Mercy Not Sacrifice: A Recovering Evangelical’s Manifesto

Mercy Not Sacrifice: A Recovering Evangelical’s Manifesto November 23, 2012

I desperately need your help and feedback in pulling this book together. I have shared below summaries for the introduction and the 16 chapters of Mercy Not Sacrifice. I know this is a really long blog post, but it would mean so much to me if you would look at it and help me make some decisions that I haven’t yet been able to make. Paste it into MS Word and print it out if it’s easier. I’m going to be discouraged if nobody responds. I can’t help it. As I learned in church-planter training, God made me a diva for the sake of my calling. If I ever actually publish this thing, I’ll say nice things about you in the front and help you with yours if you ever write one.

Introduction: Basically it’s my contention that American evangelicalism has become a hot mess. To put it plainly, we have become the Pharisees that Jesus came to Earth to stop us from being. I consider myself to be a recovering evangelical, which has a dual meaning. First, I mean in the twelve step sense of something I am addicted to and haunted by which will never stop being my identity. Secondly, I mean that I want to recover the beauty of being evangelical, which is basically to be so in love with Jesus that you naturally want to share His love with everyone you meet. The following list is my attempt to diagnose the problems that we are experiencing currently. Please let me know what problems you think I should add and subtract and what order you think they should go in.

a. Self-justification: We are rational creatures who need to make sense to ourselves. We do sinful things that don’t make sense and then naturally trap ourselves behind rationalizations of sin that not only create hidden shame but distort our perception of reality. This imprisoning state of being requires God’s grace to liberate us. Trust in Christ’s atonement liberates us, but when we misunderstand Christianity, we end up being self-justified by our “faith” rather than liberated from self-justification. I’m going to look at Augustine’s concept homo curvatus en se because I really think it is the same thing.

b. The commodification of the gospel: The popular evangelical gospel has been filled with caricatures by the pressure to make it simple enough to be mass-reproducible and easy to share. We have developed what you might call an evangelism industrial complex.

c.      Suburbianity: By this, I wish to name the idolatry of the suburban lifestyle often named as “family values” that has swept over late 20th/early 21st century evangelical Christianity. In suburbianity, the worldliness from which we are supposed to flee is defined in terms of middle-class propriety (no drugs, no sex, no cussing) rather than things that compromise your kingdom fidelity (wealth, privilege, attachments). The goal of suburbianity is to keep your family safe and free of bad influences so that you’ll all go to heaven when you die. The world surrounding you is mostly irrelevant except as a jungle into which you go on evangelism safaris to pull more people out so they can join you in the gated community.

 d.      Revivalist soteriology: Our understanding of “getting saved” has been shaped by 18th and 19th century revivalism in which the altar call was invented. Evangelists would lay the heat on people attending the revival to get them to come forward. This raised the prominence of hellfire and brimstone in preaching and was probably the source of many of the caricatures of the angry God that we find in today’s evangelicalism.

e.      Pitting love of God against love of neighbor: The schism in contemporary American Christianity is a divide in the Great Commandment between love of God and love of neighbor. Mainline Christians tend to focus more on loving their neighbors and less on personal holiness and devotion to God. Evangelicals, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, tend to put on a big show for God in order to excuse ourselves from loving our neighbors.

 f.        Idolatry of knowledge: Evangelicals are very in love with building Babel towers of systematic theology and taking custody of God’s freedom. There is an unnamed idolatry of human knowledge over against divine wisdom at play when evangelicals talk about the importance of “clarity” and figuring out exactly what the “right gospel” is.

 g.       Sports-fan mentality: Having been socialized by the spectator sports culture in America, evangelicals think of our religious fidelity as a kind of loyalty to our team and a hatred for the bad guys on the other side. We take or “us and them” paradigm into all kinds of issues that have created all kinds of absurd stances like saying that environmentalism is un-Biblical because those secular liberals are environmentalist.

 h.      Conflation of populism and conservatism: We are living through an era in which populism and conservatism have been confused for one another, particularly when it comes to things like Biblical interpretation. You can respect the Bible’s authority without needing for every aspect of it to be perfectly self-evident and literal, which has to do with the authority of the interpreter, not the text.

