Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Bandaids Versus Systemic Change: God's Work

One of the blogs I follow had an interesting take on this past Sunday's emphasis on God's Work.  Our Hands.  I get what he is saying.  Really.  I do.  But I find some of the theology behind the assertion a bit troubling.  Let's think about these statements in particular:

And we did this all the while knowing that acts of kindness and charity are poor replacements for systemic change and activism.

 Really; that’s just the plain truth.  Systems don’t change because I’ve handed a person a sandwich.  Systems change when I press back against a culture that creates the have-nots in the shadow of the haves.

God’s work would be to flatten those economies in a way that changed life for everyone.

So, God's work--His REAL work--would be to flatten our systems of power and injustice and change life for everyone.  That's the underlying theology, isn't it?  Handing out sandwiches is good work, but it's not quite on a par with something grander--an overhaul of the system that causes people to go hungry.  Well, there is truth in that statement.  It would be nice to come up with some sort of system where there were no hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or imprisoned.

But there is a two-fold problem with this theology.

Problem #1: In reality, this is a modified theology of glory; a theology which seeks the boldest and grandest; a theology which seeks a total remaking of the world and its structures; a theology which focuses on the end times promise of a new heaven and a new earth; a theology which seeks earthly comfort in the way I think it should occur.  Oh, that statement will probably cause a little bit of ire, but there is little difference, at least in my book, between saying, "If I just believe and have enough faith, then I will be blessed with wealth and prosperity." and "If I just push back against a culture that creates the have-nots in the shadow of the haves, then I am really doing God's work [and systems will change so that more will have.]"

Whether we like it or not, our focus as Christians comes in the form of the God made flesh: Jesus.  And Jesus wasn't exactly revealing to us the methodology of bringing about such a theology.  He wasn't one to tell his followers to "do the right things and God will bless you."  He wasn't one that said, "Do the right things and you will bring heaven to earth."  He wasn't one going around saying, "We need to push back against this Roman invasion and those who collaborate with it to produce poor people and stomp on people."  He famously spoke, "My kingdom is not of this world."  And it's not.

It involves the creation of a whole new world.  Why?  Because it is we as humans who build the systems.

That's Problem #2: What is the system that God has built to replace that which He supposedly would/could/is tearing down?  Somehow, there is an assumption built into this whole shebang that some system exists that is indeed perfect where human poverty is eradicated.  Somehow, there is an assumption that some system exists which the distinction between haves and have nots is erased.  Looking at the history of the world, has such a system ever been established?

I am waiting for the answer....

Again, humans build the systems of which we are a part in this world.  And those systems are just like us.  They have their good points.  They have their bad points.  They are saintly in some ways.  They are sinful in others.  What more can you expect out of a system put together by beings such as we? 

Even the Church, in all of its myriads of expressions throughout the world does not come close to reaching perfection.  It does not come close to reaching the vision of heaven as articulated by Jesus and the earliest disciples.  Why?  It is composed of humans.  Plain and simple.  In order to create a perfect system, we must achieve perfection as human beings.   Anyone want to take a guess how long it will take for that to happen?

Which brings us back to God's work.  What is God's work?

Perhaps it is a bit old fashioned, but let's remember what the basics of our faith tell us.  You know, those things called the Creeds. 

1. God is creator.
2. God is salvation bringer.
3. God is sustainer.
4. God is sanctifier.

I think it poignant to recite at this point Luther's explanation of the Third Article of the Creed:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.

What is God's work in this day and time:

Calling.  Gathering.  Enlightening.  Sanctifying.

That sanctifying one is pretty important, you know.  That's the one where God comes in and rearranges the furniture deep within us.  Where He makes us holy--more Christ like.  And when we start becoming more Christ like, we start doing the things He asked us to do: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, all those stop gap measures.

Why the stop gap?  Why not something more?  Why not something grand?  Why not something transformational which blew up the imperfect systems of which we are a part?

