Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wright is Wrong

What I’m about to say requires two caveats lest I be misunderstood, or worse, misrepresented. First, I have no intention, or interest for that matter, of endorsing anybody for president, for two reasons really: (1) nobody cares, (2) nobody’s business. That said, I do want to comment on the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright’s (Senator Obama’s pastor) highly publicized statements made in sermons over the past few years, not so much as to his politics as his theology, which for Dr. Wright seem to be the same. And that’s what troubles me. In theological terms, the particular constellation of ideas that Dr. Wright espouses in his sermons typically goes by the name “liberation theology.” Simply put, liberation theology understands the Christian doctrine of “salvation” exclusively in terms of “justice” – social justice, economic justice, gender justice, racial justice, environmental justice, etc. The means of creating this “justice” is power; more specifically, a power shift – taking the power away from those who have it and giving it to those who don’t thereby putting the power in the hands of the “right people,” rather than the “wrong people,” thus creating “justice.” I think you know my policy on “power” (see my blog “Pagan Power”).

What I want to comment on is the reductionism at work in all these theologies that wants to reduce the New Testament concept of the “Kingdom of God” to achieving justice (in whatever form) in this world. Anyone who takes the New Testament seriously cannot escape the fact (though some, like Marcus Borg, try) that when Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God he meant “another world” that was breaking in and breaking through into this world, but which should never be confused with this world. (If that needs to be defended to you, you need to spend more time reading “the words in red”!) Jesus’ disciples, then and now, are those who have caught sight of and been captured by this “other world” he called the “Kingdom of God,” and even though they are yet in this world, they are no longer “of” it. As Will Willimon and Stan Hauerwas termed it in their groundbreaking book some years back, the Church is a “colony” of the Kingdom of God, and Christians are “Resident Aliens,” in the world but not “of” it. What that means, among other things, is that Christians can never again feel “at home” in this world because we believe that this world as we know it is doomed and that another world called the “Kingdom of God” is already dawning which will not so much “fix” this world as replace it with a whole new one, at first attitudinally, and eventually (in God’s good time) actually. Therefore, any theology of the Kingdom of God, the Church, and the Christian life that reduces the agenda to “fixing” this world is reductionistic and wrong-headed.

Now the second caveat: That doesn’t mean that Christians don’t have a stake in “justice” issues. Of course we do! Christians, because we’re Christians, must be concerned with social justice and economic justice and gender justice and racial justice and environmental justice, etc. But not because we believe that if we can achieve these things we will, thereby, have brought about the Kingdom of God. Rather we work for these things solely because we’re Christians and that’s what Christians do.

I love the story Jesus told in Matthew 25 about the “Sheep and the Goats.” He said that at the final judgment it will be like a shepherd dividing sheep from goats ¬– sheep on the right, goats on the left (no sublimated political message intended). And the criteria for judgment? “I was hungry and you fed me (or didn’t feed me); I was thirsty and you gave me to drink (or you didn’t), etc.” What strikes me in this story is the fact, usually overlooked, that neither the redeemed nor the damned knew they were redeemed or damned. They were merely being what they were. “When did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or in prison, etc. and we didn’t (or did) help you?” When you stand in the Dock, faking and feigning won’t get it, and it’s too late for reformation – you are what you are. Find a stray cat, bring him into your house, bathe him, feed him, give him a name (call him “George”) and after a while you start to feel as though George is a member of the family, not really a cat anymore at all. But bring a mouse in the house and put it in front of George and you’ll find out what a cat is every time. Jesus says, “Put an injustice in front of a Christian and you’ll find out what a Christian is, or isn’t, every time.” Of course Christians are concerned about justice. We’re Christians, for heaven’s sake!

But notice, the purpose of feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, etc. was not to “eliminate poverty in our lifetime” or “to redistribute the wealth” or “to bring about the Kingdom of God by means of establishing social justice;” rather, the redeemed feed the hungry and visit the sick and help the poor because that’s who they are; that’s what “redeemed” do.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.


Idell said...

I attend a church where Stanley Hauerwas occasionally gives sermons, which usually are complex and a little over my head. But he gave a very memorable one a couple years ago that relates to your post. The lectionary required the reading of a portion of 1st Corinthians 7, which includes the instruction, “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it.” (Picture 200 Episcopalians with high concerns for social justice shifting uncomfortably in the pews). Hauerwas opened his sermon by quoting that verse and saying “JESUS! We wish Paul hadn’t said that!” He went on to say that as Christians, who sometimes aren’t sure if we believe what we say we do, and if we do, we’re not sure if it’s really that different from what everyone else believes, at least we like to think that we can claim the moral high ground. But here’s St. Paul not even bothering to denounce the institution of slavery, which we all know is completely wrong. The sticking point of his sermon was that Paul didn’t think it was the job of Christians to change the world—they didn’t have to “make a difference” because the definitive difference had been made, and his name is Jesus. The job of the Christian, Hauerwas said, is to live in the light of that difference.

Just thought I’d share that memory. Have a blessed Paschal Triduum and Easter season!

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Sounds like vintage Hauerwas. God bless him! wayne

Disciple Tim said...

Dear brother,

Great post! I've always felt that you can't legislate God into people. It's done one heart at a time. Like you said "the redeemed feed the hungry and visit the sick and help the poor because that’s who they are; that’s what “redeemed” do".

Thanks for taking the time to share.

Your brother in Christ,