Today’s post is prompted in part by a news item I read recently and in part by a private conversation I had with a handful of readers here via email regarding the massive slide into “Christian nationalism” I find in church today and to what extent I am still part of the brotherhood (or those Christians who elevate Trump and/or party above Jesus). Can I still be a brother to such people? What do I do with them? What will they eventually do with me? Stuff like that.
Politics have become increasingly my focus on this blog the last three or five years. I sensed the GOP’s invasion of the church years before that. In fact, I sensed it since the 1980s when I was a kid, but in the old days, that was an invasion of the “evangelical church” at large, not our little sect. Then in the 1990s, as a young adult, I read a pop-theology book by Steve Farrar that demonstrated to me the ever-deepening entanglement of the GOP with the house of faith (still at large but starting to infiltrate our sect now too). Then in the first decade of the current century, I began to see firsthand evidence that it was impacting the mission of the congregation I served and tearing us apart.
That congregation has, in recent years, split! And in the split was revealed to me not only the GOP influence, but a liberal political/theological reaction in it I had not appreciated before. Who knew that in Lubbock, Texas we had a liberal agenda cooking in our church? I didn’t, but it was there and finally revealed itself. Both are partisan, and the split cracked almost entirely down party lines – at least where the issues at hand were concerned.
My point is not to get into “the particulars” of those issues, but to say allegiance to Jesus was quietly given to lesser powers – party politics – and that took over the church! These were my brothers and sisters! And in the end, they preferred the worldly teachings of either the liberal Democrats or the conservative Republicans to Jesus.
My analysis in no way denies the politics of Jesus but giving oneself over to either party does. (I expect there is a fine distinction there for some readers.)
Here’s where the problem impacted me:
I was a street minister with an outreach church who was doing amazing things for the poor, racially diverse neighborhood where our assembly met. For a number of years, we expressed evermore daring and risky outpouring of God’s love and unmerited grace to people who desperately needed it, but who largely could not fathom the sacrifice that had been, and was being, made on their behalf. (Same as you and me experience Jesus, of course, but the white, middle-class people of our congregation were finding another side of that coin too.)
Even while we were neck deep in our own sacrifice (still a long way from selling everything, giving it all to the church or poor so that no one went in need, but definitely on that slope!), I began to analyze how many of my brothers and sisters spent their … their… let’s call it “off hours” when away from the assembly… watching Fox News and devouring the kind of political agendas expressed there. I was no rocket-surgeon, but I could see plainly that the nice folx at Fox had no interest in the kind of giving and sacrifice we were pouring out to the poor. On the contrary, they championed something more like a “tough love” where you cut those poor people off the dole!
My first reaction was amazement! Look what God was doing with us! Despite ourselves too. When we got together, we were better than the sum of our parts! We set aside all our smaller, worldly agendas and worldly wisdoms for the Spirit of God to move in us, and I was amazed by that.
And then it hit me. I better not point this out to anyone. This little arrangement is extremely fragile. I figured the only way this worked was because (up until that time) the sect I was raised in had always resisted the trends of the larger evangelical influences in important ways. I could plainly see that my brothers and sisters did not want our local, state, or national government doing this work, but for the church, that was another matter. But of course, there is a fine line there, and if you believe the philosophy instead of dickering over who provides the care, then our mission would soon succumb to political pressures.
To make a long story short, it was soon after these observations that one of the ministers introduced our church to the book When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert, a book which claims to be biblical, and does start off that way, but which betrays a commitment to that ideal as it slowly blends conservative politics with ministry in a voodooish syncretism. (Seriously, by the time you reach chapter 9 in that book, you find them endorsing microfinance loans and the forced repayment as the answer to the problems despite their remarks being a complete betrayal of the Jubilee they endorsed in the early chapters.)
Suddenly, the church had a way to smuggle in GOP politics in under Jesus’s name! This book gave them the cover they needed, and soon church leadership stopped all the outreach for months while they revamped it all and then began selling our charity to the poor at reduced prices! (Nowhere is that found in the Jesus of the Bible, by the way.)
