Category: Kingdom of God

Jesus and brain science agree: money kills empathy

science-103112-003-617x416By Alan Bean

Although you would never know it from listening to American preaching, Jesus linked poverty with the kingdom of God and affluence with sin.

The text of the first sermon Jesus preached was taken from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable (Jubilee) year of the Lord
(Luke 4)

Notice that all the recipients of kingdom blessing are poor, afflicted, marginalized people.

The last sermon Jesus preached prior to his arrest and crucifixion linked kingdom participation with practical ministry to the poor and dispossessed.  Kingdom people feel the pain of a hurting world and respond with creative acts of mercy that clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, and provide justice for the oppressed. (Matthew 25)

Jesus was about feeling the pain of the world and responding with acts of mercy. Feeling pain that doesn’t belong to you (empathy) and healing action are part of the same kingdom dynamic.  What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

The American marriage between free market capitalism and American evangelical piety makes Jesus impossible.  His words are inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.  We want to love Jesus and ascribe to an onward-and-upward, God-wants-to-succeed, greed is good ethic.  We want God and mammon; Jesus and the blessings of capitalism.

And now the counter-intuitive teaching of Jesus is being confirmed by brain science?

A recent study by Canadian neuroscientists at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University suggests that as financial and social advancement changes our brains–and not in a good way.  As money and social standing increase, the study finds, our ability to empathize with poor and marginalized people rapidly diminishes.

If you are building your world on the rock-hard words of Jesus, none of this will come as a surprise, but what’s the takeaway?

Jesus taught that affluent people (that’s me, and it’s probably you) can’t enter God’s merciful kingdom unless we rewire our brains.  As we climb the social ladder, the harder our task becomes.  Not only will we not feel the pain of less fortunate people, we will not want to feel their pain.

Moreover, we will find ourselves surrounded by people who propound clever theories to explain why helping poor people only creates dependency.  These arguments are sleazy, silly and self-serving, but, reinforced by prominent pulpiteers, pundits and politicians, they sound like common sense.  Stay too long in this echo chamber and Jesus is the one who sounds silly.  Eventually, we can’t hear him at all.  We still talk about loving Jesus, but we are worshiping a word, not a person.

So, what’s the alternative?

The first step is to take Jesus at his word, even if that word runs counter to the messages screaming from the smart phone, computer and television screens that shape our thinking.

Secondly, we must find a circle of like-minded disciples who share our desire to take Jesus at his word.  If you don’t have such a circle, create one from scratch (I realize that this can be socially awkward, but your salvation depends on it).

There is good news.  Mounting evidence suggests that American Christianity, evangelical, mainline and Roman Catholic, is beginning to feel the deep contradiction between Jesus and American common sense.  People who take the Bible seriously can’t lie to themselves forever.

Mercifully, Jesus wasn’t subtle about this stuff.

Dave Ramsey channels Ebeneezer Scrooge

Dave Ramsey

We can thank Dave Ramsey for bringing clarity to the economic justice debate.  Ramsey wasn’t trying to shock and dismay thinking Christians, mind you, it was all very accidental.  He innocently published Tom Corley’s “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day: So what do the rich do every day that the poor don’t do?”  After giving us his list, Corley says:

I spent 5 years studying the daily activities of 233 wealthy people and 128 poor people.  What I discovered was that wealthy people have vastly different daily habits than poor people.  In fact, I tracked 140 daily activities that separate the wealthy from the poor and in this article I will highlight 20 of these activities. These Rich Habits are the financial equivalent of the Holy Grail. Because there is no research like this of any kind, these discoveries are revolutionary and will challenge everything you thought you knew about becoming wealthy.  The Rich Habits will transform your life from one of financial failure to one of unlimited financial success beginning in as little as thirty days. I will show you how easy it is to reinvent yourself in these 30 days.  In order to become wealthy you must learn how to walk in the footsteps of the wealthy . . .