The Chapters: At this point, I have 16 chapters which each consist in a pairing of concepts to try to offer theological corrections to the sources of the problems I named in the introduction. I would really like to whittle this down to 12 chapters if you see places where two chapters could be folded together. Please also suggest resources that I could use for each chapter. Also please let me know if there is a logical ordering that makes sense to you. The current order is completely arbitrary.

1.       Mercy not sacrifice

This chapter will either be the first one or the last one. It will meditate on Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13, “Go and find out what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice,’” which is the impetus of this book. The reason this challenge is particularly salient for our time is because there is an astonishing and embarrassing lack of mercy in the ethos of contemporary suburban evangelical Christianity. As we trumpet “hard work” and “making sacrifices,” we are quick to call others lazy and unworthy of our sympathy. I interpret “sacrifice” to mean whatever self-justifying set of actions or beliefs keep us from experiencing the fullness of God’s mercy and sharing it naturally with others. Mercy is the orthopraxis that tests our orthodoxy in the same way that the spiritual fruits of Galatians 5:22-23 do. Have our beliefs shaped us into people who would be “moved by pity” the same way the Samaritan was in Jesus’ paradigmatic story about loving your neighbor? If not, what are the idols and presumptions that make us into the Levite and priest who walk by without stopping?

2.       Worship not performance

Performance describes a mode of existence in which we are under the gaze of an imaginary audience that is continually judging us. The Greek word “hypocrites” that Jesus used to describe the Pharisees in his Sermon on the Mount was literally the word used for performers, who were under (hypo) the critical eye (crites). Worship is the state of existence in which we delight in God naturally because we have transcended the tyranny of our self-consciousness. When Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to children, I interpret this to reference the way that children live in a state of worship without knowing that’s what they’re doing. We lose this innocence at some point when “our eyes are opened and we see that they’re naked” like Adam and Eve. We discover our vulnerability and fall into the trap of self-preservation and self-justification from which we cannot deliver ourselves. Jesus’ atonement makes it possible to escape performance and return to worship. Now it’s important to name that much of what passes for worship is really performance: putting on a show of piety for God and each other. There’s a difference between saying “God is good” to show other people how righteous you are and saying “God is good” because that’s the truth that you cling to no matter what oppression you have suffered. There are many resources I have in mind for this chapter: John Piper’s Desiring God and Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana on delighting in God rather than trying to prove something by putting on an act for God; James Cones’ The Spirituals and the Blues about how the slave plantation shaped the black worship experience.

3.       Communion not correctness

This chapter will be an expansion of a post I’ve already written on this distinction. We often conflate righteousness (tzedek), which has to do with covenant faithfulness, i.e. relationship/community, and correctness, which presumes that there is a single right opinion or behavior that we’re supposed to conform to. This particularly becomes acute in the caricature of the infinitely sanctimonious God in popular evangelicalism which frames the problem of our alienation from God as a lack of infinite perfection that must be mathematically resolved by Jesus’ cross. When I look at passages like 2 Corinthians 5, I see that God is not imputing infinite correctness to us through Christ’s sacrifice but rather reaching far beyond His covenant obligations in an excess of tzedek in order to reconcile us with Him and bring us back into communion. When you think that correctness is God’s goal, you obsess over doctrinal arguments that destroy communion. Having correct doctrine is important but only as a means to the end of communion.