(Also, by the way, I want to point out to you, dear reader, that in about a dozen years since that overhaul of mission, the poor in that neighborhood are still there, still poor, and still every bit as needy as they were when the complaint about our sacrificial giving arose in the first place. BUT the church is now split and limps as a pathetic shell of the glory it once shown to this town.)
I tell of that to set the stage for my point, which is a question:
IF my church is going to go apostate, what do I do?
This is not a usual problem. It’s usually and historically the other way round. In fact, my childhood was filled with people who either “fell away” or “backslid” as we sometime say, or they might fall into sin – usually of a shameful and sexual nature – and thus might face church discipline. Even the passage in Matthew 18 outlining church discipline banks on the premise that the whole congregation, if need be, will put out an unrepentant individual, rather than an individual putting out a church.
The problem is quite complex at this point. We are not talking about a simple sin of just one category like lust or greed or murder. Everyone sins, and we must all repent. We all must not think too highly of ourselves but be humble about our own feet of clay and in our handling of the sins of others, recognizing that we too suffer temptations. At that level, it’s still hard, but not overly complex.
But we are talking about people now who give allegiance to lesser powers rather than Jesus (kind of a whole other order of sin, a matter of idolatry) but who continue to claim the Name! It’s idolatry in Jesus’s name! (Maybe all sin is that in the end, I don’t know.) The faith is bankrupt. If there is any vestige of it left, it’s hard to detect, and honestly, we must remember that if it were an individual we are talking about, the church might be called to put that one out of the assembly! In that case, you would no longer treat the person as a brother or sister, but as a Gentile and tax collector.
Of course, in the years since, I have confronted the church about this. The church refuses to listen to me. The church of which Jesus declares the gates of hell cannot withstand betrays him and leaves me standing there alone in faith.
Now I have a whole OTHER order of problems. How can I be sure I am right and everyone else is wrong? I mean, I can get that a lot of people might be wrong, but literally everyone else except me??? That’s generally a pretty good indicator that the problem is me. We used to even say that as sort of a proverbial wisdom when I was young!
But, of course, we also used to say, “If everyone else runs off a cliff, will you jump too?”
Going to the Bible with this problem, I find Elijah faced with something similar in I Kings 19. Idolatry has taken over Israel from top to bottom, and he feels so very alone in his faith and allegiance to God. Yet even that is somehow part of God’s plan, and he needs to trust God despite appearances (a lesson that takes so many different shapes, colors, and sizes!).
Who is my brother and sister? What shibboleth should I require? Will there be a secret handshake?? When do I cross from faith into paranoid delusion???
The moment I abandon the LOVE of God, I embrace paranoid delusion.
Every now and again, you meet a family who has lost a loved one, but I don’t mean grandma and grandpa. Everyone loses grandma and grandpa eventually, but every now and again you meet a young family without the mama or the daddy, and it ain’t always because of divorce. Worse yet (can it be worse?), sometimes the loss is one of the kids. When that happens, the loss is a perpetually painful subject, and you might meet and know these folx a surprisingly long time before they tell you of this loss.
But the ones who are really, really reluctant to talk about the loss are those who sent one to death row.
Think about it.
He was a young boy. So full of promise. Potential. Handsom too. But we don’t talk about him much because you might’a heard of him. Yeah. He made the papers but for all the wrong reasons.
Yeah. You read about him. You know what he did was absolutely despicable. An utter betrayal of faith. It’s easy, really, for people to hate him – at least to dread him. But he was my brother before all that.
I know what you read about him. I read it too, and while there was some truth to it, I assure you, you did not get the real skinny.
You heard he was greedy. Right? Yeah. I heard that too. I read it in John 12:6. Seriously, that is one single verse in the whole Bible! You do know, don’t you, that three other witnesses who testified made no such mention of Judas at all. Did you realize that?