Notice, Corley isn’t saying that the impact of poverty is worsened by poor decision making; poverty, in this view, is caused by those choices.  There are no other contributing factors.  Losing your job, a major illness, a serious downturn in the economy, a major drop in the value of your home, taking a leave of absence to care for a dying loved one . . . none of that stuff has anything to do with your economic standing.  It’s all about you and the decisions you make. (more…)

Learning to love a Thermostat God

By Alan Bean

“Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”

This question was originally scrawled in the margin of an Alabama newspaper by an exasperated Martin Luther King Jr.  The church was once a thermostat “that transformed the mores of society,” King told the white clergymen of Birmingham, but it has degenerated into a thermometer that merely reflects the “ideas and principles of public opinion.”

Organized religion takes a dreadful beating in the final section of King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  From the earliest days of the civil rights movement, King alleges, most religious leaders have “remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

In the midst of “a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic justice,” white clergymen have stood on the sidelines mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

Preachers have preached the heretical notion that the gospel is unrelated to social issues.  They have concocted “a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, unbiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

The comes the most chilling indictment of all:

On sweltering summer summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward . . . Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here?  Who is their God?”

A thermometer church speaks for a thermometer God who reflects “the ideas and principles of public opinion.”  Fifty years ago, the church was, to use King’s phrase, “the arch defender of the status quo”.  Now we can’t even manage that.  While the larger society inches graceward, we cling to our cherished bigotries.  Our thermometer God lies shattered on the floor and no power on earth can put the pieces back together.

When the Richmond Baptist Association refused to discipline Ginter Park Baptist Church for ordaining a gay man to minister to persons with disabilities and special needs, it was simply acknowledging a change in the social temperature.  Ginter Park wasn’t taking a principled stand on gay rights or marriage equality; the congregation was simply recognizing the gifts of God in a particular believer.  The Richmond Association was neither condoning nor condemning the congregation’s action; it merely decided, albeit by a slim margin, to sweep the matter under the ecclesiastical carpet.

Conflict avoidance worked just fine when the church served as a social thermometer, but those days are gone.

And that’s just fine.  In fact, it’s great!  Only a thermostat God can save us.

When was the last time you heard a Baptist minister, conservative or moderate, talk about God’s love for undocumented immigrants?

I don’t want to hear partisan politics from the pulpit anymore than you do; but the gospel of the kingdom transcends politics because the biblical God transcends borders, skin color, language, gender, nationality or any other arbitrary human distinction.

Our preaching must reckon with a thermostat God who is eternally fiddling with the social temperature.  But what can a thermostat God do with a church that, having lost the power to reinforce the moral statues quo, stands on the sidelines mumbling “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

Not much of anything, it seems.

The church will leaven the social order when the gospel of the kingdom leavens the church.  Light generates heat.  A thermostat God can’t thaw a frozen culture without cranking up the temperature in the Body of Christ.

Why seek the living among the dead?

By Nancy Bean

Easter IS the Common Peace Community IS the Resurrection

The Common Peace Community is our expression for what Jesus refers to as The Realm or Kingdom of God. The Common Peace Community is the resurrection and the life that Jesus talks about. Debating the resurrection as physical or literal or spiritual or metaphorical distracts from the meaning of Easter morning. The resurrection is communal. The resurrection is social.

In Luke, Jesus is revealed in the breaking of the bread at meal with his disciples. In John, Thomas intimately fingers the wounds, the frailty, of Jesus in order to experience the reality of the living Christ.

In his parables and in his ministry, Jesus invites his disciples and the crowds to participate in God’s life of community: the Common Peace Community where the dishonorable is honored, where the least is greatest, where the outcast is the cherished child, where the blind see, where the deaf hear, where the sick are made whole, where the prisoner is free, where the hungry is full, where the stranger is welcomed. (more…)

Mitt, Moochers, and Mormonism

Mary Barker is a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s campus in Madrid, Spain as well as at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas.  She is also a product of Utah’s Mormon culture, a socio-religious world she understands intimately.

In this piece written for Religion Dispatches she explains how Mitt Romney’s Mormonism shaped his “severe conservatism” but why his faith also provides a foundation for a merciful vision of American community.  The two sides of Mormon spirituality help explain why Utah backed the New Deal and voted Democrat up until the 1950s when the civil rights movement and fear of international communism sparked a retreat into the world of John Birch paranoia that is still evident in the rantings of Glenn Beck.

