Three Approaches to a Hard World
Most people I know and meet tend to fall into three groups when it comes to finding hope for the world:
- Religious Hope: If this world’s great mess is going to be resolved it will come in a religious way or by some sort of divine intervention. God will save.
- Political/Scientific Hope: If this world’s great mess is going to be resolved we will need to find political/scientific solutions.
- Personal Hope: the world is too big to save. I need to secure what is good for me and my loved ones in any way I can to get from 0 to death with a maximum of pleasure and meaning and a minimum of pain and suffering.
People aren’t purely one or another, most of us have all three rolling around inside of us, but it is often that one is central and the others more subdued.
The interplay of these approaches gets interesting.
People pursuing the “personal hope” usually begin to play with politics or religion as they get closer to death. They worry about their children. They wonder about an afterlife. A “personal hope” can get lonely, shallow and selfish in the long run.
Likewise the political/scientific hope can wear thin in time. The Twentieth century was a test case in both accomplishment and disaster. We had a number of astounding successes on a global scale:
- Antibiotics, vaccines, modern medicine have cured disease like never before
- Fixing nitrogen from the air allowed world population to soar beyond 4 billion, the natural carrying capacity of the planet without synthetic fertilizers
- Modern state’s social safety net: social security, public health care, etc.
While we did this, we also saw our new-found capacity gave us power to destroy
- Population has exploded to levels that threaten the natural ecosystems that all human life depends upon.
- Environmental devastation through CO2 and other forms of pollution and over production.
- The modern state was capable not only of giving stability to a population but also of massive war and genocide. Two world wars that killed millions of people directly and indirectly followed by a nuclear cold war. We don’t know if this is sustainable. Failed states are multiplying leading to terrorism and genocide.
The great story of political salvation imagines that perhaps all of this can be overcome. Perhaps we as a species can, as we have done before, surmount these obstacles. We keep rising and rising until, however, we can rise no more. CS Lewis articulated this myth well.
Man has ascended his throne. Henceforward he has nothing to do but to practise virtue, to grow in wisdom, to be happy. And now, mark the final stroke of genius. If the myth stopped at that point, it might be a little bathetic. It would lack the highest grandeur of which human imagination is capable. The last scene reverses all. We have the Twilight of the Gods. All this time, silently, unceasingly, out of all reach of human power, Nature, the old enemy, has been steadily gnawing away. The sun will cool—all suns will cool—the whole universe will run down. Life (every form of life) will be banished, without hope of return, from every inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness, and “universal darkness covers all.” The pattern of the myth thus becomes one of the noblest we can conceive. It is the pattern of many Elizabethan tragedies, where the protagonist’s career can be represented by a slowly ascending and then rapidly falling curve, with its highest point in Act IV. You see him climbing up and up, then blazing in his bright meridian, then finally overwhelmed in ruin.
Lewis, C. S. (2009-06-03). Weight of Glory (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 125). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Ah, the Religious Solution
It isn’t hard to see why humanity keeps coming back to the religious solution. We are too communal to stay individual. We are too rational and emotional to be long satisfied with the political and scientific. Our struggling hearts turn our face to the skies and we declare Hosanna, oh God, save us!
The other two hopes are, of course, not so easily banished. Religion is a show. Religion is a sham. You promise a perfect God but all we have around us are more sinful, abusive, muddling human beings. Point me to any religious system and I’ll find places to poke holes in it. They fight among each other as they fight among themselves.
Skepticism and cynicism about “organized religion” is rampant and with good reason. Many, many people have been “burned” by religion, organized or otherwise. Just as you have refugees from the “personal hope” and “political hope” camps in the religious camp, you’ll find plenty of refugees from the “religious hope” camp in the other two.
Corruption and Reform
Most religions have traditions with cycles of corruption and reform. God or a prophet speaks, something good is established, the good thing is corrupted and the God or prophet acts to try to reclaim or restore what has been lost. This is a common theme in religious traditions and ours isn’t an exception to this.
The Messiah will Purify the Temple
In the story of God’s adoption of Israel no aspect of their relationship was more central than the tabernacle/temple and no aspect was more problematic. The Hebrew prophets saw the abuse of power in the royal courts and temple courts and expected that when the Messiah came he would purify the temple and restore pure, uncorrupted worship and faithfulness. This expectation itself would become, as is so often the case, a ground for more corruption yet. Temple renovation and purification would be a necessary credential for any leader with messianic aspirations. Herod’s renovation of the second temple just before Jesus’ time had messianic aspirations. Other messianic hopefuls would also make purification gestures towards the temple. It should be no surprise that all four gospel tell the story of Jesus’ actions in the temple.
Last week we noted that nearly all revolutionary or reform movements, in politics or religion tend to follow the same pattern.
- Take the stage
- Declare a glorious vision
- Make your demands clear (where the “occupy” movement fizzled): keep the list short, pointed and achievable.
- Amass some sort of power: financial, political, military
- Use this power to achieve your goals usually at the expense of your adversary and their agenda
Either renovating the building of the temple (Herod the Great) or enacting a purification or destruction scene fits easily into this protocol. The temple, in this case, like everything else becomes a tool for the political/religious aspirations of the aspirant. The irony in this of course is that such use of the temple is inherently corrupt. The use of God for my own advancement betrays love of God and diminishes God to the place of a tool.
This becomes the ironic corruptive aspect of prophesy fulfillment. If you do something because it aligns with the public script or messianic establishment in order to establish your credentials as messiah in order to accumulate the visibility, power and wealth to claim the status as God’s instrument you have in a sense corrupted the thing you are supposed to preserve and embody. God becomes yet another tool for human ambition.
