Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Other Christianity

Last Sunday I reflected back to that central moment in the history of the Judeo-Christian Faith when Moses led the fleeing slaves away from Pharaoh’s control. The fleeing slaves ran to the edge of the sea and there waited. Pharaoh’s army was bearing down on them from behind and the sea was in front of them.

We talked about how the sea was for Hebrew people the very embodiment of chaos. For them the sea was utter unpredictability which leads to death.

In that moment, there on the seashore, the Hebrew people faced humanity’s fundamental choice: participate in a system of domination, a system of economics and politics and social order which places one group over another, and which uses the tools of violence, fear and greed to maintain order; or enter into chaos and certain death.

This has been propaganda of the Domination System from its inception; and since its inception is the beginning of what we refer to as civilization, it has been the primary myth of humanity for many thousands of years.

The wondrous thing about that moment in the life of the Hebrew people is that a third choice became clear. A path through the chaos to a land outside of the control of the Domination System was offered as a gift of a God who took the side of slaves over slave owners.

In that new land no one like Pharaoh ruled, indeed no human could rule with the power of Pharaoh because God was deemed to be the ruler and having God in charge meant that all the rules of the Domination System were rendered void and a new way of living in human community had to be learned.

After a few generations the Hebrew people abandoned the life of a radically alternative community and got themselves a king (a little Pharaoh). Even though they were warned that to go down the path of instituting a Domination System would lead them back to slavery, the Hebrew People chose a king for themselves.

This posed a bit of a problem, because if you have a religion built on the identity of God as being in opposition to domination and then you get yourself a king, you face the difficulty of offering the people the choice between king and God. The solution the religious leaders of the day came up with was to proclaim that God was quite willing step aside and embrace that which God had opposed. But when do that you basically have to create a new religion. Rather than lose the support of the faithful, the creators of the new religion kept all the stories and names and rituals from the old. They just added a spin to the old faith so that it would then endorse everything that it had opposed.

So the Bible really contains not one but two faiths. One says that God embraces the Domination System. As long as the religious leaders keep doing the rituals properly and the people strive to stay ritually pure, God will be on their side. The other says that if the people practice Domination based economic and social policies then God will be against them.

One religion happily accommodated itself to Domination System and the inevitable injustice that would occur because of that system. The other religion was always at odds with the System and denounced injustice and the society which allowed injustice to flourish. Traditionally we have seen these two sides as poles within one faith but in truth they are two faiths claiming the same tradition.

Flash forward to Christianity. That same split which occurred in biblical Judaism exists in Christianity. There are two distinctly different Christian Faiths, and each one refers back to the Bible and each practices similar rituals.

One Christian tradition has been so thoroughly dominant that it has become what most of the world thinks of as Christianity. This dominant form has accommodated itself to the Domination System by ceding this world to the System and instead focusing on a ritual life meant to gain believers a place in an otherworldly destination: Heaven. That faith seeks to get the otherworldly part of the individual human (the soul), up to the otherworldly destination of Heaven. Jesus is seen as the link between this world and that other world. He comes to earth to establish the link between God and humanity through his death. Humans can gain the desired access to the divine by believing in the divine nature of Jesus and the soul saving act of his sacrifice and by participating in the ritual life of the church. This faith sees violence, greed, and fear as tragic but necessary tools to maintain order in this world and order as important as it allows the ritual life of the faithful community to function smoothly.

There is another form of Christianity. This form sees the Gospel stories as having a primary focus not on the person of Jesus as conduit to heaven but as the prophet of God calling humanity into that alternative realm which stands in contradiction to the rule of Pharaoh or the latest local incarnation of Pharaoh (Caesar, the Temple Theocracy, Herod, Bill Clinton, George Bush, The Military Industrial Complex, etc…)

Where the dominant form of Christianity seeks adherence to the rituals properly administered and the purity (often focusing on sex) of the faithful, the alternative form seeks the implementation of social, political and economic justice in the wider community. Where one side focuses in on the person of Jesus as supernatural being, the other focuses on the building the Realm of God, and sees Jesus as the model for how to do that work. Jesus is the new Moses who leads the people once again on an exodus from Domination. This time though, there is no geographic destination. This time, the destination is an alternative perspective on reality, and a subsequent alteration in values and behavior.

Traditionally we have seen these two faiths as two sides of the same faith. And many have sought to find the moderate middle between the two. Unfortunately, such a view leads nowhere. When we understand that these are two religions which represent polar opposites then we can see that the middle ground between the two is a void. This middle void is where much of moderate Christianity finds itself and the reason why it is hard for such communities to be passionate. Instead of focusing on saving souls from Hell or saving the planet from Domination, the moderate middle seeks make the Domination System less violent while passively supporting violent political, social and economic structures. Rather than striving for an equitable distribution of the good things God has given this planet, the moderate middle strives to provide charity to those hardest hit by the violence of our economic system. Rather than talking about ending violence as a tool to be used by the state, the moderate middle seeks to limit the use of violence through things like “Just War Theory.” Rather than seeing themselves as an alternative to the values of the world around them, the moderate/liberal church sees themselves as the kinder, gentler side of dominant values.

Last Sunday, we talked about the story of Jesus walking on the water. The traditional reading of the Jesus walking on the water story highlights the miraculous power of Jesus, thus “proving” that he is a supernatural person (a central necessity if his death is to have metaphysical meaning). The alternative reading highlights the metaphorical connection between the Exodus and the sea crossings in the Gospels and from there points to the third choice which is neither cooption by the Domination System or consummation by deadly Chaos.

As a reflection on the Exodus story, there is an insight to be found. There are no charging armies, no wondrous split in the sea, the special effects budget for this story is much smaller than the Exodus but there are essential similarities: the sea that seems to thwart the desire of the faithful to cross it, and the ease by which the leader deals with the seemingly deadly problem of the sea (chaos). Jesus doesn’t part the sea, he walks on top of it but the sea is crossed. The difference in the two stories is that for the escaped slaves of Egypt, the land on the other side of the sea is the where God’s realm is found. For the disciples in the boat, God’s realm is found right there in the boat, once they realize that the sea is no obstacle to fear. The realm of God is not a particular piece of geography it is found where ever the community awakens to the alternative path.

The Domination System today tells us that if we don’t torture people, we will have the chaos of terrorism in our land. If we don’t give tax dollars to wealthy individuals and corporations, we will face the chaos of rising unemployment. If we don’t have an army, we will face the chaos of invasion. If we don’t have a wall we will have to face the chaos of unchecked immigration. If we don’t allow polluting technologies, we will have the chaos of societal collapse. You get the picture. Side with the elite or invite deadly chaos into your world.

One form of Christianity says that there is a third way. God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. There is the possibility of building a human community that is not dependent upon violence, fear and greed. And the building that radical alternative to the System which rules our world, is the work of faith.

Ok, that’s enough for now. For those of you who don’t know what to expect from Keystone Church this gives you an idea of where we are coming from. If you would like to hear more come by at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, to 5019 Keystone Place North, Seattle.