to resolve sociopolitical differences through constructive dialogue; and the generally conservative demand for fiscal responsibility. Oftentimes, people on the right and the left criticize those in the middle, the centrists or moderates, for being weak and unable to take a side. However, distributism is a centrist/moderate paradigm with teeth; it has its own meaning and purpose. The goal is none other than the fullest measures of justice and opportunity for all people. This is to maximize the steadfast love of Jesus to everyone, especially to those who need it most.

For a well-rounded case for Christian democracy, check out this collection of essays by various distributist authors called The Hound of Distributism: A Solution for Our Social and Economic Crisis (ACS Books, 2015). 



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New Revised Standard Version. New York: Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989.


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