Empires

Empires are narcissistic by nature. They are narcissistic systems. As I’ve mentioned before, empires thrive on four things – exploitation, oppression, death, and destruction.

All empires exploit the people and the land they control. They exploit people through taxes and tributes. They exploit people through their unquestioning loyalty and their labor. They exploit people through their sweat and blood.

They exploit the land by stripping the resources from the land and using those resources to exploit and oppress other people. They exploit the land of resources that are sent back to the head of the empire for their own personal use. They exploit the land to build up the center of the empire at the expense of any conquered land and people.

Empires oppress. They oppress people. They oppress people through intimidation, manipulation, jailing, beating, and stealing. They force those they oppress into service for the empire. They silence conquered people. They enslave.

Empires kill. They are really good at killing. They kill anyone who is a perceived as a threat to the established order of the empire. They kill the will to resist. They kill the desire to question or present any alternative to empire. They kill relationships and families. They kill dreams and hopes. They kill futures of those they conquer. They kill belief. They kill the spirit of the people they oppress. They kill the culture they conquer.

Empires destroy. They destroy people and the land they conquer. They destroy motivation. They destroy ownership. They destroy faith. They destroy nations and peoples. They destroy farms and businesses. They destroy livelihoods.

Empires exist to build up the center of the empire – the seat of power. Empires are at their core narcissistic. They bend in on themselves. They are like black holes that suck everything in their orbit and destroy it.

And at the core of narcissism is this – destructive selfishness. Narcissism is the antithesis of the two great commandments – to love God and to love neighbor. You can’t live out these two commandments through empire.

And like all narcissistic systems, organizations, and people – they come to a tragic end. The question becomes how many people and how much land suffer in the process?

Kingdom of God vs. Theology of Empire

This fall I’ve been leading a bible study on the book of Revelation. I really like Revelation. That may sound odd to some folks. No, I’m not a masochist. I don’t enjoy seeing violence. I don’t like war. So what’s up with me liking Revelation.

I read Revelation through a lens of hope. I don’t buy into the Rapture theology of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity. It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and has no backing with history.

There is a lot of death and destruction in Revelation. All you need to do is read the chapters on the seven seals being opened to see it.

But reading Revelation isn’t scary to me. That’s because I don’t see Revelation as some kind of prediction of God throwing a global hissy fit and destroying everything in a blood bath. I just don’t believe in that kind of a god.

Instead, Revelation is a message of hope. It is a message of judgement for empire – specifically the Roman Empire – and all who devote themselves to empire. It is a message that says – God wins.

Revelation is a judgement on the theology of empire. And it is similar to other books of Scripture that judges and condemns other empires of history.

All empires are essentially the same. Sure, their time and location are unique. Their leaders have different names. But they all have the same DNA. They all act the same way. They are predictable. All empires thrive on exploitation, oppression, death, and destruction. All of them that have ever existed and all that ever will exist are the same.

As I mentioned, Revelation comes from a long line of Scripture that judges and condemns empires.

The book of Exodus is a story of Israel being set free from Egypt – the empire of that day. It is also a story of judgement and condemnation of the Egyptian empire. God confronts the Egyptian gods through the plagues and defeats them all. It is a judgement on these false gods and those who adhere to them. The Egyptian empire was a typical empire. They exploited and oppressed the Israelites. They sought out to destroy and kill them when the Israelites left.

The book of Daniel is an indictment on multiple empires. It is certainly a judgement of the Babylonian empire. It shows the kings of Babylon as narcissists and fools. It shows how cruel they are. It talks openly about how the Babylonians exploited and oppressed people. And the book shows God’s judgement on Babylon and it’s rulers.

But the book of Daniel is also an indictment of the Seleucid Empire. The book was written during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The kings in the book represent Antiochus and his ruthlessness and profanity. And the book is intended to proclaim that God will judge and condemn the Seleucid Empire and its ruler just as God judged and condemned previous empires.