Yeah. One little verse taken out of context, and suddenly my brother Judas is reduced to some greedy jerk who would sell out Jesus for his greed.
Look. I don’t deny John’s testimony. Judas did have an issue with that, alright, but even John isn’t telling you that to explain Judas’s whole motivation. That’s just the way the media spins it. In fact, you learn that bit about Judas in a story about something else entirely, not about his betrayal.
You gotta put all that in proper perspective, okay? Judas was not simply some creep who only blindly worshiped money and would sell out anyone or anything at any time just to get his hands on some more dough. He felt bad about what he’d done, you know? He killed himself because he looked into the pit of his soul and found where the road paved with good intentions leads, and that is what got him.
Look. If you want to understand my brother, you gotta go back before all of that. People these days don’t even remember when Judas was a great hero of Israel. Well, a few Catholics do, but most evangelicals and other Protestants have no clue.
You have to go all the way back to the Maccabee revolution, about 150 years before Jesus came along. The Maccabees were a remarkable family of warriors who led Israel into independence from Seleucids and Ptolemies. The one Maccabee brother who proved to be the fiercest warrior and most blessed of God was Judas Maccabee, The Hammer, who crushed the enemies of God in holy righteousness and won freedom for our people that lasted almost a hundred years!
Mama and Papa named my brother after him! A lot of people did that for several generations afterward. It wasn’t any different than you find in the American South after the American Civil War when everybody and their cousin took the name Lee. Judas’s namesake always reminded everyone who met him that our family remembers the glory days, and we will always be ready at the next chance to win freedom for our people! That’s in our DNA! It definitely was in Judas’s DNA. Just imagine, every single time someone addressed Judas by name, they invoked The Hammer, and Judas wore that name proudly.
Iscariot was not his last name. Some misinformed people think that too, but no. Iscariot is kind of an obscure designation passed around in secret society type groups. You might have heard of zealots, people armed and ready for open conflict the moment God gives us the signal to move.
Yeah. Well, you have your average hot-head zealots, of course, but then you have your covert assassins who aren’t sitting around waiting. Judas “Iscariot” tells me (let me whisper this part in your ear, it’s sensitive information*), Judas belonged to a secretive warrior society called Sicari. Yeah, these brave men never left home without their concealed carry weapon, and they could strike with stealth even in an open market with precision accuracy against infidels in power.
That’s how Judas rolled, okay.
If you think he was simply driven by greed, you don’t get the whole story. I won’t deny greed played a role in Judas’s motivations, but that was not some greed in a spiritual vacuum. It never really is anyway. Greed is always attached to something, and for Judas, his desire for money was a desire to fund the revolution. Yes, I think he let visions of glory go to his head. He sought personal glory and fame like Judas “The Hammer” had found. Judas Iscariot wanted to leverage his name to make a name for himself!
But, of course, he was ultimately working for God. Isn’t that always the temptation, though? You have big plans to do great things for God, and you sorta overlook the fact that you’re really kinda trying to bring glory to yourself. It’s a common mistake, but of course the stakes are higher when it comes to warfare, to assassinations, and especially when it comes to Jesus.
Oh, Jesus brings a pollical agenda with him alright. For Jesus of Naz, there is no separation of Israel and state any more than there is a separation of church and state in Europe. No. Jesus aimed to be crowned King of the Jews – about as political an ambition as there ever was! But, of course, he had a completely otherworldly approach to that crown than anyone ever saw coming! Judas, meanwhile, had political ambitions too, but they, sadly, were completely entangled in this world, in the Age that is Passing Away rather than the Age to Come.
So, you see, Judas follows Jesus around for almost three years along with the other eleven, but unlike Peter who totally blows the pop quiz Jesus hits him with in Mark 8, Judas was paying attention. Suddenly, Jesus is talking about dying, about laying down his life for the kingdom cause, and Judas, the taker of lives for the glory of God, is listening carefully – and calculating. He totally gets it. This messiah wants to die!
