Sunday, September 13, 2020

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse is a Greek word meaning to uncover or reveal. It refers to suddenly seeing the true nature of something that you couldn't see before. An apocalypse is a revelation. A Biblical revelation provides a divine perspective (quick source, extended discussion). In a way, thinking about an apocalypse as a revelation of divine perspective is different from our current cultural definition of apocalypse as "the end of the world as we know it". And yet, I think that divine perspective does lead to the end of the world as we know it. And I think that's a good thing. 

Michael Nash, Warsaw, 1946

The purpose of the book of Revelation in the Bible is to give a heavenly perspective on earthly circumstances so that every generation can be challenged, comforted, and given hope (see links above). One thing that strikes me about this new-to-me perspective on apocalypse is that it is by design that each generation experiences what feels like the beginning of the end. These endings are supposed to usher in the beginnings of the renewed world. This occurs over and over and so that we can experience a revelation and be a part of Heaven coming to Earth.

We see this cycle happening within the Bible as well, when the Israelites are exiled in Babylon or under Roman oppression, for example. In those cases, God's revelation to his people (an apocalypse) is not what they'd hoped (immediate destruction of their oppressors), but rather a new understanding of God's plan. It is revealed to Daniel that more oppressive regimes will enslave the Israelites after the fall of Babylon, but that God will reign victoriously over every evil regime someday. To me, there is a strong parallel to our space in the world today, and that is what we are supposed to feel when reading Daniel and Revelation. We are supposed to see our circumstances mirrored there, and then to take the hope that is offered both then and now. As we experience apocalypse, we are gaining a new understanding of what God is doing. 

We've always wanted something better. As children of God and as humans within human systems, we always hope for wholeness, renewal, justice, peace. We want to experience the Kingdom coming, the will of God unfolding, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Yet we often resist this, because it requires death. Your new life will cost you your old one. Change requires sacrifice.

I've heard some describe the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement momentum as an awakening for those who wouldn't or couldn't see and hear before. In this way, it is an apocalypse - a seeing of the true nature of things. "But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: 'Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you'" (Ephesians 5:13-14). We, illuminated by Christ, become a light. I don't mean to suggest that the Black lives need awoken white people to be their light. On the contrary, those who remain asleep cut themselves off from the light at hand. The apocalypse does not need us, we need it.

I identify with the Jews during Jesus' day who had waited so long to see the fruition of what God promises to do - reign over oppressors. Instead, Jesus kept pointing forward to a something still in the future. I don't understand (I lack the revelation) why or how God is bringing about that promise, but I am beginning to see that I am connected to part of that promise being realized. 

What should the response of the Church (Christians) be to everything unfolding at this time in history? N.T. Wright discusses this in his short book, God and the Pandemic. He talks about how Christians tend to respond to crises, often assuming it's punishment or using it as a platform to talk about Jesus. He discusses how the Bible refutes the crisis-as-punishment theory both in Job and elsewhere. He talks about how the Bible shows us that God grieves with us in tragedy. He talks about how revolutionary it was for the early Church to take upon itself the care of any group of people in another city and how so many social innovations in medicine, hospice, and relief aid were pioneered by the Church as a way to serve people. Those models had not existed outside of the Christian example.  

This does not mean that Christians did a perfect job of helping. I'm aware of ways in which Christians have harmed others in an attempt to help, to the point where it's hard to believe that specific institutions of help that we know today were once Christian (access to equitable healthcare, for example). There's a lot packed into N.T. Wright's points about Biblical, early Christian, and modern suffering and aid weaving together, and I'm still struggling to shift my distressed connections between God and suffering. It does seem to me stark that the modern American Church as a whole (or as I understand and relate to it) is far from the cutting edge of relieving suffering today.

I think this is in part because of a prevalent idea within prominent American Church cultures of a sort of fatalism about suffering. The popular verse Romans 8:28 is often read as, "And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them" (NLT). Generally this reading leads to what N.T. Wright calls "stoic resignation" because it suggests that all disaster is in some way "for the best". Wright flat out says that is not Christian comfort.

For me, this stoic response to suffering has always been disingenuous (even if I couldn't put my finger on it) and alienating because the reasoning that "it's God's will" not only lacks comfort, but leads to often forbidden questions of whether a God who is stoic about suffering (but also in control of it?) is worth serving. Many Christians end up sounding like sadists in how they profess to accept horrors as "God's plan". Is it trust or is it resignation? For me, it's always been resignation, which then led me to feel guilty about my level of trust. 

I think stoic resignation not only eats at the hearts of Christians but also makes it easy for us to watch other people suffering and say, "God is in control of this and their suffering is part of his plan". Which, you may notice, completely removes us from their suffering. I think this is the well-meaning (?) but brutally misplaced response of much of the white Church toward BLM and associated revolutions. 

