Despite being a child who was raised on comic books and James Bond movies, I’ve always known there’s no such things as a real-life “super villain.” But the last few weeks have shown us that not everyone got the memo.
The stream of recent news stories featuring the closest we have to a real life Bond villain, Martin Shkreli came out over the last few weeks coincided with the lectionary texts of John the Baptist we were discussing at my church, Austin Mustard Seed. Here’s a few thoughts from a recent sermon on how we might deal with such “villains.”
Martin Shkreli: Who Is This Guy?
Shkreli is the pharmaceutical company CEO infamous for purchasing the rights to an important HIV drug and then drastically increasing its price. In a much less drastic, but somehow, even more, Bond-villain-like move, he purchased the a rare piece of art: the only copy of hip-hop Super Group Wu-Tang Clan’s album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Wu-Tang created as a museum experience, but Shkreli is hoarding it and even threatening to edit out rapper Ghostface Killah.
Many of us watched in horror as Martin Shkreli smirked his way through Congress a few weeks ago. It wasn’t exactly a shocker, to see his baby-face pleading the fifth or his spiteful tweets afterward. It did, however, take a big whack at my “general faith in the goodness of mankind”…or should I say, it made me think again about my theology of depravity.
John the Baptist and the Jerks
It’s hard not to despise immediately and even demonize someone like Martin Shkreli, or really anyone with whom you disagree. The world can be a dark and unjust place.
It leaves us with the question:
How do followers of Jesus respond to the rude, inflammatory or even dangerous words or actions of others?
When considering our response to those who offend or scare us, a good place to start would be Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. One of Jesus key teammates, who tried to live out Jesus message of both justice and reconciliation. Like Jesus, it ended up getting him killed.
He lived in the desert and railed against the status quo. He encountered people who were known for being rude, inflammatory or even dangerous. How do followers of Jesus respond to the rude, inflammatory or dangerous words of others? Click To Tweet
1 – Root in Tradition
Here’s John in Luke 7:
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Consider John in the context of his tradition. John came from a tradition with ideas of what to believe, how to act, and where the world is headed.
John is a first century Jew. His people believe that God had given them a special law to live by. The law taught them who God is and how to worship him. The law provided health and dietary guidelines. The law also had a strong social and ethical component. It provided clear ways to care for the most at-risk people in their community—widows, orphans and refugees. It even provided a means to spread out wealth every 50 years so it didn’t become too concentrated. The law provided a right way to believe about who God was, who they were and how they should treat each other. One word “right belief” is “orthodoxy.”
John’s ancestors weren’t exactly known for living out their law, which led to a second part of John’s tradition, the Jewish Prophets. The prophets were teachers, poets and performance artist who spoke up against injustice. When they saw their people and their government abandoning the law and letting people suffer, they would remind them about the importance of practicing what they preach.
If you’ve heard one quote from the prophets, it’s probably from the prophet Micah, who famously said “what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The prophets were concerned about getting people to practice rightly. One word for this would be “Orthopraxy.”
Over time, the Prophets tried harder and harder to explain why it was so important to follow God’s law. They began to use grander and grander language. Instead of just talking about how to act, they told the entire story of history as a grand cosmological narrative. They described nations as beasts and armies. The moral and ethical teaching of the law were a part of a grand cosmic battle between good and evil. The battle, and the world as we know it, would eventually end with God bringing peace and reigning with justice. The word for your ideas about how the world ends is “Eschatology.”
Tradition is What We Bring to the Conversation
John uses strong language. He refers to his audience as Vipers, a serpent known for eating their young. He speaks in a threatening tone, saying that the ax is at the root of the tree. He warns them that if they don’t change their ways, disaster is imminent.
How do followers of Jesus respond to the rude, inflammatory or even dangerous words or actions of others? John show’s us that our response must be rooted in our tradition.
The voice of our tradition might be the most valuable thing we have to offer to the public discourse, not to mention our friends and family as they navigate the pain and complexity of life. Some might scoff at this. For instance you may have seen a recent clip where of comedian Steven Colbert inviting comedian Bill Maher back to church. Maher responded:
“I do admit there are things in the universe I don’t understand, but my response to is not to believe intellectually embarrassing myths from the bronze age.”
Maher’s a funny guy, but I think this is ridiculous. Take for example, this video of Martin Luther King from a rally Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
In this speech and others, King made famous the line “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Many think that this quote originated with Martin Luther King, but it appears to have originated with Theodore Parker, an abolitionist minister from the 1800s. He also quotes the poet William Cullen Bryant, a few famous hymns, most notedly The Battle Hymn of the Republic, not to mention Jesus.
Whereas Bill Maher would argue that religious tradition is meaningless because it is old, I find it compelling that Martin Luther King can draw together great works of music and poetry and scripture, some of it thousands of years old, to address the problems of his day. King, like John the Baptist, and like Jesus, was rooted in his tradition. It did not make him stuffy or out of date. Instead, when you hear King speak, it forces you to remember your history. You recall the best of what mankind can be. You recall our deeply held values that endure and grow in meaning over the centuries.