4.       Kingdom not stadium

One of the biggest problems with American evangelicalism is that we build stadiums rather than building a kingdom. There are several things that I seek to capture in the image of the stadium. More and more of us would rather be in a room filled with people we don’t know that feels successful than in a small intimate community that considers itself to be “struggling” because it can’t fill a stadium. Stadiums are places where you go to be entertained and have a euphoric emotional experience. We want to worship at a Coldplay concert. Stadiums also create a celebrity/fan dynamic between the pastor and his flock (it’s almost always a guy at the praise stadium). Stadiums are enclosed spaces in the same way that we are choosing to live in neighborhoods that are enclosed and safe from the bad things in the world. When we live in the kingdom, we’re part of a reality we can’t control or see. We don’t need to be part of the successful people who are winning. Living in the kingdom also means that we can’t be cynical about what other Christians are doing (such as people who attend megachurches and have very rich, mature spiritual lives). Stadium Christians are not only people who actually belong to the stadiums, but also people who envy the stadiums.

5.       Servanthood not leadership

Leadership is the golden calf of evangelical megachurch pastors. They love to have conferences about it, write about it, etc. I tend to be very cynical about “servant leadership.” It seems like the word “servant” gets slapped onto the front of “leadership” to make a concept which is mostly shaped by the secular business world into something “Biblical.” I agree that we need to learn how to be effective shepherds, motivators, catalysts, etc, but servanthood needs to be the word we use for what we’re doing and we need to understand that it is not merely “serving” other people paternalistically but rather assuming a position of social humility in which we put ourselves beneath the people we’re serving. It is also important to name our dual identity as douloi christou (slaves of Christ) and diakonoi pantou (servants of all). The reason I can’t let my congregation drag me into disobeying God is not because I’m supposed to “project strength” as a barrel-chested, confident leader, but because my slavery to Christ trumps my servanthood to all. This section may also be a good place to talk about the ludicrousness of gender hierarchy since Christian leadership is submission and there’s no reason for us to have any kind of hierarchy between us.

6.       Deliverance not payment

This chapter will be about Christ’s atonement. I am going to be drawing on Scot McKnight’s A Community  Called Atonement, Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, and Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross along with lots of other sources. As many of you know, a number of un-Biblical caricatures have polluted how American evangelicals talk about Christ’s atonement. So my hope is to name the caricatures without throwing out what is legitimate. We cannot dump the sacrificial component of atonement; it’s not only way too scripturally prominent but it’s also critical to our liberation. But the need addressed by Jesus’ sacrifice is our need for deliverance, not God’s need for payment. Jesus’ cross is the violence that absorbs the invisible violence created by our sin. Foucault actually helped me here with his writing on the invisible synergies and dynamics of power that define a society. Many of these dynamics and synergies were created by sin; they are the “powers and principalities” oppress us even though they don’t have an objective material reality. We need a cross where they can be put to death. I have been influenced a lot by Rene Girard’s writing on sacrifice, but I don’t want to lean on it exclusively because I don’t trust all of his theology, so I’m looking for other resources on ancient Jewish understandings of sacrifice (I’m guessing E.P. Sanders?). My atonement theory has four components: sacrifice/satisfaction (“He became sin so we could become God’s righteousness”), Christus victor (setting us free from the power of Satan and our sin), conviction/moral exemplar (“Take up your cross and follow me”), and solidarity with the crucified (Philippians 2, 1 Cor 1-2).

7.       Mystery not certitude

This chapter will have to do with Biblical interpretation and the nature of truth in general. I will be using three terms that have to do with truth: human knowledge, which defines the scope to which we can comprehend truth; divine wisdom, which is the full measure of God’s infinite, absolute truth; and mystery, which describes the means by which the gap between human knowledge and divine wisdom is traversed. The post-Enlightenment “modern” era has been defined by the idolatry of human knowledge. Some claim that human knowledge is all there is; others claim that there is no gap between human knowledge and divine wisdom. Postmodernity is a rebellion against what is called the totality of modern thought. Instead of idolizing human knowledge, it could be said that postmodernity fetishes mystery, but it’s not mystery in the premodern sense of mysterion, the bridge that connects us to infinite truth. Evangelicals tend to be very suspicious of mystery because they’re unfamiliar with its original meaning. Because postmodernity is new, the modern idolatry of knowledge feels more “conservative,” so many evangelicals embrace the “certitude” and “clarity” that was the liberalism of a few centuries ago rebelling against the silly superstitions of ancient “mythology.” I say it’s time to remythologize.