BUT, N.T. Wright spends about 15 minutes in his book explaining how we misread and misunderstand Romans 8:28. He goes into depth on grammar, translations, and scholarship (which he carefully cites), and you can read/listen to it yourself in the latter part of chapter 4 if you want the scholarly version. His point is that instead of "all things work together for good to those who love God", it should be "all things work together for good with those who love God." This means that instead of God waving a wand over bad situations (that we don't understand) to turn them into some future benefit, he works with us (who love him) for the benefit of others (who are suffering, experiencing all things). God works together with those called according to his purpose for the good of others. Instead of stoic resignation in response to suffering, we are "called to hard work, knowing that God is at work in us", at N.T. Wright puts it. 

I want to clarify that I don't think this means that God can't or doesn't bring good things from suffering for our benefit. I think he does. I think the point is that Romans 8:28, which has defined many of our attitudes toward suffering, should actually prompt us to engage with each other and with those suffering everywhere as an extension of Christ. It is with and through us that Christ is working for good. Of course he can work without us, but if we love him, we must love as he does. 

Both through the Bible and the example of the early church, Wright makes the point that the Church's response in crises should be primarily two things: First, to lament. Second, to provide pragmatic help. As I've experienced it, the white American Church at large is slow or failing both in lamenting and in providing help. Instead of lamenting, many of us are denying the pain in Black lives and the health risk to many lives. Instead of serving those who are suffering, many of us have set ourselves against people who are serving because their service may include some ideas we "disagree with" (my last post was largely about the language of disagreement). We've decided their problems are not our problems, or worse, their problems threaten our comfort. 

N.T. Wright mentioned all those institutions of service that were created and championed by Christians meeting the pragmatic needs of the suffering in revolutionary ways (much of modern medicine, hospice, etc.). Where is that Christ-propelled creativity today? Why is the answer "this is beyond us" instead of, "through Christ we can meet mind-boggling needs". Where is the willingness to try, and occasionally fail, at thinking and serving in ways bigger and beyond what we've ever known in response to suffering we're not prepared for? 

One of the most stark, maddening, painful realizations I've had in my desire to lament and serve those suffering around me is that the structure for how to do that pragmatically has come from outside the church. Not only has it come from outside the church, but it's come from labels that many Christians I know fundamentally shun. Elias Bautista, Tiana Arata, Antifa, neo-Marxists, agnostics, shaman. 

Please. Hold on to your fistful of red flags and consider: why are we threatened by good done by people with ideas we may not share? I have witnessed some of these people feeding the homeless, teaching the youth, giving money to the displaced, respecting the value of Blackness, praying for the cleansing of land, decrying corruption of money and power, championing restorative justice and family unity. Do those things happen through church? Yes! Sometimes they do. But the Church is not currently meeting the needs of the suffering that I see in the way that these others are. Is it more important what the name of the umbrella we stand under is, or is it more important that we work toward the good of those who suffer? 

We the Church should be grossly uncomfortable with what's afoot (and what's not) within our walls and what's afoot outside them too. Not because of those who are suffering expressing their suffering (protesting, in all its forms), but because it is not being adequately comforted. If God is to work this for good, where have we been hiding out such that comfort is not arriving through us? Have we considered that God can and is working through communists because the Church has made itself unavailable? (Of course a dichotomy between Christians and communists is false, but I digress). 

Another popularly mangled idea within the Church as I've known it is that we as Christians are "in the world but not of it" (referenced throughout John 17, and elsewhere). In my background, this has typically been used to discourage Christians from engaging with "bad things" and "bad people", unless it is to quickly warn them of hellfire and then get the hell out of their dangerous presence. I think the more accurate implication is that we as Christians have an allegiance to something beyond powers of injustice (our allegiance is beyond this world). Because of our higher allegiance, we fight to see justice reign around us (in this world). Once again, God works through us who love him to bring about his good purposes. "In but not of the world" doesn't mean isolate yourself from suffering and evil, but go toward it with comfort and justice with an authority that transcends our present plane. 

Seeking justice involves the crushing of injustice. And it requires redemption (cc: restorative justice). But redemption is not priceless. This is the idea that for new life, death is required. Your new life will cost you your old one. Your fight for justice will cost you your peace. Your service will cost you your comfort. Your giving will cost you your wealth. Your speaking truth will cost you your prestige and possibly part of your church community. 

It is troubling that pragmatic help for justice for Black lives and for the poor and the suffering is so often denounced by white American Christians. I do not know enough about the history of Marxist thought or how it has affected other countries enough to comment on it, but Marxism, in simple terms, is a political, economic theory in which a society is not divided by class. Every person within the society works for a common good, and class struggle is theoretically gone (source). I hope to write a separate post exploring my own apocalypse with money, which engages the ideas of class and the Bible more, but what sticks out to me in that summary of Marxism is working for the good of those who are suffering

It is the communists and neo-marxists of Santa Maria that are teaching me most pragmatically how to work toward the good of those who are suffering. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, she is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Bible holds maps for apocalyptic rebirth in so many places. I am convicted to see my place in obstructing the freedom from suffering of others, and I have hope that I am invited into a plan where I get to be free too. 

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