August 05, 2010

The Church and the Powers

“Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” and had to obey God rather than [human beings]....

Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

There is much to ponder in this excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” I don’t think many on this side of the civil rights movement would ever question the actions of those involved in the civil rights struggle--which landed many people in jails, beaten up, or dead. Same goes for the labor movement in the early part of the 20th century, or for the women’s suffrage movement of the 1920’s. In all of these instances, people acknowledged that the power structure was wrong and decided to not follow the unjust laws anymore. All of a sudden you had Rosa Parks refusing to move from her seat on a bus, a city-wide strike in St. Louis with union workers taking care of one another while the exploitative corporations lost months of potential revenue, and Susan B Anthony being jailed for casting a vote in the 1872 presidential election. In all of these instances, the oppressed simply refused to obey the “powers and principalities” that lorded over them.

Jesus did the same thing. In his triumphal entry, Jesus made preparations like one would for war. He came down from the Mount of Olives like one would when preparing to battle for Jerusalem’s liberation. The people praised him like one would a Lord and Savior. The difference is that he came into town on a donkey, not a chariot; he came as a servant, not as a ruler who lords over people; he came unarmed, not with swords and spears. Jesus was staking his claim on Jerusalem with no weapons while riding on a donkey! He was satirizing the powers of his day. This demonstration coupled with the chaotic scene in the temple courts (flipping the tables) ultimately led to Jesus’ imprisonment and death. Jesus did not obey the cumbersome laws of the Pharisees that oppressed the poor, and he did not proclaim Caesar as lord. Instead, Jesus enacted an alternative way of life - one that says the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and one that proclaims God as being over all.

In our age there are similar powers at work. There are anti-camping laws that are used regularly to hassle homeless men and women who are trying to sleep. There are laws being enacted that racially profile our Mexican brothers and sisters. There are corporate lobby groups that drown out the cries of ordinary citizens. There are wars being waged abroad while we are facing enormous amounts of foreclosures and unemployment at home. All of these things are happening, and yet the contemporary church is silent. In many cases, the church condemns the kind of holy imagination people like MLK demonstrated because it would mean breaking the “law.” The question I would pose then is this: what laws are we bound to first and foremost? If we claim Christ as our king the answer should be simple. We answer to Christ, and while we submit to the earthly power structures as Christ did when he accepted his sentence of crucifixion, we will refuse to obey any man-made law as it conflicts with the higher law of God.

In Romans 13, Paul speaks of submitting to the governing authorities, but it mentions nothing of obeying. This is an important point. Later Paul goes on to say in another letter that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world...” Here Paul is laying out exactly what it is we are up against. He is telling us that the church will be in conflict with the kingdoms of this world. The early Christians were persecuted because their community was a threat to the powers and authorities. Rome believed in peace by the sword. They prevented many insurrections because of the steep penalty, crucifixion. But then, the Christian community emerged with the risen Christ as their king, who had conquered death. They had a deep allegiance to Christ because of the love Christ showed them, and they shed their allegiance to Rome. This perfect love cast out the fear the Christian community had of Rome’s sword, and many of them spent years in jail or were executed for their allegiance to God’s kingdom.

Today is no different. Many Catholic Worker houses actively resist these rulers and authorities, and the most potent resistance we have to offer is our way of life. Just like Rosa Parks sitting on the bus like everyone else, many Catholic Worker houses and other intentional Christian communities resist by simply living the way Christ compels us to. If that gets us into trouble, so be it. Our community has gotten yelled at for giving food away on our downtown streets, but Christ tells us to feed the hungry so we continue to give. Some policemen refer to us as the “cult on 12th street” because about a dozen people who are unrelated live together and share all we have, but the early church regularly shared so no one was in need among them. We are escorted out of city hall meetings because we voice our opposition to further criminalizing those women who are being prostituted on our streets while the johns walk away, but Jesus also came alongside the prostitute (where the man involved was also strangely absent) and prevented an execution.

When Jesus stood before Pilate, he told Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.” Yes, the kingdom of God is not of this world. The nations lord over its people while Christ served his, the nations proclaim wars while Christ proclaimed peace, the nations keep order with fear while Christ keeps order with love, the nations conquer through military might while Christ conquers through laying down his own life. I wonder how our society would be changed if the church were bold enough to live like she was called to live 2000 years ago.

Sarah, a sister in our community, came home from her church recently and was upset by some remarks her priest had made. It was the 4th of July, and the priest shared a story about what he experienced on a recent trip to the nation’s capitol. He said he could only see two things lit up as the plane made its final descent--the capitol building and the church. He used that image as a sign that there is a connection to be made--that the church and the state were to be one. Sarah, disgusted by this comparison, left the church and came home. While I think the priest’s reflections on the connectedness of the church and the capitol building were correct, I think he was off in his conclusion. I think his story speaks more to how the church has been operating like a power, just like the state. Many churches operate out of fear. They fear losing members so the church emulates the nation and what it believes. Issues of economics, war and peace are rarely discussed because the nation has thoroughly indoctrinated its citizens and have been taught to hate anything contrary to what it teaches. This is why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s remarks are so relevant even today. Until the church is able to reclaim her holy imagination and begin to live as the early church lived, she will only serve as a tool to further indoctrinate us in the ways of the kingdoms of this world, not the kingdom of God. May the church once again speak out against injustices. May the church once again take a stand against the powers. May the church once again live the way Christ has called us to live, even if it puts us in jail. Our nation is full of people who are intoxicated. But it is a different kind of intoxication. People have been intoxicated by drinking the cup the powers so readily offer us, and the Church is the sobering agent. Remember, our battle is not against any person but the powers and principalities. So let us take up the struggle to reclaim our citizenship in the peaceable kingdom that gives eternal life, whatever the cost may be. After all, that’s why we believe in the resurrection.


  1. Hi, a mutual friend Amy Nee sent me a link to this post and said I might want to check it out. I am glad I did! Thanks for your thoughts. I particularly appreciate your concluding paragraph and your interpretation of the image of the church and the capital building. Citizenship is such a crucial issue for us as Christians, but far too often we simply miss it, and make distinction between our citizenship and that of those living in the world around us. Thanks for a helpful image in clarifying the difference.

  2. [edit: that should be, "...and make NO distinction between..."]

  3. thanks for the comment(s), david.