Revelation is an indictment of the Roman Empire. At the beginning of the book we see that John, the author, is writing to seven churches in what is modern day western Turkey – an area that was occupied and exploited by the Romans. The imagery in Revelation is designed to show that the power of God is greater than Rome and that God’s judgement is inescapable – Rome has been judged by God and will be ended for its exploitation, oppression, death, and destruction. God’s kingdom will take its place.

Revelation isn’t some scary prediction of death and destruction that is to come. Rather, it is telling the continuing story of God condemning Empire. Why? Because empires, and those who rule them, are anti-Christ to their core. Empires, and their rulers, see themselves as gods to be worshiped, to have all resources brought to it/them. Empires view themselves as the center of the universe. Empires are selfish and narcissistic.

And they all end. Thanks be to God!

Simple statements

“If you can’t get a job in this economy, then it’s your own fault.”

That’s the statement I overheard some time ago at a meeting I was attending. The comment wasn’t intended for me and the other people engaged in the conversation all seemed to agree with this statement.

Of course that’s easy to do when you have a secure job and have probably had one for a long time.

But these individuals were missing so much. There are so many things to consider when we encounter someone who does not have a job, even in a supposedly great economy.

Making a statement like the one that was said publicly is easy to do. Especially when we think our own situation and experiences are the norm for everyone else. And it’s easy to make this kind of generalization because it really applies to no one in particular. There are no names attached with it. No faces. No lives. Just a critical statement that releases everyone else from responsibility.

And then there is reality. Real people. Real faces. Real lives. And these real people are much more complicated than the statement implies. Poverty works that way. Yes, there is a lack of employees for open positions. Does that mean that all people looking for work qualify for all jobs open? Hardly. The reality is, even with a smaller pool of potential employees, employers are picky about who they hire. I have no issue with that. You want the best candidate for the job. That makes sense.

And we need to face another reality – we have a whole bunch of people that no one is interested in hiring for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are self-inflicted. Some concern mental states, health concerns, changing jobs and locations.

So instead of making easy statements that devalue people, can we acknowledge that we have bigger problems. It is a reality that businesses are looking for employees. It is also a reality that there are many people who want to work but can’t get a job. The two truths can co-exist and both be true. So the question is this – now what? What do we do with people who want to work, but are unqualified for the existing jobs, or don’t have people skills needed, or have some kind of mental health challenge, or are struggling with homelessness or poverty?

Maybe we should see that there are at least two issues at hand and start to tackle these instead of believing that jobs available and job seekers are always related.

It would be a start. And it might stop us from making simplistic statements about people that we know nothing about.

Who/what do we really worship?

Everyone worships something/someone. The question is what.

Even those that claim there is no god worship something. The definition of worship is:

“reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred.” (Source: Dictionary.com)

So the question is what do we worship? There’s the stated answer – whatever it is you claim. But that may not be the actual answer.

Do you want to know who/what you really worship? The same question can be asked of groups, churches, organizations, and even nations.

Here’s one way to determine the real answer. How do you spend your time, money, energy, and attention? Do you use all of those listening to God in the variety of ways that God speaks to us? Or do you devote more time, money, energy, and attention listening to the other gods that demand worship?

Who are these gods? They are numerous. Here’s a short list. Money, power, being right, a politician or elected official, a political party, your work, exercise, social media, entertainment, sex, drugs, intelligence, etc.

Where do your beliefs align with – God or a god of your choosing?

Do you spend more time defending God or a god of your choosing?

Do you spend more time proclaiming God’s word and promises, or the promises of a god of your choosing?

What you spend more time, energy, money, and attention on is what you value. It is your god.

The same is true for a group of people, an organization, a church, and even a nation.

We shouldn’t be surprised

A California website posted an article on the new face of homelessness. And who is the new face of homelessness? According to the article – “the elderly and disabled.”

More locally, the trends in South Central Pennsylvania point to a dramatic increase in number of homeless elderly over the next decade, with some estimates showing the numbers tripling.

My reaction to these two sets of information is this – we shouldn’t be surprised.

Should we be surprised that there will be dramatic increases in homelessness among the most vulnerable of society? I don’t think so. What do we value in society? Production and profit. Our society places a high value on people who produce things and add value – especially those who are gifted at making money and increasing profit.

