One of my “guilty pleasures” is science fiction. I was surprised to have a science fiction book I read recently directly connect with our focus here on Progressive Redneck Preacher, and also the theme of “Living Liberation” which pervaded Wild Goose 2014.
I recently read the book Roma Eterna by Robert Silverburg. In this book Silverburg imagines what our world would be like if the Roman empire never fell but grew and expanded until today. In the book he describes an ongoing gap between the have-nots and the haves who are favorites of the Caesar which gets larger with each passing generation. He describes a crushing slavery system that continues well into modern times, with common people only slightly above slaves.
But what he really describes is one picture of what a world without Jesus, and without the Exodus would be. The turning point in this alternate history which allows this seeming unending reign of tyranny and slavery to continue is the failure of the exodus of Israel from Egyptian slavery. In this version of history, Moses fails to lead Israel out of Egypt but is able none the less to establish the only monotheistic religion. With no exodus, there is barely a chosen people. With no exodus, there is no holy land. With no settled holy land, there is not only no king David and Hebrew Scriptures but also no Jesus. And with no Jesus, the status quo of the Empire is never shaken up. The way Silverburg imagines this happening is wonderfully described when one scholar of history imagines the difference an exodus and a figure like Jesus would bring:
“Think of the possibilities, dear Aufidius! Let’s say the Hebrews do reach Syria Palaestina. They settle themselves permanently, this time, in that hotbed of mystical fertility and harvest cults. Then, many centuries later, someone combines the ferocious religious zeal of the Hebrews with some native Palaestinian belief in rebirth and resurrection derived from the old Aegyptian business about Osiris, and a new religion under an invincible new prophet is born, not in distant Aegyptus but in a province of the Roman Empire much more closely connected with the center of things. And, precisely because Syria Palaestina by this time is a province of the Roman Empire and Roman citizens move freely about from district to district, this cult spreads to Roma itself, as other Eastern cults have done.”
“And?” said Aufidius, mystified.
“And it conquers everything, as Cybele and Mithras and Osiris have never been able to do. Its prophets preach a message of universal love, and universal sharing of all wealth—especially the sharing of wealth. All property is to be held in common. The poor people of the Empire flock to the churches of this cult in huge droves. Everything is turned upside down. The Emperor himself is forced to recognize it—to convert to it himself, perhaps, for political reasons—this religion comes to dominate everything, and the basic structure of Roman society is weakened by superstition, until the Empire, consumed by the new philosophy, is toppled by the barbarians who forever lurk at its borders—”
“The very thing that Titus Gallius fought to prevent.”
Later on in the book, we see titles often attributed by Christians to Jesus attributed to Caesar — God, son of the gods, Lord, Savior of the world. Even language of Romans as a “chosen people” appears:
The gods intend Roma to rule the world. There’s simply no doubt of that…”
“You’re serious?” I said. “You really believe that you are a chosen people? That Roma holds the Imperium by the will of the gods?”
He was altogether sincere.
“The Pax Romana is Zeus’s gift to humanity? Jupiter’s gift, I should say.”
“Yes,” he said. “But for us, the world would fall into chaos. Gods, woman, do you think we want to spend our lives being administrators and bureaucrats? Don’t you think I’d prefer to retire to some estate like this and spend my days hunting and fishing and farming? But we are the race that understands how to rule. And therefore we have the obligation to rule. Oh, Eudoxia, Eudoxia, you think we’re simple brutal beasts who go around conquering everybody for the sheer joy of conquest, and you don’t realize that this is our task, our burden, our job.”
What Silverburg picks up in this novel is something that modern Christians often fail to see: how truly revolutionary Judaism and Christianity are in their truest forms; and how Jesus paved a way that was aimed at turning systems of oppression on their head.