What is it that makes the words of King so enduring? He was clearly a powerful orator and a once-in-a-lifetime leader. But when you pick apart his speeches, he says little that is new. He is squarely located in his tradition. What makes the words of MLK so enduring? He says little new. He's rooted in his tradition. Click To Tweet
How do followers of Jesus respond to the rude, inflammatory or even dangerous words or actions of others? We bring our tradition into any discussion.
To those who are hurting, we remind them that God is not finished, and in the meantime, the church is here to care for them.
To those who are scared of outsiders, we are the voice reminding people that we have more than enough to care for ourselves and others.
To those who are impatient, and want to bring drastic and dangerous change, we remind them that God is in charge no matter what their enemies may try to accomplish.
Like John the Baptist, we are rooted in tradition. Our tradition gives us hope.
2 – Remember Your Audience
Occasionally, people listen, including John’s crowd here:
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
John the Baptist is preaching in the desert and crowds come out to hear him. Soon, others join the party.
At first, there is just “the crowds.” These are the “common-folk” working class people from surrounding villages. They are just trying to get by in a semi-agrarian society that lives under the occupation.
Then there are the tax collectors; Jews who worked for the Roman Government. They would have been considered traitors. The taxes you paid went to the empire that was oppressing you.
The third group is just referred to as “some soldiers.” Some scholars say that these were a sort of Jewish police force that acted as backup thugs for the tax collectors. Others believe the passage is referring to Roman Soldiers. Throughout the history of mankind, there has seldom been a good relationship between an occupying force and the local population. The Roman soldiers were notorious for conscripting locals as temporary slave labor or even as concubines.
Sometimes You Have Permission to Be Harsh
John’s words might seem harsh, but remember:
“…John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him…”
John has harsh words for the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, but they all have one thing in common: John’s audience has come to him and asked what they can do to change. Understanding the starting point is essential for us as we try to navigate a world full of issues.
Originally, his message was a message of hope for common, struggling folk. If they repented, God would save their country from oppression. John’s audience has grown to include the tax collectors, who are unscrupulous traitors and the soldiers, who use their power and position to extort.
While these three groups may seem significantly different, John’s response to them seems to be remarkably similar: They all need to repent. John should tell this that-even if he has to be harsh-because they’ve given him permission.
3 – Move Towards Enough
However, John seems to have a clear idea in mind of what repentance is, and it you look at his advice to the three groups, you can see a common theme.
Repentance for Common People
To the crowd, he says “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” The crowd needs see that what they already have enough.
The number two here is the key. In John’s day it was common for most people to have one tunic that they would wear all the time. John is saying that if you have more to live off of than you need then you should share it. Or perhaps to say it the opposite way: if you know someone in need, and you have more than enough for that moment, then you need to share.
Repentance for Tax Collectors
To the Tax Collectors Jesus says “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” The Tax Collectors need to see that their job already provides them enough. They had created a system where they could afford a more extravagant lifestyle through the power of their job. John makes it clear that they already have enough.
Repentance for Soldiers
To the soldiers he says “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” With the Soldier’s, John addresses their desires. Perhaps they had cultivated fine tastes, they had come to like “nice things.” Perhaps they had simply become comfortable with being bullies, able to bend others to their will. John reminds them that they already have it really good. Instead of wasting energy bullying people to get more, enjoy what you have because you have more than enough.
Here’s how John seems to define repentance: Acknowledging that you already have more than you need and taking steps to move towards enough. Repentance=Acknowledge you have more than you need & move towards enough. Click To Tweet
The Spectrum of Enough
You might think of it as a spectrum.
The Common Folk have an excess of robes, and by sharing what they have, they move towards enough. The Tax Collectors have an excess because they overcharge and by doing their job fairly they move towards enough. The Soldiers have many excesses, of food, housing, labor and, shall we say, concubines, simply living off their income instead of what they can bully out of others, they move towards enough.
However, if you think of this as a spectrum, you’re missing about half of John’s point. This is the difficult half, at least for us “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” Americans. John is not just accusing people of excess, he is claiming that our excess causes the suffering of others.
What we have here isn’t so much a spectrum as it is a teeter-totter. If you have enough, and you take bully or extort money, labor or sex work from someone you aren’t just hoarding for yourself, you are stealing from someone else. If you abuse your job to take more than you need, you’re not just “getting ahead” you’re pushing others behind. If you have more clothes than you need, you aren’t just rounding out your closet. You are leaving others naked.
I realize what we’re talking about here is not popular, and even polarizing. It would be easy to extrapolate from John’s words here towards some massive statements about different political or economic systems. Those are fascinating conversations, but I believe John’s point is simpler.
All of this brings us back to Martin Shkrelli, a man made rich and famous in a move that could threaten the lives of others. To be honest, he probably doesn’t need anymore critics. It seems like everyone in Congress and on the internet despise him.
So if speaking out on social media isn’t the answer, what is? According to John it starts with us and the stuff we own.
Notice that he does tell the Tax Collector or the Soldier that they should give up everything except one tunic. Instead, he makes it clear that all of us have something to give. Many of us in this room are financially stable, and we have the opportunity to give out of our finances, which is great. What John is more concerned about is that we are acknowledging our excess and moving towards enough.
If you have a computer or smart phone to read this article on, John might have us consider how much you have. He might ask you how you can move towards what God considers enough.