Let me be clear about this. Producing things and making a profit are not inherently bad. Many good things have been made over time. And great amounts of profit have been used to better society.

The challenge comes when we systematically value people who produce things and make a profit over and above those who don’t fit into those categories. The bigger challenges becomes when those who don’t produce or make a profit are seen as less valuable. In other words, when value of a person is equated to money, we start to have problems.

For the most part, the elderly don’t produce things that can be bought and sold for a price and can turn a profit. They just don’t have the ability. There are exceptions of course.

When profit and money are more valued than people, then it makes sense that the elderly and “disabled” will be seen as having little to no value. Why make sure those with little to no value have housing? They can’t pay it back. They can’t produce anything that would pay for the housing – so the thought goes.

Even the terms “elderly” and “disabled” are loaded with meaning. Pictures of who these people are come to most people’s minds. No different than other terms used to describe people – labels like “homeless,” “poor,” “immigrant,” “refugee,” etc.

But value doesn’t just apply to the conversation about the elderly and “disabled.” It will make sense to a society that protecting nature and natural resources will not be valued if that society finds more value in extracting resources for use and for profit. Future generations don’t receive any consideration to that kind of a society – they aren’t producing anything.

Health care for people who produce little or make little to no profit doesn’t make much financial sense when money is more important to people. Health care only makes sense for those who are producing things. And it’s not really health care – it’s more sick care designed to get people back to work, rather than prevent sickness in the first place.

When a society places value on people based on what they produce, that society has fully embraced the belief that only the strong survive. Except they don’t.

Ancient Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs had a scheme that valued production. It was about making more bricks. Those who could produce were valued more so than those who couldn’t. That is until you couldn’t produce anymore – at which time you became a burden and could be disposed of. That’s the problem with making production the highest value – everyone is replaceable eventually. No one survives. It is dehumanizing to the core.

Yet, Pharaoh met his match in Yahweh and his representative Moses. Moses was the prophet and messenger who had a far different message. The message was that God gives identity based on who a person is, not on what they produce.

The point is this – we have a choice. Whose message are we going to listen to – the prophet of God or profit and production? If you listen to profit and production to find out your value, you’ll be out of luck soon enough.

The prophet’s message is this – God doesn’t value you because of what you can produce. God values you because of who you are. Prophets over profits always has more value.

Did Jesus really care?

“The New Testament clearly portrays Jesus, his family, and, with few exceptions, everyone he encountered throughout his life as impoverished and oppressed, exploited by the religious establishment, brutalized by their Roman colonizers. That this was his setting in life is undeniable. Yet from the picture of Jesus painted by the traditional, mainstream Church, we are supposed to believe that he was little if at all touched by the realities around him; that the direction of his message and ministry was not influenced by the deplorable conditions in which his people lived. Instead, we are told that his was only a narrowly spiritual, otherworldly message that, with few exceptions, was exclusively focused on citizenship in heaven. Moreover, we are to believe that Jesus had no interest in the economic and political issues of his day. In other words, this belief hold that although Jesus might have had empathy for the suffering of his people, he just did not want to get involved.”

(Source: The Politics of Jesus, pg. 76-77)

In other words, we’d rather believe in a Jesus that was never political and never took sides, especially with the poor and outcast of his society. We’d rather believe in a more respectable Jesus that acts more like the Pharisees of his time.

The problem with this Jesus that we would rather believe in is that he isn’t biblical at all. He’s a figment of our imagination – no different than other imaginary beliefs about Jesus.

It’s time to wake up from the dream Jesus. It’s time to recognize that this dream Jesus is just plain empty and pathetic, demanding nothing from his followers, telling them to put down their cross, and telling people to just be nice people who don’t disturb the false peace that exists. That Jesus is a lie. That Jesus wouldn’t have been killed by the Roman empire. That Jesus wouldn’t have had any followers either. And we shouldn’t follow fake Jesus either.

Fake Jesus doesn’t save anyone. Fake Jesus doesn’t impact anyone’s life. Fake Jesus is a waste of time and energy.

Following Jesus

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

Is it only about what you believe about Jesus? Or is it more? Like how you act? What you support? How you interact with others?

