The Courageous in the Land
View the world from American eyes
Bury the past, rob us blind,
And leave nothin’ behind. 1
The words are from Zack de la Rocha, popular hard core singer and front man of Rage Against the Machine. He is also an advocate for Latin America, especially Colombia.
Our churches have lost the ability to speak out for the oppressed and downtrodden, to speak out against our culture, but Christianity at its base is revolutionary.
I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religious projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want forgiveness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want. 2
These are the words of the prophet Amos approximately eight centuries before the Common Era—Amos and the prophets, the original “ragers against the machine.” When one reads the Minor Prophets, one cannot but be struck by their anger and rawness.
Amos and Zack de la Rocha would have made good contemporaries. Both cry out against a system that allows the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer, against a people who have become blind and deaf to how their way of life is oppressive.
To listen to Rage Against the Machine is to listen to anger. Few of their songs are void of profanity. They are not a band my parents would like, much less my grandparents. If I pause to think, I might conclude that I should not listen to them. Yet there is something in their music that is painfully missing in the North American church today. Zack de la Rocha and his band, I believe, better fill the prophetic role to which God calls his people than do most evangelical churches.
CHRISTIANITY IS REVOLUTIONARY
Our churches have lost the ability to speak out for the oppressed and downtrodden, to speak out against our culture, but Christianity at its base is revolutionary. Hear the words of another revolutionary:
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? 3
Those are angry, revolutionary words. Words like that, which call an oppressive system into question, are what get people killed. Those, of course, are the words of our Lord Jesus as found in Matthew 23.
Jesus did eventually go the way of the cross. He did not take up arms as the militant Jewish sect known as the Zealots desired him to. He did not usher in his kingdom with the sword as Judas Iscariot had hoped. Yet at the same time he refused to be among die Stille im Land (the quiet in the land), a label that historically described the Mennonites while in Russia. This is a strange label for a people who began as a part of a movement known as the “Radical Reformation.” To be a Mennonite in the sixteenth century was to be marked for death, often a horrible death. Sadly, however, by the eighteenth century our spiritual parents were quite content to be “the quiet in the land.”
COMATOSE CHRISTIAN FAITH
Such a description could be used for North American Christianity as a whole. We have come to prefer and to focus on a Jesus who died solely for individual sins rather than a Jesus who also, in going the way of the cross, gives us an example to follow. Much less do we focus on a Jesus who tells us to take up our cross 4 and reminds us to expect persecution. 5
What we see in Christ’s life and especially the cross is a God who cares for the marginalized and downtrodden. Christ becomes forsaken of God. In his cry from the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 6—the forsaken find that they have an advocate.
Are those of us who claim to be followers of Christ in North America such advocates? Do we align ourselves with the downtrodden and oppressed?
I would like to suggest that unless we view ourselves as a part of the persecuted church, then we are a part of the problem. Unless we see our brothers and sisters globally who face persecution each day as true brothers and sisters, as part of who we are, we sin against them.
Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, proclaims that those who face persecution for righteousness’ sake—which I understand to be working for justice, a right and just cause—are blessed. Are we willing to be such a community, to work for justice to the point of persecution?
Many North Americans would say yes. Living in a country that allows for religious freedom makes it macho to dream that we could one day look into the barrel of a gun and say, “go ahead, make my day!” I would suggest, however, that North American Christianity has become impotent because we have bought this subtle lie of “freedom of religion.” We in North America do not have freedom of religion—what we have is the right to hold to personal beliefs.
COURAGEOUS FOR GOD’S KINGDOM
Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon tell a story in which a conversation arose as to the morality of the U.S. bombing military and civilian targets in Libya. Rather than a military solution to this international tension, one person proposed that a Christian alternative response would have been to send missionaries to Libya. To this came the quick reply that such would not be an option because then U.S. President Ronald Reagan would deny any visas to Libya. The person making the proposal then made this profound response:
I’ll admit that we can’t go to Libya, but not because of President Reagan. We can’t go there because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something this bold. But we once did.