8.       Sacrament not commodity

This chapter has to do with how we value objects in the world. Christianity teaches us that the objects around us in the world tell us about their creator; that’s what it means to call them creation. When objects receive their value from radiating God’s glory, they are sacraments. In contrast, when objects have their value derived through marketplace exchange, they are commodities. While sacraments have infinite depth, commodities are simple and interchangeable. I think the commodity value system has invaded our church. For example, the Four Spiritual Laws is the gospel made into a commodity. Perhaps this chapter can more expansively talk about the ways in which the church has been redefined by capitalism, through the franchising/branding of megachurches, the niche marketing of “positive and encouraging” Christian contemporary music (which is owned and developed by the secular entertainment industry).

9.       Cross not sword

This chapter would deal with the question of how we are to interact with the world. Christians throughout history have struggled with the temptation of worldly power. We would rather conquer and dominate than bear witness. The world’s social power hierarchies are mirrored in the church. What does it mean that Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him? We often interpret it as “making sacrifices,” living frugally, doing things for other people, etc. But I think it’s more than that. If we take up our crosses and follow Jesus, we are joining the company of the crucified. The self-denial that Jesus calls for is more self-negation than self-exertion. It means that we renounce worldly power and status. I might look at the 16th century debate between Bartolome de las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda about whether native Americans could be evangelized with reason or if they needed to be “civilized” through conquest and slavery. Also I could bring in contemporary liberation theologians like Jon Sobrino and Gustavo Gutierrez.

10.   Beauty not tyranny

This chapter is about God’s glory, holiness, and/or otherness. God that many evangelicals worship is very similar to Nietzsche’s ubermensch; His otherness and sovereignty are primarily defined by a will of power. God is right because He says so. It feels very pious to say that. The crueler our God is, the less likely He is our invention, following Kant’s logic for objectivity: if the truth I believe in is attractive to me, then I probably fudged it. To be able to say I’m speaking the truth, I have to prove my disinterest. The tougher a God I have, the tougher I can say that I am, even if my God is only tough on people who aren’t saved like I am. In Kant’s metaphysics, that which is beyond our knowledge is the sublime, a realm of terror. David Bentley Hart proposes, following Gregory of Nyssa and other patristic fathers, that we understand the divine infinite which supersedes our comprehension as beauty rather than sublime. To me, the way of correcting the caricature of God’s otherness in “cage-fighter Jesus” Christianity is to name it beauty rather tyranny.

11.   Solidarity not sanctimony

This chapter will have to do with God’s wrath, because despite what David Bentley Hart says, it ain’t all beauty. The orge theou has to be accounted for. I think the caricature that creates a stumbling block is to make God’s wrath arise from an abstract standard of sanctimony rather than a solidarity with His creation. It makes sense that people who are privileged would be oblivious to God’s solidarity with the oppressed. God’s wrath against Cain, Pharaoh, and many Israelites has to do with their oppression of other creatures who cry out to Him for help. He is also wrathful against idols, but this is not because He’s a diva; He is defending the office of His sovereignty for the sake of peace and harmony within His creation. The reason that Anselm’s king must have his honor satisfied is for the sake of the peasants who need to live in a world that doesn’t descend into chaos. God’s wrath is the biggest stumbling block that causes people to leave the church, so I’m very invested in naming it better than it has been.

12.   Restoration not escape

This chapter deals with the way that premillennial dispensationalism has produced ethical nihilism in American evangelicals. I’m pretty convinced that God’s salvation involves the restoration of all creation rather than an Armageddon reboot that gives us an excuse to not care how we treat our planet. I’ll be looking at NT Wright’s Surprised By Hope and Howard Snyder’s Salvation Means Creation Healed with perhaps some other ecological theology texts.

