Coffee with Stanley Hauerwas – it’s not something I ever expected to check off my bucket list, but there I was, and there he sat next to me discussing peace, nonviolence and radical discipleship. After about five minutes he asked ‘How do we engage and re-educate the church, socialized by the American story of autonomy, consumerism and power, to see the Gospel and Jesus’ revolutionary call to discipleship in a fresh perspective’? I didn’t dare brave an audible answer, but I did think of my wife and kids and how we are attempting to raise little radicals by rooting our family’s story in the upside down narrative of God’s kingdom, not in the prevailing milieu of American cultural life. Let me explain.
Last week, my wife Jennifer was reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie to our children. I was half-way listening and half-way wondering if it would ever stop snowing long enough so I could shovel the drive when I heard her telling about the building of the trans-continental railroad stretching far across the ‘great empty country’ of the American West. Suddenly I was very interested in the story, or at least the version of the story that Mrs. Wilder was telling. “Whoa, stop there, we need to address that” I told her. For in fact, the West was never ‘empty country’ or virgin land saved by God for the white man. Ethno-historians estimate that over 25 million natives lived in the pre-Columbian United States, but a couple centuries of displacement, disease and racial cleansing turned the West into a widowed land whose blood-drenched soil still cries out from under the hoof prints of western expansion. Mrs. Wilder, though with her best intent I am sure, was telling her story from the perspective of the American empire, whose own version of events supports the worldview of the privileged at the expense of the subjugated.
It’s amazing how the meaning of our stories change depending on who is telling them. History, which is nothing less than the grand narrative of human existence, has almost always been told from the perspective of the victors. It is told to support and ingrain a distinctive worldview. The American story, passed down from the mouths and pens of white men, is a story of progress, growth, wealth, opportunity, individualism and discovery. But when we change the voice and hear the story from the mouths of the displaced, conquered and subjugated, the story and the meaning changes drastically. Which is why I wonder if privileged, modern Americans will ever fully understand and follow the real Jesus of history? Is it even possible for us the priviledged to have the ears to hear, and come to terms with this subaltern Jesus born to displaced and disenfranchised parents eking out a living under the thumb of imperial Rome? If we are going to be honest with ourselves as the progeny of empire, the historical Jesus as a poor Colonial oppressed by imperial Rome is much more similar to Powhatan, Pocahontas or King Phillip than any of our conquering European ancestors. After all, ‘access to the Christ of faith comes only through our following of the historical Jesus’. So, how can we identify with Jesus and finally embrace his call to radical discipleship while living as the benificiaries of empire?For starters, we must recognize the tendency and temptation to link the story of the American project with the story of God’s kingdom. The myth of American exceptionalism is so deeply engrained within us that American Christians assume that the Christian “we” and the Americam “we” are synonymous, making it absolutely crucial for Christians to develop an alternate historiography. “We” the people of God, must divorce ourselves from the national story of conquest and power, and root ourselves in a different story altogether, a story of a God who Himself came into the world as a victim of empire, who still stands shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed demanding that we the privileged recognize their full humanity. And in full repentance, we must cease compromising with ‘the powers that be’, with wealth, nationalism and economic ideology, and admit “we” Christians have become far too comfortable with Caesar.
This is never better expressed than in Mark’s subversive story of Jesus and his radical call for social, political, economic and racial salvation that brings into question the cultural norms of empire and her dominion systems. His narrative and his Jesus can be characterized in two words, civil disobedience. Jesus resists the powers that be, both spiritual and imperial. He resists the current socio-economic system that levies heavy taxes on the poor and turns small farmers into debt ridden share croppers. He resists the male dominated culture that views women as property, whose place is only ever in the home. And, most of all Mark’s Jesus resists the worldview of redemptive violence, which for the first century world as well as for ours, is to the spirituality of empire what love is to the teachings of Jesus. But ultimately, Mark’s Gospel gives us a narrative whose major emphasis and care is on the poor and oppressed. The book itself is a literary marvel, it stands alone in antiquity for one reason: it is a drama for and about common people. “His primary audience were those whose daily lives bore the exploitative weight of colonialism, whereas mine are those who are in the position to enjoy the privileges of the colonizer.” In the words of Ched Myer:
“In all its heroic, comic and tragic elements, Mark’s drama of Jesus portrays the world of first-century Roman Palestine ‘from below’. It breaks the ‘culture of silence’ of the poor by making them—fishers and farmers, the lame and leprous—the central subjects and protagonists of the gospel of the kingdom.”
Mark’s message could not be clearer, if modern wealthy Westerners are ever to embrace Christ’s call to radical discipleship, we must come to terms with the fact our story of wealth and superiority runs counter to Jesus’ theology of cultural resistance and privilege. Mark reveals to the world God’s story of a dominion-free order of love and compassion through his extraordinary concern for the outcast and marginalized at the expense of the powerful. Take for instance Jesus’ uncompromising feminism through the status equalization of women. He introduces a wholly unconventional treatment of women in the first century world (speaking to them in public, touching them, eating with them and above all teaching them and allowing them to follow him as equal disciples). Or look again at the seriousness with which Jesus engaged and honored children while rejecting the notion that high-ranking men were the favorites of God. Mark’s Jesus is a subversive radical who comes into the world proclaiming a new social order where dominion and power give way to compassion and communion.
If Christians are ever to re-socialize around this Jesus and that story, we must recognize that the business as usual model where the church exists merely as a self-help institution for the bourgeois living in the middle class bosom of America must come to an end. Christianity at rock bottom radically conflicts with the American culture, it even subverts it. The Body of Christ must re-establish herself as an institution that stands with skeptical suspicion within the culture in which she participates in order to distinguish the story of God from the story of empire and domination. The church exists in, but is not of the empire. Her task is to live “inside the monster and know its entrails”, to join in the ongoing struggle to promote and practice repentance, defiance and resistance. For we will never experience Jesus in the ‘abstract poor’. Genuine solidarity with the victims of empire leads us not to a place of national hubris, but to a painful encounter with our imperial selves.Re-socializing around this Jesus and his subversive story asks us too brave persecution by taking seriously his call to love our enemies while standing against our nation when she seeks to destroy them; to live in intentional community with our brothers and sisters in Christ in a world that preaches autonomy and individualism; to critique the greed and excess of capitalism while finding new ways to elevate the poor among us; to stop giving to Caesar what is rightfully God’s; to realize once and for all that the politics of the cross require upon us no less than was required of our master, that in the end we may be forced to pay for this revolutionary praxis with our lives. If so, we echo the words of the Apostle Paul who reiterates Mark’s call to discipleship: “Always, wherever we may be, we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus, so that somehow the life of Jesus may be shown.”If I ever get the chance to have coffee again with Stanley Hauerwas, I think I’ll be bold enough to speak up next time. I might just offer an answer to his question, one that requires upon us the realization that the Jesus of history is far more revolutionary than most of us care to admit, and that the Gospel is the most counter-cultural story one could ever hope to join. Because if we are to finally believe and live according to his story instead of our own, we might find that much of what we hold true as the world’s elite is in direct opposition to His upside down Kingdom initiative.