Well, that would involve blowing us up first.  That would involve eradicating all of our selfishness; all of our desire for more; all of our focus on what we want instead of what we need.  Get rid of all that, and we can have a perfect system.

And that's not going to happen until the parousia--the end of times.  Jesus knew this.  He had the big picture, and He knew sanctification is a life-long process.  He knew the grand things weren't going to happen short of remaking the world, so He taught us to see God's action in places where it hadn't been seen before--like a child and a seed and a prodigal father and a cross.

The grand remaking of the world is still to come.  The trashing of all those imperfect systems is still to come.  In the mean time, God's work continues.  Don't sell it short.


Anonymous said...

Kevin, thanks for this reflection on my article. I think it goes without saying that I don't agree with your take on my "underlying theology."

This is not a theology of glory by any means. In fact, it is a theology of the cross. A theology of glory is not one that simply looks for elevation, it seeks goodness without great sacrifice. That, in a nutshell, is the theology of glory.

Flattening the economic system is cross talk. Check out The Cross in Our Context by Hall. I'm really quite astounded that you'd think it's a theology of glory simply because it is an overhaul of a system. Is this not, in fact, what Jesus tried with his life to do?

The notion that you identify as "Problem #2" is one of nihilism. Sure, no system like the one (what I would call Kingdom of God or Community of God) exists in an overarching way. But is that not the system that God in Jesus began to infect the world? Is this not the alternative economy that Jesus proposes as he eats with sinners and tax collectors and drives money changers from the temple?

I do appreciate the reflection, but I also think you're off base here.

Oscar Romero, Liberation Theology, Cross-talk...there's much creedence to the notion that systemic change the caused by the leaven in the loaf, which we are called to be.

Anonymous said...

*is caused, that should read.

Kevin Haug said...

Thanks for your response, Tim. There wasn't any doubt that you would disagree with my assessment as we have a very different understanding of the Theology of Glory. For I do not simply see the theology of glory as a theology of no cost, but a theology which seeks to remake the world in the way I think it should be (I didn't emphasize that enough in my post, I think). Most theologies of glory revolve around what I think things should be like, and of course, I am the one doing things correctly, and it is always those people out there who need to change or get with the program. Living just a stone's throw from Joel Osteen and having to deal with his stuff on a regular basis has led me to such a place. Although, perhaps using terminology like the prosperity gospel might be a better choice of words.

I read Hall thoroughly in Seminary, and I have found him lacking in many ways. Yet that is beside the point. The question rests upon what Jesus tried with His life to do--you'd argue to overhaul a system. I'd argue to bring reconciliation between humankind and God and, as a consequence bring reconciliation between humans. Such reconciliation occurs regardless of what system is in place which is why the Church has been able to exist and thrive no matter what form of governance has been in place.

And, of course, Jesus pointed the way to the Kingdom of God and its taking root in the world now. However, you and I both know it will not arrive in its fullness until the parousia. Until then, we do our best to enact it; however, there are more than enough examples throughout history to show that the Church has been a very poor example of ushering in that Kingdom whether it has had influence in government, tried to isolate itself and form communes, become involved in the political process, or even form a simple congregation. One way or another, power always becomes a part of the equation, Nietzsche got that part right. Unfortunately, it seems like many in the Church these days who enter into such discussions about smashing systems forget this little nugget. Perhaps it was an assumption of mine to view this in your post. For it seems to me that Jesus, in the economy He proposes seeks the route of powerlessness and asks His followers to do the same.

And I do take great umbrage with Liberation Theology. I was spoon fed it from the earliest days in college and seminary. Luke Timothy Johnson in The Real Jesus offers a devastating critique of the theology and its assumptions.

Suffice to say, we both have very different assumptions grounding our theological take on things. It's not surprising we disagree, and it's not surprising I think you are off base as well. Luckily, it's not likely to matter much in the grand scheme of things.

Kevin Haug said...

Tim, if you take the time to read this, I do need to compliment you on your blog and your thoughts. I appreciate that you do not superficially deal with things. You delve deeply, and for that I am grateful.