All of the lectionary readings for Advent were blatantly political. Maybe a better way to put it is they were all anti-establishment. Every text was imbedded within a chapter that begins with a reference to the powerful. Luke 21 begins, “He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury.” Luke 3 begins with a much more specific list of politicians and religious leaders: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…Pontius Pilate…Herod… Annas and Caiaphas…” Luke 1:5 starts with “In the days of King Herod of Judea”…” And of course, the Christmas story itself starts with, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…” Luke is doing more than providing historical context; Luke is showing us the political and religious order that is about to give way, undermined by the baby born to Mary and visited by shepherds. Luke’s Christmas story is about contrasts—the difference between Rome and Bethlehem. For those who want a depoliticized gospel, an otherworldly, hyper-spiritualized savior, you’ll have to find some other text to read.
For the past two years a number of voices have tried to mediate the political rancor not only in our country, but also in the church. So much hand wringing, so many attempts to justify, convince, argue, or even ignore, all the while, giving in to the temptations Jesus rejected. Temptations that were all expressions of power: economic, political, and religious. People on the right baptize a candidate for the sake of Supreme Court justices or economic and religious freedom. If only Jesus had made a pact with the devil, choosing to use what Satan offered him for the good of humanity, transforming what was meant for evil into good–the structures of economic, politics and religion. This is the church’s task, to redeem and transform the three temptations Jesus refused. Similarly, people on the left put their trust in structures and programs sprinkled with a religious faith in celebrity politicians. Again, if only Jesus had used the offer of worldly kingdoms for better purposes, to create programs for the lepers and the poor, a safety net for people beaten and robbed on the way to Jericho.
“What constantly marked the life of Jesus was not nonviolence but in every situation the choice not to use power.” The French – Reformed writer Jacque Ellul sees the rejection of the three temptations as non-participation—an act of renunciation. Jesus refuses to play ball; he will not negotiate with Satan’s request. He rejects them outright because they are abuses of power concerned only with self preservation. “The devil wants a miracle of sheer power: to leap from the pinnacle of the temple and not be injured. Jesus will always refuse to perform miracles in order to prove or convert or to show his power, except when his power is at the service of love.” He goes on to say, “We have not discussed the three fundamental temptations that people can know: the economic temptation, the political temptation, and the ideological-religious temptation. These are the three domains in which humanity wants to assert its power and ensure its autonomy and its greatness.”
Maybe it’s time for the church to consider non-participation and renunciation. Maybe it’s time for us to say no to Satan’s offer of political, economic, and religious power. Maybe it’s time for us to stop trying to justify the allegiances we make, or the institutions we are a part of, for the sake of the “greater good”. Jesus never calls us to sacrifice ourselves for the “greater good”; Jesus calls us to love God and love our neighbor. Not some abstract concept of good, but the incarnate God who came as a baby. Not some abstract neighbor, but the particular people we encounter every day.
There’s a difference between resignation and renunciation. The first flows from a lack of faith and courage, the second refuses to give up but also refuses to give in. The first is the way of cowards happy to take the devil’s bargain. The second is the way of love that becomes a sign of a new way of life promised in Jesus Christ.
“Maybe it’s time for the church to consider…” Thank you, Jason. Evocative and a potent call for the church live out its calling. Well said.
Luke may have more to say about this act of renunciation than we think, since after all he is the one most conscious of being a citizen of the Empire. He lives in a world where Caesar commands, where lords lord it over others (but it is not to be the same with you, says Jesus. In Luke), yet where the good news inevitably comes to others: the left behind shepherds, the women at the tomb — these are the ones who know first. Perhaps Luke is less political than epistemological (and so a help for renunciation): the path to knowing God in Jesus is not through the Empire but through faith and openness.
Dr. Lief, your insights are helpful. If I wish to explore Ellul further, where are the quotes you use from his work?
Hmmm … I stumbled at the beginning of your second-to-the-last paragraph … “renunciation” … I think some would be more than delighted to jump on that as the basis of a pernicious doctrine that emerged in the ranks of southern Presbyterians – i.e. the “spirituality of the church.” – in which “political matters” (read race, slavery and discrimination) were not to be mentioned, because, after all, the church is “spiritual.”
As for renunciation, Jesus didn’t remain in the wilderness, but engaged in ministry, still making choices and aligning himself with the prophetic tradition of Israel … he attended dinners, dialogued and engaged … and also offered denunciation in the Sermon …
I’m currently reading the new second volume of Barth in Conversation, a section wherein he wrestles with “how would you vote” sorts of questions, especially with regard to nuclear armament. Barth’s nuanced thought is helpful, but not directive, leaving us with the task of still sorting out our “allegiances” while understanding that we live in an unredeemed world, and we ourselves are yet far from the fulness of our salvation.
if our choice is between a rotten pear and a rotten apple, we can hardly walk away and wait for something better to come along – that kind of distance from the fray is pretty much a possibility only for the already comfortable.
I think of Elijah in the cave … and God’s call to engage once again, and to anoint a few folks … and Jesus coming down from the Mt. of Transfiguration … as painful as it is, rejected the temptations of Satan never frees us from participation in the throes of our world – hence the image of “cross-bearing” … there is no “safe” place for us … only a myriad of choices made in faith … and rendered up to God.
I’m arguing the opposite. Our constant need for spiritualization and abstraction is THE problem. It’s not about waiting at all, or trying to justify the rotten-ness as something good – which is more the problem I see. It’s about engaging the material reality of life, and recognizing that the gospel is about renouncing the expressions of power offered by Satan, but renunciation is not the absence of resistance. Ellul’s work gets a bad rap… he’s see as a culture hater, which he isn’t. He does recognize the implicit power of cultural ideology and takes it seriously. He work on the city is very insightful… that Christ is taken outside of the city to be crucified is significant. He was riffing off of Barth’s theology in his own theology…
To participate in the throes of this world is much different than justifying them, agreed? I’m afraid the church is much more concerned with keep the small bits of power and influence it has, never wanting to be too hasty, always trying to appease and keep the peace.
Right on, Jason. Thank you. Marva Dawn led me to Ellul’s The Meaning of the City when I was a young adult, and that book is so theologically insightful on how the Wanderer, who had no place to lay his head, engaged with and so overcame the curse that Cain tried to evade by building his east of Eden city. Jesus confronts our evasions from recognizing and lamenting the material fact that we exist as vulnerable mortals, regardless of the social or institutional capital we build up for ourselves.
Jason, it sounds like you are back to espousing the Francis Option or is it the first of H. Richard Niebuhr’s five categories, “Christ against Culture?” That’s the option popular amongst the Amish.
Come on man! Did you read my response to your comment on the last post? Again with Niebhur? I’m having my students read Christ and Culture this semester… Niebuhr’s good as far as he goes, but he doesn’t go far enough.