Friday, March 18, 2016

Living Sacrifice in the Modern World: Everything Must Change

In this book, McLaren examines life at the time of the Gospels, when Jews were living within the Roman Empire, either assimilating into it or violently fighting against it. According to him, a close reading of Jesus' words when he speaks of authority and government within the context of the Roman Empire should startle us in the similarities between the Romans and the modern world - in our pursuit of wealth, our use of violence to maintain that wealth (or its illusion), and our cavalier destruction of the world's resources. Our "framing story" (which is a kind of unwritten or subliminal worldview that permeates everything we do) creates a situation in which we are unable to fully live out the Gospel, and, in fact, leads to a cycle of self-destruction he calls a "suicide machine."
But if our framing story tells us that we are free and responsible creatures in a creation made by a good, wise, and loving God, and that our Creator wants us to pursue virtue, collaboration, peace, and mutual care for one another and all living creatures, and that our lives can have profound meaning if we align ourselves with God's wisdom, character, and dreams for us...then our society will take a radically different direction, and our world will become a very different place.
I struggled a lot with the language McLaren uses. I think "framing story" is an unwieldy phrase, but besides that, the text of the book is simply not lyrical. Kansas Dad argues I can't expect everyone to be a Chesterton or even a C.S. Lewis, but I maintain the message would be more powerful if more eloquently presented. One of the aspects of this book Kansas Dad appreciates is the stark presentation of statistics (comparing America's defense budget with that of those attempting to eliminate poverty, comparing the amount of money the first world "donates" to developing countries with the amount of money collected in debt payments from those same countries). Perhaps those kinds of statistics (which were indeed disturbing) would be difficult to include in a more poetic book.

McLaren spends the majority of the book building an argument for his depiction of the modern world and that Jesus' words call us to something different. For me, the real question is what happens after that -- if we truly believe Jesus' words, his call to a his kingdom, how should we behave right here, right now, to help make that kingdom manifest on earth. He touches on what we can or should do in relatively few chapters at the end of the book.

McLaren calls on us to be aware of the way companies treat employees, the environment, and communities. He calls on us to explore how various economic policies affect the lives of people all over the world, not just our own. Policies on immigration, economics, and the environment should not be viewed from merely the American point of view, not if we are truly living as Christians. Jesus demands we consider all people our neighbors and brothers.
With no apologies to Martin Luther, John Calvin, or modern evangelicalism, Jesus (in Luke 16:19) does not prescribe hell to those who refuse to accept the message of justification by grace through faith, or to those who are predestined for perdition, or to those who don't express faith in a favored atonement theory by accepting Jesus as their "personal Savior." Rather, hell--literal or figurative--is for the rich and comfortable who proceed on heir way without concern for their poor neighbor day after day.
As I read this book, I began to see similar messages in many places. Pope Frances, in his address to Congress in September 2015 (full text found here, and well worth a read if you haven't already), said:
We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this.
Larry Livingston, on the blog for Unbound, an organization we support regularly, wrote:
Part of that interior process is taking ownership of the consequences our choices have on others. Some of these are obvious and immediate to our daily lives. We generally know when we hurt those around us and, while not easy, we also know what we need to do to repair those relationships. But what is more complicated — and more challenging — is taking ownership of the impact our choices have on the world.
At one point, McLaren discusses Jackson Browne's song, "The Rebel Jesus."
He suggests that there is a kind of economic orthodoxy that may allow or even encourage us to throw some dollars toward the poor, but this orthodoxy commands us never to question the systems that create and reinforce poverty. 
Catholics are not immune from this kind of thinking but we are blessed by examples of saints who have refused to participate in the systems that sustain rather than alleviate poverty: St. Vincent de Paul, Blessed Mother Teresa, Blessed Oscar Romero, the list could go on and on. Pope Francis is following those examples with works like Laudato Si', which encourages us to consider the effect of our actions, our purchases, our lifestyle, on the less fortunate here and elsewhere. (I mentioned the book here when I read it.)

So if you are convinced, what do you need to do? McLaren outlines three main areas of action: 1) Be generous to the poor but not dehumanizing; 2) Encourage opportunities and solutions created in collaboration with the poor; and 3) Campaign to change the economic, military, and social systems that inhibit justice for the poor and downtrodden.
While most of us won't be called to sacrifice our physical lives (but many may), having faith in Jesus and sharing the faith of Jesus will lead all of us to make what an early disciple called "a living sacrifice." We will give up the life we could have lived, the life we would have lived--pursuing pleasure, leisure, security, whatever. And instead, we will life a life dedicated to replacing the suicide machine with a sacred ecosystem, a beautiful community, an insurgency of healing and peace, a creative global family, an unterror movement of faith, hope, and love.
McLaren talks a bit about the hidden messages of our media and our schools that support the current (and flawed) framing story. In one thought experiment, he compared the creation of greenhouse gasses by large corporations with the production of an unwanted pregnancy:
[B]oth follow a script taught by the covert curriculum in a thousand ways: namely, we can engage in pleasurable or profitable behaviors with undesired consequences and either avoid the consequences or clean them up later. (his emphasis)
While I think the analagy is imperfect, it does exemplify the focus of modern American society on immediate gratification.

McLaren is not Catholic and not all of his policies would be acceptable. The use of artificial birth control, as one example, is explicitly mentioned as not only an option but one that is ridiculously not implemented. A few differences of opinion in methods, however, do not negate his overall argument. I believe he's correct: Jesus would speak out plainly against modern American society and our economic policies.

For the most part, I want to recommend this book, and I think you should probably read it if you are intrigued but unconvinced by my meager narration here. Remember, though, that I warned you about the language. Be prepared for paragraphs like this one:
Perhaps we can see ourselves in a new light too, not armed with an ideology but infused with a new imagination, part of a peaceful insurgency seeking to expel a suicidal occupying regime, gardeners working with God to tend the holy ecosystem so it continues to unfold anew day after new day, members of a secret insurgency of hope, a global movement unleashing coordinated, well-planned acts of unterror and healing, producers in a new economy of love--an economy so radical that old terms like capitalism and communism seem like two sides of a Confederate coin left over from a fading and discredited regime.
Jesus' "economy of love" sounds a bit too corny to me, though I'd like to think I would support the economic policies Jesus would propose - the kind he has indeed already proposed if we have the courage to acknowledge them.

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