Trust the Table (by Joe James)

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 7.04.53 PMWhy the Church Cannot Afford to Be Either Conservative or Progressive, by Joe James, the education minister at the Southside Church of Christ in Rogers Arkansas.

Being a minister in 2016 presents a host of challenges. But perhaps the most difficult line for pastors to walk is in translating two kinds of Christianity to each other: conservative and progressive. I have seen it a hundred times, maybe thousands of times – Christians labeling one another. “She’s conservative,” or “He’s liberal.” We even label ourselves. “I’m a progressive Jesus-follower,” or “I am a conservative Christian.” But perhaps being a Christian should present a challenge to our tendency toward labels.

Labeling is a form of slander, even when we aim it at ourselves. Because, at its core, labeling divides “us” against “them.” It is a subtle form of naming the bad guys. And labeling ourselves is subtler still. It is a way of saying “I’m not one of them.” I can’t think of anything more anti-incarnational than the words “I’m not one of them.”

Despite all of our attempts to characterize Jesus as being aligned with our agendas, I believe he resists such attempts. Nowhere in the gospels is this more evident than in the Last Supper. Jesus sits with the ultimate liberals: James and John who are recovering from the bloodlust of desire to see God’s kingdom restored and for justice to be rendered to the people of God – the marginalized, impoverished, oppressed, and occupied people of God.

Yet there they are with Jesus at the table…. and with Matthew, a tax collector. He had buddied up with the Roman powers and was thus a part of the occupying powers. He had aligned himself with the kingdom that opposed the kingdom of God. Matthew was the greedy neo-con. And here is the problem: if it weren’t for Jesus, James and John would literally kill Matthew. If it weren’t for Jesus.

And this detail has long captured my imagination. Jesus didn’t give Matthew, James and John the “proper understanding” or “correct theology” to deal with their disparities. Instead, he gave them a meal. Jesus, unlike us, trusted the table more than he trusted labels.

Problem #1: Conservative Worldview

In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, a friend of mine set off on a month-long tirade on Facebook. Every single day for a solid month, he shared a story from his childhood that painted a picture of “the way America used to be.” Toward the end of his campaign of lament, he told a story that particularly shocked me.

He told of the days of his youth (in the 1960’s), when he could wake up on a Saturday morning and take off on his bicycle with neighborhood friends. Free and secure to explore and play, they could be gone all day long. His mother did not have to worry or fear at all. America was a “safe place back then,” he lamented, but we now are the inhabitants of an age of insecurity, violence and unrest. The supposed loss of cultural morals had led to this degradation.

One problem. He was “free and secure” because he was white. Had he been black in the South during the 60’s, he would have left home on a Saturday not knowing if he would return without being beaten or lynched. The problem with “glory days” thinking is that they only exist in our minds, not in reality. There was never a time after the fall that wasn’t fallen. The only world we know is the broken one. And the notion that returning to the glorious moment of 50 or 100 years ago will mend it is a fanciful and delirious notion indeed.

“Do not ask ‘why were the former days better than these?’ for it is not from wisdom that you ask such things.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10)

Problem #2: Progressive Worldview

Being a Jesus-follower and a millennial means that a lot of my Jesus-following peers have deeply progressive sympathies.   They see the world in a different direction than my conservative friends do. Rather than seeing hope in the past, they abhor the past. The “past” is when we were racist, sexist, nationalistic, violent, intolerant and murderous. The progressive alternative is to place hope in the future.

Which almost sounds Christian. The Christian hope is eschatological in nature. It is in-breaking now, but it is yet to come. And that hope is a new heavens and a new earth (renewal) that God will make by setting all things right (judgment).

And my progressive friends share that vision and desire that world: a world filled with justice, mercy and love. But again, there is a problem. They arrogantly suppose they can build that world themselves. Furthermore, they’re not apt to believe that judgment is required to make that world possible.

I have always felt like my progressive friends need to re-read Noah. In the flood narrative, God deals judgment in the form of retributive and restorative justice. He condemns fallen humanity and annihilates them from the face of the earth. He restores his good creation bringing Noah and his family to rest on the ground of a new world made clean in a sort of global baptism. The only problem is Noah. The curse of brokenness is carried into the new world in him. He too is broken. He too needs to be made new.

In his book, “The Original Revolution,” John Howard Yoder says, “The problem with [revolution] is NOT that it produces its new order by use of illegitimate instruments, but that the order that it produces cannot be new.” The problem with progress is not that it wants a new world, but that it believes progressives are the builders of that new world.

“Behold, I am making all things new.” (Jesus in Revelation 21:5)

A Third Way: The Table

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson says, “We live on top of unmendable cracks, and the insoluble nature of the world means that the question posed to us is not ‘how do we fix this?’ but ‘how can we live out the love of God in the midst of such brokenness?’” I love that idea: we live on top of unmendable cracks.

The real problem with both conservative and progressive visions of Christianity is that we push each other to the margins, to the edges of the spectrums the world places us on. So we label each other as the problem. Conservatives think the problem is the push for moral progress – the problem is in the future and we need to go back. Progressives think the problem is in the push to get back to the “glory days” of the past, which all progressives know is actually the horror of slavery and oppression with the glossy veneer of righteousness over it. And so we push each other away.

But Jesus and Scripture see it quite differently. We live on top of unmendable cracks, and that crack, that brokenness runs right through the heart of everyone of us. So Jesus trusts the Table. Rather than pushing us away, he invites us to pull up a chair. I invite you to pull up a chair. Trusting the Table requires a refusal to trust in visions of grandeur about the either the past of our forefathers making, or the future we will build on the broken backs of our own sons and daughters. Rather, the table reconciles us to God and one another first, then asks us to carry that love to the streets of cracked pavement.

I invite you to reflect deeply with me for a few weeks here on the Jesus Creed blog. I believe now is a time when God is calling us to heal our divides, recover from our labels, and break bread together. Over the next few weeks I want us to examine the weaknesses and problems intrinsic in both conservative and progressive visions of Christianity and to explore the third way of the Table.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.