Scripture has many references to what Jesus calls his followers to do if they are to consider themselves his disciples.

We hear Jesus tell his follower to love one another, to pray for their enemies, to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to welcome the stranger, to visit the imprisoned. Followers of Jesus are to show mercy, to forgive, to love justice, and to end injustice. Followers of Jesus are to walk with and eat with the oppressed and exploited.

These aren’t just personal actions though. They have a public implication. They impact others’ lives and still others can see what the actions are and what kind of impact they make.

In other words, if faith doesn’t have a public implication, it’s rather empty.

And those implications should impact our politics and policies. They should impact our politicians and regulators too. They should impact how we do business and run organizations. They should impact how we do stewardship of the planet and of our bodies. They should impact how we treat others – both those what are friends of ours, those that are enemies, and those we don’t know.  They should impact life.  Otherwise, why are we wasting everyone’s time, including your own, thinking we are following Jesus, when all you are doing is pretending to do the bare minimum? 

I continue to read The Politics of Jesus, by Obery Hendricks, Jr. In the section I read most recently, there is a discussion on the influence of the Hebrew bible and justice on Jesus.

Mishpat is usually translated as ‘justice.’ Biblical justice is he establishment or restoration of fair, equitable, and harmonious relationships in society. The major implication of its meaning is that any member of the community has the same rights as any other, that everyone has the same inalienable right to abundance and wholeness and freedom from oppression.” (Pg. 43)

Sadigah is usually translated as ‘righteousness.’ Study of the uses of sadigah and its related terms reveals that its focus is on behavior that fulfills the responsibilities of relationship, whether with God or other persons. In other words, when people fulfill their relationship with God through obedience and observance of biblical ordinances and…with humanity, too, then they are considered righteous. Or to put it another way, the basis of biblical justice is fulfillment of our responsibilities to and relationships with others as the ultimate fulfillment of our responsibility to God.” (Pg. 44)

So what does all this mean? It means that to really follow Jesus, there is more than just a belief about Jesus. There is action that follows from this belief. What that action is will vary on each person. Some are gifted in certain ways that others are not.

We can’t escape the public impact of faith being carried out. And we can’t ignore the fact that public expression is built right into faith. You can’t be a closet Christian. People will know based on how you live and interact with others.

“What is significant here is that both justice and righteousness are based on social relationships. Not on individual, personal piety or on individual conformity with ritual and liturgy, but on social interactions. In fact, in the Hebrew scriptures there is no word for ‘individual’; there is only the plural term for ‘people,’ that is, community. In other words, justice is the divinely ordained way of relating to one another in human society. For this reason, for any society or political endeavor to rightly claim to be consistent with the biblical tradition, it must have at its center justice for all people regardless of class, gender, color, or national origin.” (Pg. 44)

Large sections of the church in the West has downplayed the community and public aspect, making following Jesus primarily about having a personal savior, with personal piety, and not having an impact publicly or “bothering” other people.

As a result, we have abdicated our responsibility to one another and bought into the idea that every person is an island. Individuality might be nice, and might be good for some in society, but it doesn’t match up well with Scripture or what Jesus talks about. No wonder we have the challenges that we face as a society – poverty, homelessness, brokenness, etc. If we are just individuals, then do we bare no community responsibility? If we are just individuals, then should we wonder why our churches are in decline?

Following Jesus is more than just me and Jesus. It’s all of us together.

Belief

What does it mean to believe in God? What do we mean when we say that?

Do we take that to mean an intellectual exercise, or does belief mean something more? I believe that I am married and a father. The facts also point to that. But is it the belief about my life situation that is most important regarding this? Or does my actions pertaining to my wife and children play a part in this and to what extent?

Does intellectual assent by itself qualify as belief?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines belief as:

  1. The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in another.
  2. Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something.
  3. Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons.

By these definitions, it would seem that belief is only a matter of intellectual acceptance of something. There is also a matter of trust and truth related to this, but the core of it is intellectual acceptance.

So how does this relate to God? Belief in God seems to be a low bar, in my opinion. Even Satan believed in God – at least the existence of God. But his actions in Scripture show his true nature.

