Thursday, April 7, 2011

Pulling Punches

This is the time of year when the radical nature of our faith should come to the forefront.  Holy Week begins next week, the time when Christians commemorate the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus.  It begins with the ironically named  “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and progresses through his confrontation with the Temple officials when he drove away the money changers and animals from the Courtyard of the Gentiles.  During the Passover meal with the disciples Jesus departs from the very structured script that had been scrupulously (religiously?) observed for hundreds of years and speaks of his body being broken and blood offered, leaving his disciples bewildered.  There’s the betrayal and the arrest, the denial, and the trial.  There’s Jesus’ obstinacy with Pilate, and the crowd’s preference for a zealot’s revolt in their choice of Barabbas over Jesus’ teaching of non-violent resistance.  Finally, there’s the scourging of Jesus followed by his death on a cross.
Jesus was radical throughout his ministry, and this was exciting to the disciples, but with this particular series of events he took his radicalism too far, farther than anyone else was willing to follow.  Though he died between two revolutionaries, he literally died alone.  No one was willing to follow him all the way to the cross; that’s just too radical.
Seems to me that “radical” is a word that doesn’t really allow for qualifiers.  Can a person really be “pretty radical”?  Is there an acceptable level of radical beyond which a person is just plain nuts?  I guess so, but it doesn’t seem right.
I recently picked up a book that other pastors told me I needed to read because it is really radical.  In fact, it says so right on the cover.  The book cover says that it is a call to the Church and to Christians to radically follow a radical Christ.  It’s written by a successful pastor down south who leads a large, successful church in the heart of the Bible Belt.
So I bought the book and started reading it, and was at once heartened and disappointed.  On the one hand, he really was getting to the heart of the agenda of Christ, and had personal stories of encounters in third-world countries where he has gone on numerous mission trips.  And he routinely would take the Church—and his own church—to task for emphasizing comfort in this life and security in the next at the expense of the Bible’s strong and consistent call to address matters of justice worldwide through committed self-sacrifice.
But I was disappointed because, in the church he leads the pursuit of this radical faith was, well, less than radical.  They made some changes, but nothing sweeping; they added some programs, but overall church life pretty much went on as before.  They called on church members to make some adjustments, but nothing too life-altering—read the Bible through in one year, go on a mission trip, pray for the world, give to a cause, and join a small group.  Haven’t we already heard this before?  I know a lot of people who are already doing some of these things, so doing a couple more would be an adjustment, but not a radical change. 
And that was the feeling I got as I read deeper and deeper into the book.  “I’ve read all this before,” I kept thinking to myself.  There’s nothing new here.
I’m purposefully keeping the identity of the author obscure because I’m sure he means well, and I’ve come to the point in my life where I try not to say anything disparaging about another pastor.  I know how hard this is, and I respect anyone who commits their life to this ministry.  So I don’t want anyone to think that I am speaking ill of this man, because I’m not.  I can tell that his heart is right, and that he really realizes how radical following Jesus is supposed to be.  But I could tell that he was pulling his punches, and that was disappointing.  He has a large ministry that he has to support, and it takes lots of money and lots of volunteers to do it, and the whole thing would crumble if he alienated too many people.  I get it, I really do.  And his publisher is a mainstream Christian publisher whose job, quite frankly, is to sell books, and you can’t sell a lot of books alienating your audience.  (After all, that’s what Jesus did, and look where it got him.)
I also am good friends with someone who was one of the author’s seminary professors, although I didn’t know that when I expressed my disappointment in the book to him.  But he agreed with everything I just said, that the author really does have a good heart but he’s pulling his punches because of the demands of a large church and the needs of the publisher.
And I’m not in any position to be critical of him, for I make no claim to live as radically as Jesus did.  It would be laughable for me to take a position of superiority.  That’s why I couldn’t and wouldn’t have written that book, or rather why I couldn’t and wouldn’t write the book I wish he had written.  Because if you are going to write a book about living a radical life for Jesus, your life better back it up 100%.
There is an author whose name I will mention.  It’s Shane Claiborne, who has written such books as The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical and Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals.  These are books that will make you say, “Whoa, I’m not sure I could do that”—which is what a book with the word “radical” ought to make you say, right?  It should challenge you, not to make tweaks in your life (or in the church programs) but confront you with the need to live a transformed life on the inside and a transformed lifestyle on the outside.  And the thing is, Claiborne backs it up—he lives that life.
Not long ago someone mentioned to me that she was going to have dinner with Shane Claiborne.  I was pretty impressed and wondered how she pulled that off.  Seems Claiborne was coming to speak at a friend’s church and he insists on staying at church member’s homes, so he was staying at her friend’s house and she was invited over for dinner.  Why should the church pay for him to stay at nice hotels and eat at nice restaurants when that money can be used for poor people?  Of course, I thought.
Jesus didn’t die to tweak our lives.  He wants something more radical than that.

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