Mitt, Moochers, and Mormonism’s “Other” Legacy

Growing up with Mormon narratives—a two-part memoir and reflection on the good, the very bad, and a dreamed-for future.

By Mary Barker

There are many stories on which a Mormon is raised: narratives of the elect, America and the Constitution, the latter days, and free agency—all of which play a role in Mitt Romney’s “severe” conservatism. The bombshell release of video in which he trumpets his disdain for moochers, and reveals a remarkably casual approach to Middle East politics, all resonate with the Calvinist heritage of Mormon theology, as well as with principal Mormon narratives. But Mormonism also holds the seeds of a decidedly progressive politics—a possible Mormon liberation theology.

Does Romney’s religion matter? It’s a question that has been asked many times this election season. My answer, below, is in two parts, as I journey from End Times theology (the “latter days”) through Mormonism’s radical social and political past.

I.

I grew up at the end of the world. As a Latter-day Saint, I made my debut just before the final curtain. During my youth, rumors circulated about neighbors and boyfriends whose special “patriarchal blessings” prophesied that they would never taste of death. That fairly clearly set the limit on time. The rebellious Sixties just confirmed what the Cold War had already shown us—that we were in a final showdown with evil that would only get worse until the second coming of Jesus which is now. (more…)

Baptist Preachers and Prison

My old Church History Professor is getting radical in his old age.  Bill was fresh out of Boston University when he came to Southern Seminary in Louisville in 1975.  I was in his first class.  A decade later, he was head of my PhD committee before leaving Southern for Samford University and then Wake Forest where he eventually became Dean of the Divinity School.  For years, the urbane Baptist scholar has been drawn to Black Baptist churches, so maybe he’s been radical all along.  AGB

For cause of conscience

   
By Bill Leonard
Thursday, May 10, 2012
 

Bill Leonard

In 1611, as they prepared to leave Amsterdam and return to England, members of the earliest Baptist congregation wrote a confession of faith, asserting that when members of the Body of Christ “come together” they “may and ought … to Pray, Prophecie, breake bread and administer in all the holy ordinances, although as yet they have no Officers, or that their Officers should be in Prison, sick or by any other means hindered from the Church.”

Those dissenters took it for granted that their “officers,” compelled by conscience, might ultimately end up in jail. Imprisonment was ensured for Thomas Helwys, the principal author of the 1611 confession, after the publication of his treatise, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, probably the first English text advocating complete religious liberty.

Arriving in England in 1612, Helwys was soon arrested and sent to Newgate Prison. Helwys scholar Richard Groves notes the possibility that a “handwritten document found in the Library of the House of Lords,” may have come from the Baptist leader. It states: “A most humble supplication of divers [various] poor prisoners and many others the king’s majesty’s loyal subjects ready to testify it by the oath of allegiance in all sincerity, whose grievances are lamentable, only for cause of conscience.”

Across the centuries dissent for “cause of conscience” has propelled innumerable Christians into “divers” prisons. It still does. (more…)

Franklin Graham and the black-white gap in American evangelicalism

Franklin Graham impersonates his famous father

By Alan Bean

I have never met Lisa Sharon Harper, but she’s been reading my mail.

Why, she asks, was Franklin Graham unwilling to apply the term “Christian” to president Obama?

Graham has trouble seeing the president as a fellow believer, Sharon Harper argues, because white Christians are rarely forced to wrestle with systemic injustice and are therefore uncomfortable with Christians who make this issue front and center.

I have a few minor quibbles with the argument below.

Many, perhaps most, black evangelical churches are just as fixated on personal salvation as white evangelicals.  Martin Luther King didn’t enjoy the enthusiastic support of most black Baptist churches in the South, and his social gospel remains suspect in many corners of the black church.

Secondly, Franklin Graham’s daddy, the iconic American evangelist Billy Graham, wasn’t quite as racially advanced as this post suggests.  True, he did open his crusades to black worshippers before most white evangelicals were comfortable with integrated evangelism, but as Darren Dochuk points out in his excellent study of California evangelicalism, Graham realized that segregation was becoming an embarrassment in America and thus an impediment to evangelism.  (more…)