A better question might be this – if intellectual assent is all that is required for belief, then what is the point of having the belief at all? In other words, what good is a belief if it doesn’t impact your very being? Especially when we are talking on matters of faith.

If our beliefs don’t flow through us to the point that we carry them out, then do we really believe what we claim to believe? And what about those instances in which we do the opposite of what we claim to believe? Or more difficult still, when we support actions, words, policies, practices, and laws that are in opposition to what we claim to believe?

The truth of the matter is that talk is cheap. Our actions, how we actually live, and what we actually support and are willing to invest time, money, and energy in, speak much louder than our words.

If we claim to love all people, but speak and act and support things that actually reject whole groups of people, then our actions are declaring for all to see what it is that we really believe and value.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter what you claim to believe. Your actions cannot violate your true core beliefs and values. Unless you have a mental disorder in which reality is fluid or you are a psychological liar in which the truth can change at any given moment and you actually believe the lies you tell.

But for those who don’t suffer from this, being congruent between your actions and words, and your core values and beliefs overrides anything else.

People can say something that is incongruent with their core beliefs and values because we perceive that speech doesn’t cost us anything. But our actions require a greater commitment on our behalf. That is why in our bibles, James makes the statement, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17, NRSV).

The actions we take display the faith we actually have integrated into our very being. If you want to know what a person actually believes and values, watch what they do.

Prophets

I’m currently reading The Politics of Jesus by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. It was published in 2006, but it seems to apply as much today as it did 13 years ago.

There are many nuggets in this book, especially in the first chapter. The section that caught my attention is on the prophets and their impact on Jesus.

Prophets would have had a significant impact on Jesus and his view of the world – especially his politics. Politics is a word loaded with much meaning. Often it is misunderstood. The politics of Jesus’ time wasn’t the same as the politics of our own. There were no Republican or Democrat parties in those days. There were no political parties at all. There was no America, and certainly no American ideals to be fought over. The idea of democracy, or any type of democratic ideal was not something that the average person would have known or thought about. All Jesus, and the people of the region would have known was subjugation by the Roman empire.

And it is with this foundation, that Jesus would have heard the prophets and their message.

Prophets had a particular roll in Scripture and in society. “Prophetic speech is characterized by two elements: an overwhelming sense of an encounter with God and a message of moral and political judgement that the prophet feels divinely compelled to proclaim, particularly to those in political authority.” (pg. 28)

More to the point, “…the primary purpose of biblical prophecy is to effect social and political change in society.” (Pg. 28). So much for the modern idea of keeping religion out of politics. That of course is a new concept too. Prophets of old were often heard by the kings and rulers of the ancient world for advice. Kings either listened or had prophets killed, depending on how well they liked the message.

So what did prophets prophesy about? Many things. The key here though is that these prophetic words still apply today. Humanity hasn’t changed all that much in thousands of years.

“They prophesied against unfair use of laws that ‘with a word make a man out to be guilty…and with false testimony deprive the innocent of justice.’ (Isaiah 29:21),” (Pg. 29)

“They stormed against corrupt economic policies: ‘Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,/ and his upper rooms by injustice;/ who makes his neighbors work for nothing/ and does not give them their wages…/ But your eyes and heart/ are only on your dishonest gain.’ (Jeremiah 22:13, 17),” (Pg. 29)

“They were outraged by gross dishonesty in the marketplace and the seeking of profits regardless of human cost: ‘Hear this, you that trample on the needy,/ and bring to ruin the poor of the land,/ saying,…We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,/ and practice deceit with false balances.’ (Amos 8:4-5),” (pg. 29-30)

“They even issued denunciations of political corruption and warmongering that could be spoken in our day: ‘Your princes are rebels/ and companions of thieves./ Everyone loves a bribe/ and runs after gifts.’ (Isaiah 1:23), and ‘Its officials withing it are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain.’ (Ezekiel 22:27),” (Pg. 30)

Did you notice a theme in these things and Scriptures? Justice, or rather injustice. Prophets speak out against injustice because it goes against God’s will. It doesn’t matter if that injustice is taking place through politics or economic means. Often, the two were and are tied together.