Hauerwas and Willimon then conclude,
We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who clearly see the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price. 7
Such a church, whether it is in North America or Nigeria, will face persecution to varying degrees. A church like that would be bold. It would be the community of the cross, a people who live as Christ to the world, who speak prophetically into the world.
It is true that it is harder for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Do not be fooled, however; it is not simply the businessperson to whom this text speaks, but to the North American church as a whole. Living in affluent conditions has always caused the church to accommodate. Our spiritual parents did the same in Molotschna as we are doing in North America.
MUSTARD SEEDS OF HOPE
So how do we begin to create churches that are so bold, communities of the cross? How do we become part of the persecuted community, instead of a persecuting community? Well, as Jesus tells us, the kingdom of heaven begins as a tiny mustard seed.
It begins with some ladies hearing from Mennonite Central Committee that the war in Sudan has killed more than our entire city’s population and they are asking for blankets. It begins with a young mother-to-be who gets passionate about Samaritans Purse Christmas boxes and shares her passion with her faith community as well.
These are mustard seeds that I have witnessed in my home church. I could cry when I reflect that I am part of a community where I have seen blankets piled high and a van packed with Christmas boxes going to the third world. It excites me that we are also part of the larger community who birthed an agency like Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) that is aligned with the downtrodden and oppressed all over the world. Mustard seeds. Even MCC was nothing more than a mustard seed at one time.
The most seminal of all mustard seeds is prayer. With prayer, however, we must also listen, for if prayer is divorced from action, one has to question whether we meant our prayer to begin with. It is also important to be informed, to find ways to learn about what is occurring in our world. May that information lead to prayer accompanied with action.
Beyond that we must also begin to question how our thinking has been shaped by our culture instead of by God. The attitudes and actions in our North American communities will demonstrate how we see our role as Christians, and whether we truly care for the persecuted and suffering or not.
DEALING WITH AFFLUENCE
How do we spend our money? This question goes beyond giving in the weekly offering or not (although that is a start—that many think they cannot afford to give, that I feel that way at times, sickens me—we are rich!)
What are our purchasing habits? Do we simply look for what is cheapest? Will we pay more for fair trade coffee because we know that the farmers are guaranteed a fair wage for their work, or do we ignore how coffee is manufactured and buy a cheap tin of Folgers or Nescafe?
Do we try to buy local, supporting local businesses and farmers, or do we look for cheap over just? Do we inform ourselves about where our clothes were manufactured?
Sadly, most Christians (myself included) usually care more about getting the best deal than the rights of other humans. I heard an African on television cry out, “We produce what we do not consume, and we consume what we do not produce,” followed by, “We are tired of the West slapping us in the face and also offering us handkerchiefs to wipe our tears!” Giving aid to the poor is good, but it does not help when we take part in a system that makes it impossible for the poor to ever find liberation from their poverty.
As an individual I do not like to ask myself tough questions. I like to turn on the TV, eat cheesed popcorn, and shut off my mind. I need to have a community that is passionate about working for justice in our world and constantly reminding me that what our North American world tells me is not necessarily true:
What does the billboard say?
Come and play, come and play.
Forget about the movement,
Just buy, buy, buy. 8
My community is a gift as it reminds me that this is not my story. My story is better and bigger—big enough to embrace love for God and love for my neighbor.
- Rage Against the Machine, “No Shelter,” Godzilla—The Album, 1998.
- Amos 5:21-24, The Message, emph. in original.
- Matthew 23:13-15, 23-28, 33, NRSV.
- Matt. 16:24-26; Mark 8:34-38; Luke 9:23-26.
- John 15:18-21; Matt. 10:22.
- Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34 (from Ps. 22:1), NRSV.
- Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1989), 47-48.
- Rage Against the Machine, “Freedom,” Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium, 2003. The original lyrics for the final line above were, “Anger is a gift.”