13.   Trust not opinion

This considers the justification by faith that is the centerpiece of evangelical doctrine. Because of the way I understand the problem that needs to be resolved, I see justification by faith as referring to the trust by which we are delivered from the ontological prison of self-justification that keeps us eternally isolated from God. In other words, justification is about God persuading us to leave the empty tomb like Lazarus rather than us persuading God to let us into the pearly gates by making a convincing enough gesture of faith (which I don’t think can avoid being Pelagianism). The gesture of “faith” which is most common in our rationalistic world is to have the right opinions about theology, since anything which is too obviously an action, like good deeds or sacramental observances, would be clearly a “work” and you can’t be justified by faith if you’re justified by works.

14.   Wonder not dread

I wrote a piece called “The Conflation of Two Fears” describing the difference between the fear that is “wonder” and the fear that is “dread.” Wonder is the fear that is the beginning of wisdom; dread is the fear that has to do with punishment and is driven out by love. Dread is the fear of the third servant in the parable of the talents, who believes that God is a hard, cruel man because that’s the easiest option. Wonder is the fear that causes King David to dance before the ark. Dread has to do with thinking that God is malevolent. Wonder has to do with knowing that God is beyond your comprehension. The great tragedy of American evangelicalism is that too many of us have been trapped in dread by our theology and are unable to experience the wonder of knowing an infinite God.

15.   Justice not fairness

This chapter would look at the difference between the Hebrew mishpat concept of justice which is perfect discernment and the Latin iustitia which is perfect fairness. Jacques Derrida writes that justice is inherently deconstructive; I want to dig into that and see whether it has a source in his Jewish roots. While iustitia contains the concept of disinterestedness and objectivity which can easily turn into an absence of compassion that puts iustitia in a duality with mercy, I don’t think that mishpat is disinterested because Hebrew doesn’t inherit the Hellenistic cosmology in which truth is necessarily a universalized abstraction from particularity. Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice talks about the way that Biblical justice is not making sure your judges rule the same way every time, but rather that your widows and orphans get fed.

16.   Brokenness not privilege

This chapter concerns divine election or God’s preferential option for the poor which I believe amount to the same thing. God chooses a people who are no people to be His people. What often happens in Christianity is those of us who are well-regarded in the world choose a religion to put a stamp of validation on our privilege which is the mirror inverse of God’s election. God chooses the weak to shame the strong, the foolish to shame the wise, and the despised nobodies to bring to nothing the things that are. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 became my personal John 3:16 when I went through a period of deep brokenness and discovered Henri Nouwen, the saint of brokenness. In Life of the Beloved, Nouwen writes that we are taken, blessed, broken, and given, just the like the Eucharistic bread. At some point during my dark years, God said to me, “Your brokenness is your chosenness.” The word for the despised nobodies in the Corinthian passage is exouthenemonoi . It is my favorite Greek word in the whole Bible; there is a Hebrew phrase in Job that means almost the same thing: ben b’li shem, the “sons of no name,” in a cultural context when name meant everything. They are worthless to the world. They are immensely valuable to the kingdom because they know that they subsist solely on the mercy of God once they discover it and they are more easily made into pure vessels of mercy since they have little to nothing else. I am considering using my Hebrew exegesis term paper on Job that interprets his fall from privilege to utter brokenness as the story of his election. Job became exouthenemonos and that’s how he gained the unfathomable privilege of seeing God.

17.   Other possibilities

“Body not mask” would deal with the question of what it means that we are righteous “in Christ,” but it may be something I should just fold into the “Deliverance not payment” chapter.

“Journey not decision” would question whether justification is not a dynamic process of gaining trust in God rather than a single instantaneous flipping of a switch, but this could probably get folded into “Trust not opinion.”

“Gift not reward” is probably just a different way of naming the justification by faith question that may or may not be better than “Trust not opinion.”

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