“…the purpose of biblical prophecy is never personal comfort or self-aggrandizement. Nor were the prophets’ proclamations ever directed solely against the personal habits of rulers; their primary targets were always the practices and policies that exploited and oppressed those the rulers were supposed to serve. In a word, prophets took their stand against abuses of power, not personal missteps or weaknesses.” (pg. 31).

Prophetic speaking still has a place today for this exact reason. Speaking prophetically isn’t about the individual and the personal. Instead, it is about the community as a whole. It is about unjust policies and practices.

Prophetic speaking is a rejection of bad theologies carried out in practice. Unjust policies and practices are just as much theology as they are anything else. Policies and practices are founded in beliefs and belief systems – beliefs about the world and God and the relationship between the two. Theologies answer the question – does God care what we do? Is God active and alive? Does God get any consideration?

Prophets answer these questions with God being the foundation. False prophets put other things as the foundation.

“How can a false prophet be identified? There are two telltale criteria: (1) they are silent about issues of social justice, and (2) they function as uncritical supporters of rulers and politicians, rather than as their moral conscious and dedicated arbiters of biblical justice. Instead of challenging political regimes – and all earthly regimes need to be continually challenged to do right – false prophets either align themselves with them or say nothing at all.” (pg. 31).

Being a false prophet is easy. It’s popular. Speaking with a prophetic voice is not. Prophets and those who speak with a prophetic voice usually end up dead because they upset the status quo and expose unjust systems and rulers as being unjust. Those that are practicing unjust practices usually don’t like to be exposed for this.

So how did all of this impact Jesus? “Like the prophets, Jesus does not condemn the rich per se, but those who gain or maintain their riches through unjust means: theft, subterfuge, exploitation, greed, stinginess, and especially violence.” (Pg. 33).

This is an important point. It’s not money that is the root of all kinds of evil, but rather the love of money that is. Jesus was influenced by the prophets who were opposed to unjust practices. In other words, Jesus was opposed to using wealth and power wrongly – in efforts that dehumanized, oppressed, or exploited people.

So what does this mean for us?

“Every minister’s prophetic duty as a servant of the God of the Exodus is to bring good news to the poor and deliverance to the oppressed, not to bow to the desires of those in power simply because they are in power. One witnesses the chumminess of today’s religious leaders with those in authority and wonders if these leaders realize that by catering to the powers that be they compromise their solemn prophetic responsibility and assume the role of false prophets.” (Pg. 33)

This is true not just for ministers, but for all people who claim the mantle as followers of Jesus.

The world was much different in 2006, when The Politics of Jesus was written. But every word of this applies just as much today as it did then.

How not to deal with homelessness

There’s a story going around the Internet about how some people in San Francisco put boulders on their sidewalk to prevent the homeless from putting up tents.

It’s apparently working. The homeless are moving to other sidewalks or sleeping without tents.

Here’s the full story

The people who did this did not want to be identified. They also didn’t want to be made uncomfortable in seeing the homeless either.

Danielle, one of the other neighbors who walks through the area said this about her neighbors: “I know the reality of homelessness and moving people from one sidewalk to another doesn’t solve it,” she said. “It’s as if the people who are for [the boulders] have the attitude, ‘We want to be privileged’ not to deal with problem.”

Pretty spot on Danielle. At least someone has enough sense to state the obvious.

Here’s the other piece that is so interesting to me. “Through Facebook, the neighbors organized and raised more than $2,000 for the boulders.”

So the neighbors who didn’t like seeing homelessness in their neighborhood organized and did a fundraiser. And it was successful. They raised $2000. And they spent it on rocks?!? Not on actually trying to help people experiencing homelessness. Not on trying to get people out of homelessness for good. Not on getting people off the streets. Nope, on rocks. I wonder how many weeks in a motel could have been bought for the the homeless with $2000, even if only for one person. I wonder what kind of housing $2000 could have been used for.

Instead, people bought something that symbolizes the hardness of their hearts – a boulder. Way to go San Francisco! You may want re-read Matthew 25 and reconsider.