Monday, November 19, 2007

Jesus: The Opponent of the American Way

I was listening to a great sermon from Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church here in St. Paul and it inspired some interesting thoughts. I am stealing from him the outline (framework), but the title, thoughts, and analysis are mine.

I think we would all agree that Jesus was radical. If you disagree with that, you probably don't know Him. We embrace the radical Jesus when it comes to him talking of the status quo of his day: the hand washing rituals of the Pharisees, capital punishment, authority. But we tend to be less intuitive when it comes to applying these critiques to our present day. What would Jesus say to us, middle class Americans, about out status quo? What would Jesus critique?

Perhaps we should start, as Boyd does, with the essence of what it is to be American. We need to ask some very serious questions about what we see as our role as "a good American" and whether that clashes with our life as a Christian. So here is the framework Boyd used as a critique, the triple pointed basic rights that we owe to all in America and all owe to us. How does this fit with Jesus?


We believe, politically, that we have the right to live, to seek life, to safety, to not be killed. Others are not free to infringe on my right to be alive. this is perhaps the most basic of all human rights. It makes a great deal of political sense.

Jesus, however, asks that we lay down this right. He asks us to take up our cross, certainly a symbol for death, and follow him. We are not even allowed to follow Jesus unless we are willing to die! Certainly this has been the literal reality for many people throughout history, from the Twelve who followed Jesus to out present day faithful ones who are laying down their lives every day. We, as followers of Christ no longer have this basic right to life. Radical, and a bit scary.


We also affirm the right to liberty, that I have the right to live my life however I want, as long as I don't infringe on the rights of others. In addition, I have the right to vote and have a say in who governs me. This, too, makes a great deal of political sense. This is perhaps the most fundamental thing that is somewhat unique to America of these three. It is a form of government that we have both died and killed for en masse.

If we are followers of Jesus, however, we have also given up the right to live however we want. Jesus defines for us certain way in which we have to live. I no longer have a choice on whether I should help the poor, Jesus has declared that I must. i no longer have the option of hating or holding a grudge against my neighbor. Jesus says I must love and forgive. I can't even spend my money however I want. Jesus tells stories that show how all that I have belongs to God, and I am required to be a good steward with what he gives me. Once again, very radical, and uncomfortable.

(The Pursuit of) Happiness

Lastly, we see the right to pursue happiness as a fundamental right. Whatever you want to strive to be as an American you can, you have that right. You can buy what you want, make your own decisions on how to live, what gives you pleasure, and with whom you spend your time. Happiness becomes your goal.

We again find that being a follower of Jesus conflicts with this American dream. Happiness is not our goal if we are disciples of Jesus: we would never strive for something so shallow. We realize that happiness is often a byproduct of our journey towards God as we live out his call to love him, love people, and build community, but it is not the goal. Joy and contentment with what we have are preferred over the empty pit of happiness and pleasure. In fact, we are called to revolt against materialism and endless consumption in our culture and fight for the joy and happiness of all. It is no longer the individual's or the family's quest for happiness, but the communal striving towards the needs being met of everyone, that we might all have enough, and in our enough, find contentment and joy. Quite radical, and even offensive.

Perhaps this picture of Jesus does not sit quite right with you. Good. The message of Jesus is never meant to go down easy. It is revolutionary and uncomfortable. It is radical and offensive. It is a hard journey. But, it is also a full life that leads to true joy. A life that offers grace and salvation. May we resist the urge to make Jesus palatable, but also the temptation to add our intricacies to him. The gospel is offensive enough without us adding to it. May our identity be as followers of Jesus before it is as Americans. And may we live out Christ's dream of the Church rather than the American dream.


Chip Burkitt said...

I disagree that Jesus is an opponent to the American way (at least in so far as it is embodied in the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). Who would want a political system that does not support a right to life and liberty? I don't believe Jesus has anything against our political system. He never said a word against the political system of his own day, and it was far more oppressive and arbitrary. Moreover, I don't think Christians can live their lives in this world as if the claims of Christ were political claims. Even though he bids men come and die, he does not expect them to die to establish this or that political system but to advance his own kingdom. In addition, his appeals to sacrifice always contain an element of appeal to our own desires for what is good for us. He doesn't just call us to die but tells us that if we lose our life for him and the gospel, we will keep it for life eternal. Even Jesus himself did not act purely from a desire to benefit others, but "for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, thinking nothing of its shame." (Heb 12:2).

Nick said...

Thanks for the comment, Chip.

It may have been a bit unclear, but I was actually not saying anything political at all. I am critiqueing these political ideas as what they have come to mean in a popular, selfish, consumeristic sense. I wouldn't say Jesus has a problem with American politics (in a general sense), but he does have a problem with His children "loving their lives" too much (Rev. 12:11), being their own lord (in a selfish sense, not in a political sense), and putting personal happiness and consomption before Him. I'm not critiquing what the writers of the D of I meant politically, but what the American Way has come to mean in our capitalistic, consumeristic society.

Thanks for the thoughts.