Oh… he didn’t, of course, really understand everything, but those passion predictions stuck in his craw. The other disciples couldn’t grasp what Judas did. Judas suddenly realized that he was backing a messiah who was going to die for God’s glory, and that just didn’t compute!
Who does that compute for even now??? REALLY???
Judas knew then he had to get out of that band of revolutionaries. Jesus was doomed and dooming himself, but Judas would not go down with him.
He thought about it long and hard.
It would not be enough for him to simply bow out of Jesus’s entourage. People knew he was a follower of Jesus. You recall, Peter faced that problem at Jesus’s trial in the courtyard too! The servant girl put it together, and called him out, and even Peter denied Jesus, vainly, of course. Judas could see he had to extricate himself from this doomed messiah. At the moment, his mission was still covert, but later, he would need everyone to know that it was him, he had betrayed this Jesus for the fraud he was.
Thirty pieces of silver?
Yeah. Greed was involved, okay. But thirty pieces of silver were not just some shiny precious like a ring in the hands of Gollum. No. It was just the right amount of money to make a lot of sense for Judas’s next step. It was cheap enough of a betrayal for people to say, hey, he didn’t do it strictly for the money, he did it on principle, but it was also enough to fund starting his own movement. Judas would have to take matters into his own hands and serve God as messiah himself in the next revolutionary movement – one he would lead himself.
Are you catching on to the idea now?
SPARTICUS – ahem – JUDAS
Judas brought his politics with him into his discipleship with Jesus and look how it served God; look how it served Jesus; look how it served Judas.
We all are guilty, not only of sin, but of remaking God in our own image. All of us. It is a constant temptation, and one better off acknowledged and confessed so that it might be dealt with in some way approaching appropriate. This certainly was true of Judas, though he never acknowledged it.
But here is what’s true of Jesus:
Even with Judas, the betrayer, in his group, Jesus did not kick him out.
Isn’t that interesting?
Jesus who foresaw the betrayal, who even predicted it for the Twelve at the supper, did not kick Judas out, but dipped in the bowl with him anyway. They ate together! Judas was always welcome with Jesus, right up until he rejected life itself.
It is so heartbreaking to look at Judas there like that, so close to LOVE in the flesh, eating with him and yet so hard hearted he could not see it.
Let that be a cautionary tale for us all! Me and you.
But let it also indict our political ambitions – our religio/political ambitions especially.
What is a shibboleth at the table with Jesus where even the betrayer is welcome? It is my politic, and that is my own downfall, I think.
I write this because I struggle with it too. If you read here often, you surely recognize that. I have so much angst and struggle with my own blood kin, my church family, as well as the public at large along political lines today. I even stress over and over again that I too identify myself as conservative in so many ways, big and small, and in ways which conservatives used to claim were important to them. I can’t get a meeting halfway, not three fourths of the way, and not nine tenths.
The only meeting I get is at the bowl where we dip together. The LAST supper. And I feel the betrayer get up from that meal and leave to do his dirty work. I can see it as clear as day!
But as I follow Jesus out that door afterward, it is a cross I go to with him. Not fooled by what is coming one bit but holding out love to my enemies who are also my brothers, my beloved brothers. I have dreams of greatness which I tell them of, but they plot against me instead. And I strive to be shaped into the man of God who will one day arise out of a tomb or dungeon and reunite with them in tears able to say, what you meant for evil, God meant for good.
It’s the very best I can find in the Bible.
I am weak to the work. But it is the best I can find in Jesus, and if I didn’t find it in him, I think he would not be worth following.
God help us all.
Remember you read this AFTER the coming election.
God bless America. Please, God. Bless America.
*My hypothetical presentation of Judas is largely my own making and NOT well-established theory accepted or promoted in biblical scholarship. Let me state that clearly for the record. However, the bit about the origins of the title “Iscariot” which I present is not mine. At this time, I do not recall where I read that, but I am clear that it was presented hypothetically when I found it too. However, I maintain that the conjecture is in fact plausible.