Turning My Father’s House Into a Market
David Hayward is a friend of my sister she met when they were part of a large Christian ministry. In this video he tells his story about why he has gotten out of the ministry and left church. His story is not unusual. It is the same observation my friend Curtis Earnest made when he first learned I was a minister. “Ministers are kingdom builders. They build their own kingdom.”
If people with messianic aspirations are using God, they are also using people. The entire agenda of “the world” is “my well-being at your expense” and the higher you climb the political, religious or social ladders the more people you have available for your use. This is deep in sinful nature. We may do it intentionally or unintentionally. If we have status and power we did it to large groups. Even if we have nearly no status nor power we do it to individuals around us.
Skye Jethani on his blog talks about the “Evangelical Industrial Complex“. Christian media ministry, books, videos, etc. have become a nearly 7 BILLION dollar industry. It has gotten so large and lucrative that more than half of Christian publishing is now owned by the six major secular publishing houses. Yes, when you buy a Bible from Zondervans or Nelson the money eventually gets back to Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. I’m not saying this is nefarious, it’s about the money.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus purifies the temple right on the heals of his triumphal entry into ministry. In John the act is displayed more as an inauguration of his ministry. The ability of Jesus to purify the temple itself, without eliciting violent opposition has since the days of the church father’s been seen as a sign. Jesus reactions angrily, strongly, violently against the use of God, his house, and his people as rungs in the ladder of advancement, all in his name.
The greatest judgment that people doing ministry, or making their livelihood from ministry will someday face before the throne of God I believe will be precisely on this point. We use God and his people for our own status, our own power, our own security, our own reputation, our own glory. It is the ultimate betrayal of the core of God’s love.
1 Corinthians 13:4–8 (NIV)
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
Zeal for Your House Will Consume Me
So why is Jesus different or special? Why isn’t he simply doing what Herod the Great or other big men with messianic aspirations have done?
Two conversations follow Jesus actions in the temple.
The temple authorities ask Jesus to somehow establish his authority with a “sign”. They want to see Jesus’ credentials.
In most of the world “God” credentials are either established by a religious institution or by a miraculous sign. Since we believe human beings are bound by the normal laws of nature, only God can break them and so when they are paused or broken we naturally infer that God is doing something.
Jesus here makes a similar point when asked in other places for miraculous confirmation of his authority. While he is known for doing many great signs and miracles, the one he usually points to is the most definitive, his death and resurrection.
When we use people and institutions to make our way to the top it is normally for the purpose of advantaging ourselves over others. We want to establish our fame, power and reputation to hopefully cash in on it some day. The steady stream of volunteers for American reality TV is an example of this. We will do almost anything in the hopes of getting noticed, in the hope of being able to turn this into a great career or name for ourselves.
Jesus offers the most outlandish credential. “I will die and rise again, but just as my miraculous incarnation was not exploited for comfort, gain or security, so also my death and resurrection will not be used to place me at the pinnacle of earthly power.”
Now to cynical ears this too can sound like a cheat. “OK Jesus, so you’ll become a martyr and perhaps your life will be short but for the brief time you’ll at least have the fond hope that you’ll have a legacy. Many play this game.”
And they are right, many do. But Jesus’ claims are far more dramatic. His claim is that the authority to purify the temple is based on his reigning over a world that overturns the “natural” order of “my well-being at your expense”. He claim that what he will do will end all human revolutions as they are played out.
It was in fact his zeal not only the Father’s house but what it was given for that consumed him, not just emotionally, but literally. It was his demand that the religion of God NOT become the tool for “my well-being at your expense” that would bring on his death. His disciples would note this later. Jesus could have talked and healed and done many things, but touching the third rail of religion precipitated his killing.
It doesn’t take much to see the political and personal hope bottom out, but to see the religious hope constantly corrupted drives even the Son of God to his death. No religious institutions however safeguarded will be beyond corruption and beyond our ability to turn it into a ladder for our own benefit and glorification. This is why Jesus is so blunt about the path of his discipleship. It always leads to our own death just like it led to his. There can be no other way.
I appreciate David Hayward’s mission to expose the corruption of the church and the pain it causes the weakest and sometimes most innocent believers. The implicit hope I hear in many such protests, however, I also find naive. You will find the same corruption also in the political hope as well as the personal hope. Individualism is not a remedy for our core problem as serial exploiters and users of people, it just limits the scope. It limits the scope not just of the damage but also the capacity for good.
The path out of “my well-being at your expense” is always the cross. It is only when we willingly give ourselves over to God and our neighbor in love that we begin to understand how Jesus’ sacrifice in exactly this way changes the world and us in its wake. Jesus’ sacrificial death reveals the heart of God himself and the resurrection reveals the promise of God to deliver to us out of grace a new creation working in the opposite direction, “your well-being at my expense” which is the central life of the Trinity.
How we respond then, to this great gift makes the gift go further.
The personal hope attempts to secure well-being at the cost of community, but we were not made to be alone. Life in this age invites us to use each other but love invites us to give ourselves for the other.
The political hope in the light of the kingdom asks that we give ourselves for our neighbors. We see glimpses of this in the best politics, the best government, the best administration and so politics too can be redeemed by the sacrificial light of Jesus.
The religious hope must also be redeemed by Jesus. In this way the pain of David Hayward’s experience is redeemed. He longs to see the church become a place like this where there is love and safety. This comes not through abandonment or religious fascism but through gratitude.