Last week we saw the double bind American culture is in.
On one hand as the NY Daily News front page illustrates few believe that praying is of any value at all in dealing with our problems. A new “meme” even developed called “prayer shaming“. The reduction of prayer to “platitude” makes sense of course if there is no God. It’s just people saying words to make themselves feel better.
It might be important to note that the tensions between prayer and action are well know and much discussed from the Psalms asking God why He hasn’t answered their prayers to the book of James that chastises Christian inaction.
In our context, however, beneath the prayer shaming are beliefs from “there is no God” to “there is no God that hears” to “there is no God that will listen to you because of your beliefs, behaviors, religion, etc.”
As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted our secular society demands that any public hope be practically atheistic and religiously agnostic. If there is going to be any fixing of planet earth it must come from us.
The Best We Can Realistically Hope For
As Beth Williams, staff writer at Salon exhibited in her tweets, however, realistically because of the limitations on human power and collaboration the best we can hope for is a retreat into a private space where we can feel good about ourselves and enjoy small pleasures as long as we can afford them. As a society we make incredible investment into law, the economy, military and police so that we can enjoy what we want when we want it whether that be family or friends or luxuries or distractions according to our taste. This is the best that one can hope for. We are a very Epicurean people.
The irony of this Epicurean culture is that in fact we retire to private spaces to indulge in what we know to be platitudes. We don’t imagine that having a warm fire, a nice cup of tea or a good book to read doesn’t change the world or fix it, it just makes it nicer to me. We must banish public platitudes but private ones are our greatest hope.
In the midst of the first century world tearing itself apart the word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Last week the lectionary didn’t want us to advance and read. This week we get a snippet of his ministry.
Luke 3:7–18 (NET)
7 So John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!9 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 So the crowds were asking him, “What then should we do?” 11 John answered them, “The person who has two tunics must share with the person who has none, and the person who has food must do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He told them, “Collect no more than you are required to.”14 Then some soldiers also asked him, “And as for us—what should we do?” He told them, “Take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay.” 15 While the people were filled with anticipation and they all wondered whether perhaps John could be the Christ,16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I am is coming—I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clean out his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.” 18 And in this way, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed good news to the people.
Not Very Seeker Friendly
In seminary they tell you to use an introduction to get attention. This kind of attention getting would likely not earn you a good grade, however because John begins by insulting his audience. “You bunch of snakes, who warned you to flee from the coming destruction!”
John’s crowd lived, as do we, in a very anxious time. Imagining destruction was not a difficult thing. Judea had always been a restless vassal state unwilling to simply assimilate into the broader life of the Greek and Roman empires. Between brigands and messianic revolutionaries in the tradition of the Maccabees everyone knew that at some point the Jewish pot would boil over and Rome would again come in and lay waste to the nation.
John was living out in the desert for a number of reasons. Wilderness was where God purified his people from Empire Egypt. Wilderness was where God spoke through Moses. Wilderness was where the people fled when empires invaded. In the wilderness the fragility of life and the absence of comfort forced the faithful to turn to God to meet their basic needs.
John asks them a basic question “why are you here?”
The Righteousness of Party Loyalty
While the Daily News prayer shames Republicans on gun control we should note that the Internet was flooded with lots of messages, Christian, secular, and everything in between demanding “action!” The irony is that writing a piece on the Internet about “action” is no more action than writing a public prayer.
Both in the church and in politics we have a habit of assuming positional righteousness.
This is a strong feature of confessional churches that assume that my subscribing to the proper doctrines, traditions and beliefs earn me favor with God. I don’t need to do anything, I just need to think in the right way, support the right church, and God will reward my loyalty to his party and institution with security, prosperity, and heaven at the end of life.
We have a nearly identical reality in the political space. Name your moral political posture. Are you for or against same sex marriage? Are you for or against gun rights? Are you for or against banning Muslims from entering the country. We derive our sense of righteousness by holding the proper position, voting for the candidate or party that subscribes to these righteous causes you confer on yourself righteousness.
If you are all for women receiving equal pay for their work that counts are righteousness, even if you treat the actual women in your life horribly or simply are a woman. You want the government to do something about poverty but you really don’t actually know, are friends with or are involved in the lives of any poor people.
All your righteousness is positional and doctrinal or even simply based on your identity. “At least you are not a white man.”
John knows his audience, knows that by virtue of their ethnic heritage they feel themselves morally superior to the Romans, the Samaritans, and the rest of the world. If Yhwh is going to show up surely it will go badly for everyone else but not me, my ethnicity and my faction within it!
John says being a Jew or cheering for your favorite political party won’t cut it. You need to DO righteousness, not just believe it!
So it might seem that right now John the Baptist and the NY Daily News are on the same page. “Talk is cheap. Action is what counts!”
But then we have to pause and note the two examples that have come forward to John, EVEN the tax collector and the soldier.
