If history tells us one thing, it’s that humans are good at saying NO to systems that don’t work. If our species were a single body, we’d have an excellent immune system. When oppressive regimes arise, it’s only a matter of time until they collapse. The weight of their own corruption weakens them until an uprising from the masses leads to regime change. The toppling of empires is nearly always welcomed with fanfare. We like burning flags, and effigies, and toppling statues. There’s usually a band, and some guns going off, maybe some dancing and kissing.
The only thing missing, often, is “the next step”. But of course, that’s where things get dicey. It’s one thing to throw parties celebrating the end of something terrible. But if you’re not careful, the vacuum left by a collapsed Mubarak regime may be filled by a police state that brutalizes women. Or, the people dancing on the Czar’s grave might soon find themselves frostbitten in a Siberian Gulag for thought crimes. Or, the end of the Wiemar Republic might be celebrated as a new beginning without realizing that it’s the new beginning of darkness that would plunge the whole world into a nearly two decades of death and despair.
We’re good at saying NO. Without a YES to fill the vacuum though, history tells us that the hole left by casting off the bonds of the oppressor will just be filled with even tighter bonds, even heavier yokes. So if, in the coming year, you don’t see me celebrating wildly every time something that’s not working is cast aside, you’ll know why: I’m interested in the end of the story. That’s why we need to get beyond no, to get beyond our capacity to say “this isn’t working”. We need to cast vision for the “Yes” of this world, and there’s nobody better suited to do that than Christ followers.
This principle has at least two vital applications that I pray we’ll keep in mind during 2012
1. It’s an election year, and as such we’re going to hear mountains of poo shoveled at us about how wicked, dysfunctional, greedy, corrupt, incompetent, oppressive, and destructive the other candidate is. Politicians know that we like NO, that it’s in us to criticize, vilify, disdain, and destroy. Please remember that, though we’ve destroyed countless oppressive regimes over the centuries, we also destroyed Jesus in the exact same way! I’m convinced that our capacity for creating self righteous moral high ground and hating enemies is the real drug to which we’re addicted, and know this: we partake at our peril. It appears that neither Bush nor Obama are the antichrist after all. I pray that we’ll be careful with our sweeping judgements because implied in the them is that the real problem is the president, or the party controlling congress, when a bigger view of history would tell us otherwise. The big view reveals that we’re stuck, no matter who’s in power, in a quick sand of corporate interests, fear, and greed. Changing parties is a little like rearranging the chairs, until the fear, greed, and propensity to corruption are addressed by a newer, bigger vision.
2. The church has become NO experts as well, and I say this to our shame. I have friends who work in theater in New York who tell me that they don’t tell their friends that they’re Christians, because the word Christian has, in its street definition, come to mean this: anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-democrat. Never mind your views of any of those three issues – if your stance on those issues define the word Christian, something has gone desperately wrong with our message.
In the name of Christ, I pray that we’ll embody the message of Christ, and that message was actually pretty straightforward. “Change the way you live so that it aligns with God’s good reign. This is the good new of the Kingdom” That’s my paraphrase of Matthew 4:23, and it’s the message Jesus brought over and over and over. What if the church had a reputation for representing the good reign of God. If they did, then we’d be known for our humility, hospitality, love for our enemies, capacity for generosity and service (especially to the poor and marginalized), and irrepressible joy. We be known as a healing and reconciling force in the world.
Instead we’re known as anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-democrat – as if this were the high trinity of our faith. It’s as if the church believes that be saying NO, NO, NO – all will be well. Again, I’m not writing to debate any of those three points (not in this post anyway). I’m writing to declare that if we realize how we’re perceived by our world, and hold that up against Jesus reputation in the world (remember his title “friend of sinners”), I’d say we have more than a messaging problem – we have an utter misrepresentation of the gospel.
That’s why, in 2012, I want to do all I can to call the church to become artisans of hope. I’ve written a book about this (which was just given an award by Christianity Today). I’ll be teaching about it in our church in the coming month. And I’m working on re-ordering my personal priorities so that there’s a compelling vision to the Christian life that’s larger than the woefully inadequate NO. Unless we fill the void with the hope and vision of God’s good reign, the vacuum will be filled with religious noise and bickering, and that’s something our weary world doesn’t need at all.