In Judaism, we see the same idea used by the Romans not just in this novel, but also in our own actual history, of a chosen people turned on its head. Instead of being a chosen people being about conquering the other nations with an iron fist, exploiting others, being a chosen people is about being a light to the nations. This vision is beautifully pictured in Micah 4:1-5, where we read
Now it shall come to pass in the latter days That the mountain of the Lord’s house Shall be established on the top of the mountains, And shall be exalted above the hills; And peoples shall flow to it. 2 Many nations shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, To the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, And we shall walk in His paths.” For out of Zion the law shall go forth, And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 3 He shall judge between many peoples, And rebuke strong nations afar off; They shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war anymore. 4 But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, And no one shall make them afraid; For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. 5 For all people walk each in the name of his god, But we will walk in the name of the Lord our God Forever and ever.
Here the chosen people lead not by ruling over others, but by serving others. They teach others by word and example. They show them the way toward true peace, helping the world learn ways to overcome violence, murder, and warfare.
And what is that way? Micah explains it in Micah 6:8, by saying “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
To be chosen for Israel in Scripture is not about gathering up land and building an empire for yourself, but about being those who work in the midst of this broken and struggling world to be instruments of its healing, through deeds of mercy and compassion for the hurting, and through justice which is the work of transforming systems of injustice so that people are set free from oppression. Justice is, as Bonhoeffer said, “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”
So, as Silverburg wonderfully demonstrates in this story, the story of the exodus sets up a new kind of chosen people who reveal the emptiness of what passes for being a chosen people in the world. What passes for it? What Rome is pictured as doing which in many ways is what my ancestors, white Europeans, though they should do: to better the world through empire. To take people of other lands and races, and force them into second class situations where they could be instructed, their land and wealth taken from them, and they themselves to be forced into a cookie cutter image of what it means to be human. That oppressive approach to the other is empire. It is the root of what I have called the slave owner mentality that still pervades the south. And Israel is called to be the visible alternative to this. And no wonder, for the exodus that our Scriptures describe happening is a group of slaves, oppressed and used, standing up to the greatest and most powerful empire of their day, purely based on the power of their faith in a liberating God who sides with the oppressed.
Ultimately in the real history we have the early Christians took on this example as their own, being willing to stand up against the excesses of the Roman empire by the sheer strength of their faith, creating the sort of alternative resistance communities the fictional scholar in Silverburg’s book feared they would. And even when Christendom became the oppressor, that story of liberation at the heart of our faith story inspired others to stand up in faith in a liberator against the forces of oppression: first reformers like Luther who refused to support a church that oppressed the least of these; then radical reformers like the Quakers and the Baptist who stood against the church becoming a tool of king and country which could be used to justify oppressing the poor and violence. And most recently first African American Christians led by preachers like Martin Luther King fighting for civil rights against the oppressive policies of Jim Crow, and now in our time GLBT Christians among others led by faith leaders like Troy Perry, Nancy Wilson, and Mel White standing against oppressive systems of discrimination that are used to crush them and others in the church and in society at large.
It is easy for Christians to lose sight of this radical impetus of our faith, but it is grounded even in the Christian proclamation that “Jesus is Lord”. We equate Jesus’ titles of Son of God, Savior, and Lord with personal benefits: forgiveness of sins, the gift of eternal life in heaven. We might even equate them with metaphysical beliefs: that the man Jesus is also God, a person of the Trinity.
Yet it was not because of a personal experience of forgiveness or because of metaphysical claims about the nature of God that Roman authorities chose to crucify, imprison, and burn alive Christians for saying “Jesus is Lord”. No, its because those titles for Jesus were in the Roman world political titles reserved for the Emperor alone. To say Jesus is Savior, Son of God, Lord of the World, the Prince of Peace, is to deny that the head of the empire, Caesar, is those things. It is to deny that he and his empire take the ultimate allegiance.
It means to stand with Jesus against empire and how it oppresses and takes advantage of the least of these.
It is to join Jesus in the work he said was his work as Son of God in Luke 4:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
One of the wonderful things about the experience of joining in Wild Goose this year was being surrounded by speakers, musicians, artists, thinkers, and believers who challenged us to join in this work of liberating the oppressed. They called us in their words and example to tear down walls and welcome the stranger.
Some of the speakers who did that this year included Dr. William Barber, Franklynn Schaeffer, and Jim Wallis, among multiple others. Topics included confronting racism in our society, confronting the injustice inherent in our prison system, exploring issues related to gender and sexual orientation discrimination, and standing with people who are homeless & disenfranchised.