Now given the political climate of John’s time and the ferocious culture war of his day we would not be surprised to see Essenes, people who would today be building bunkers and religious compounds in Montana because God will judge American for gays and taxes. We would not be surprised to see Pharisees, who live in the mainstream, go to work everyday, but resist it in small, symbolic ways resist the cultural contamination of their holy land, like by not including snowflakes and snowmen on their Starbucks paper cup. Both of those groups hated tax collectors and soldiers because they were sympathizers and collaborators of the hated Roman occupation. They were benefiting and profiting from working with the political and cultural regime. Why would a tax collector repent?
Now a psychologist might analyze the situation and declare that a tax collector or soldier felt guilt over betraying their familial and ethnic loyalty, so maybe then went out to John for forgiveness, and the we can expect John to give it to them straight. We expect John to say “so stop your tax collecting and quit hiring yourself out as a mercenary to the Romans and join the Jewish resistance!”
Many of us reading John’s moral not terribly aware of the special place tax collectors and soldiers played in their culture war would find John’s moral admonition to be reasonable and sane, but I would imagine a zealot, Essene or Pharisee being not at all content with the level of repentance John is calling for. He’s telling the tax man “don’t gouge so much” and the soldier “stop padding your pay with extortion”. It’s good moral advice of course but why not demand that they quit their tax collecting and soldiering and come over to the side of resisting the Romans?
If you were a Dutch citizen who worked for the Nazis during the occupation how would you justify your collaboration after the Allied liberation? “I was just doing my job”? John’s morality seems “mere”.
Moral Performance as Qualification
If we look at it this way what we might begin to see is that we are assuming, together with the Daily news, that moral performance qualifies for the status of righteous, just like we imagined before that correct belief or political/religious allegiance qualifies for righteousness. John isn’t playing this game at all. The moral demands are not qualification, they are a warning to prepare for the coming of something that will completely change the moral, political and religious universe. These behaviors are not qualification for membership in God’s coming regime, they are rather manifestations of that relationship.
He is not telling them how to escape judgment, or get on the good side of the new strong man making his way into power, he is, in keeping with the message of the Old Testament prophets exhorting them to already begin to reorient their lives for the coming kingdom even they live in kingdom and age before it comes. “Rome might be here today and you will live and work under that regime, but start living like the Messianic kingdom has come!”
John, unlike the Daily News or the new moralism today is not offering advice to save the world. He is demanding they begin to live in the new saved world before it is saved.
John goes on to declare that someone is coming for which he himself, the wilderness prophet cannot qualify to meet. One is coming ready to gather his harvest.
The language there is curious, however. He holds the winnowing fork but his action is gathering. John clearly anticipates a violent apocalyptic trial, but the agent John anticipates isn’t himself that trial. He gathers the grain that has been separated from the chaff in the trial but he himself is not the trial.
This helps us get some perspective on the text because there is confusion as to whether the coming “Son of Man” is himself the trial or if he gathers those who have been purified by it. When we read this passage, like the passage we had in Advent week 1 we get all tied up on knots about prophecy and events and times. Public calamity was coming to Judea and it would come in the form of Romans in 70AD. Private calamity comes into all of our lives, the age of decay takes everything from us in time, we always lose. Our private retreats always give way either to large public calamities or small private ones. There is no safe space in this world. What we do with our insecurities and calamities are what separates us, the wheat from the chaff.
“Prayer shaming” pretends to be realism but again as Na-hesisi Coates and others note realism is dark. If we look around and say “only humanity can save itself” but then we look at humanity, we begin to see that we’re cooked!
So then we retreat into our private space, our private luxuries, our private righteousnesses of party or religious allegiance and we say “ah, I feel safe now.”
John storms in like an unwelcome prophet and says “you fool, your cozy corner is about to crumble. Your righteousness is false and your morality insufficient, who THEN will save you!”
and we are undone.
The one who comes knows our plight. He knows our allegiances are convenient and false and our moralities half-hearted and self-serving. He comes not to judge our qualifications but to step into the distress, to be our morality for us, to take the judgment we deserve and to safe the world from us and for us.
The Christian gospel is not the thing righteousness of party or religious allegiance. The Christian gospel is not simply a better guide for public morality so that we can save the world for ourselves from our enemies. The Christian gospel IS Jesus taking on our judgment, being our morality, and saving the world from us and for us in his cross and resurrection.
If you are the most ardent world-saving-moralist sacrificing everything for the cause you believe in you will divide the world into two groups: those who help and those who hurt and you will always and forever have to resist, despise and condemn those who don’t get with the program. What this perpetuates is of course the divisions that make world saving so impossible. Every moralist sits back and says:
- If only my enemies would agree with me on climate change
- If only my enemies would agree with me on gun control
- If only my enemies would agree with me on traditional family values
- If only my enemies would agree with me on politics
- If only my enemies would agree with me on religion
Morality itself becomes a problem. Then what do you have?
If however you sacrifice yourself out of gratitude in the assurance that the rescue of the world has been accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus, then you can in fact participate in the causes that you see him giving his life for without the anxiety or enmity that moralism demands. Then you can actually lay down your life for love, not for moralistic self-righteous causes which fuel the continual divisions and wars of the world.