I was unable to go to all the talks in this vein that interested me, but here are some of the highlights of what I was able to see:
I was able to hear Sara Miles talk about her experience working with individuals who are homeless or struggling on the fringes of life, struggling to make ends meet, through her church’s food pantry as well as how that connects with the Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper. I also was able to join in a wonderful presentation by leaders in working with those who are homeless Hugh Hollowell, Terry Smith, Bec Cranford-Smith, and Shannon Spencer. They talked about the importance of focusing not on “homelessness” as an issue but instead on people and relationships, so as to find placing yourself over those without housing as if you are superior to them. Another powerful presentation came from a group from “Grace and Main”, a ministry in Danville, VA, helping keep people off the streets who might otherwise get thrown in jail since that town has made homelessness illegal.
I was able to also join in watching both the films “Freedom Summer” about the fight for equal rights regardless of race, and the film “Seventh Gay Adventist” about the experience of GLBT people in the Seventh Day Adventist church. That film inspired me, after Wild Goose, to create an online group for GLBT people and their allies from the Worldwide Church of God and related denominations. The Worldwide Church of God is a denomination I attended with my parents as a child with roots in the Adventist movement and since not attending in any churches related to that tradition, I have come to know many GLBT people who are a part of the Church of God movement it is a part of struggling to find space to make sense of how their sexuality connects with their faith.
A number of speakers gave amazing talks about the gifts that GLBT people, and other people of diverse backgrounds bring to the church & broader world. The challenge is to tear down barriers to inclusion and equal rights.
I have to say that though this vision is central to Wild Goose, and a centerpiece of their focus, Wild Goose still has not fully arrived at this vision. Perhaps the most glaring area where this focus on embracing diversity and standing for equal rights has not yet been fully expressed is in the area of including people with disabilities as those who are being fought for inclusion and equal rights.
This is an issue that has come up before with Wild Goose, and I think its important to say this is not a Wild Goose specific problem but a problem throughout the church in general. As a good friend of mine who is a Cooperative Baptist pastor with cerebral palsy has pointed out to me about his experience in that denomination: “It seems churches and Christians are quick to talk about race and gender, even sexual orientation, as areas of exclusion that we need to work against. But in their panels on diversity, where are those speaking up for people with disabilities? Why are these overlooked?”
To their credit, this year Wild Goose did have one speaker give one presentation on disability issues in the church, and they appointed a point person to deal with disability issues. To have begun to do this so early in their history shows that there is a heart and a desire to work to include people with disabilities and begin to more fully embrace them as equally called, gifted, and deserving of fair treatment. Also, there were more events this year with sign language interpretation than in previous years.
But people with disabilities I spoke to felt that at Wild Goose, as in the wider American world and in the church in general, there still was a sense of being excluded and treated like second class Christians. One person with a disability who spoke to me raised the question — why only one speaker with a disability, when multiple people of faith with disabilities were present, some of whom were ministers and theologians? And why was it only really spoken about in its set talk instead of being integrated into wider talks about the gifts of the marginalized, embracing diversity, and being a multicultural church? Where were the talks about justice work in the world around disability concerns dealing with systemic injustice like with race and gender? Also a number of people with disabilities pointed out some pretty glaring accessibility barriers which they had been told before coming to Wild Goose would not exist that did so.
Beyond disability, after Wild Goose I heard many raise concerns about how can Wild Goose be planned to welcome many who cannot afford its current cost?
All of these questions do not mean Wild Goose is not a force for inclusion, equality, and standing against the forces of discrimination. Actually the fact Wild Goose participants are questioning areas where Wild Goose has not arrived in many ways shows the success of its call to stand against the status quo. People are hearing and answering. Though not yet perfect (and really, who of us are) Wild Goose is raising a powerful cry for us to recapture the power of a Christianity of liberation which is exactly the type of Christianity writers like Silverburg acknowledge enabled so much positive change in our world, and which can do so again today.
To close out my blog, I want to share a video of a song that sounds out this call.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,