A River that Carries the Reign of God

See the source imageTHIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Prayer of the Day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“And the crowds asked [John the Baptizer], ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’” Luke 3:10-14
What practical difference does the reign of God make? John’s answer is clear and direct. For those of us who have closets full of coats and pantries filled with food, his imperatives don’t seem all that severe. But for people living hand to mouth just one bad harvest away from starvation, emptying their meager surplus of food or parting with a spare coat could put their very survival on the line. Tax collectors in first century Palestine were more like wealthy mafia dons than the modestly paid IRS agents we know today. Extortion was the means by which they earned their living. So, too, the soldiers responding to John’s preaching were not anything like the military personnel that serve in our armed forces. They were not particularly patriotic, disciplined or subject to any code of military ethics. They were more like warlords whose attachment to Herod Antipas protected them from all legal reprisal for their brutal conduct. For all of these various people, John issued a clarion call to stake everything on his assurance that the reign of God has drawn near. The price of obedience was far higher than simple obedience to the law with a little charitable giving on top. John is inviting his hearers to begin living boldly and corporately into the reign of God.

If we fast forward to Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, we can find the earliest believers putting John’s admonitions into concrete action. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Acts 4:32-35. I think there are some interesting parallels between these kingdom ethics and intentional anarchism that might be worth exploring.

In his recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchism,[1] James C. Scott calls attention to a type of collective lawbreaking in which we all engage, namely, speeding. He uses, as an example, a major roadway with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour. Everyone knows that the police are not likely to prosecute drivers traveling at 56-60 miles per hour. For that reason, the de facto limit is 60 or perhaps even 65 miles per hour. This ten mile per hour “safe” zone thus becomes “occupied territory,” space that has been seized from the government, though without any formal “movement” or “organized resistance.” In the same way, the early church did not originate as an organized opponent of the Roman Empire. Its purpose was not to overthrow Caesar. Yet the mere existence of this community that refused to recognize the social hierarchy based on imperial office, Roman citizenship, gender and slavery threatened the empire’s legitimacy. The church claimed and occupied space for the reign of God within the heart of the empire and thereby destabilized its grip on the totality of human existence.

The point, here, is not to advocate lawbreaking for its own sake. Clearly, the New Testament church was not in the business of encouraging criminal conduct. It was rather concerned with embodying the life it had inherited from its Lord, a life of organic communitarianism modeled not on the hierarchical principles of the empire, but upon the interdependent relationship of limbs, eyes, ears and tongue for the functioning of a healthy body. The church represented God’s alternative way of being human made concrete in Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. That “way,” of course, brought the church and its members into a collision course with imperial culture.

Another book I have been reading sheds further light on John’s proclamation and the church’s witness. Called to Community: The life Jesus Wants for His People,[2] is a compilation of essays and fragments written by authors as disparate as Benedict of Nursia, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Henri J.M. Nouwen and Jean Vanier. Each author discusses aspects of intentional Christian community from the perspective of monasticism, common purse communities, commune type arrangements and house churches. These essays do not paint any utopian pictures. Intentional Christian community is not for the faint of heart and few brave enough to undertake it are able to go the distance. I am coming away with two impressions thus far: 1) Intentional Christian communities are fragile, subject to exploitation by unscrupulous leaders with no accountability, vulnerable to isolationist tendencies and cultish leanings and, in most cases, they end unhappily; 2) Intentional Christian community is nonetheless possible in spite of its dangers and difficulties (I have discussed a few thriving specimens in my post for Sunday, August 24, 2017); and 3) Jesus never calls us to do anything that is easy.

The question, then, is how can American churches often resembling more voluntary associations of likeminded, but fiercely individualistic people, become organic and interdependent communities that live into the reign of God in Christ Jesus? What if we were to change our focus from preaching justice to the rest of the world to practicing justice among ourselves? What if we were to commit to ensuring that no member of our congregations will ever go without necessary medical treatment? What if we were to ensure financing for full time clergy and lay leadership for our poorest congregations? What if we were willing to sell off all congregational or synodical assets necessary to finance these goals? What would it take for us to become a community with a politics based on service, an economy based on human need and a culture grounded in mutual compassion? What if we turned our attention to becoming what we believe God intends for all creation?

This is not to say that acts of charity can replace systemic societal reform or that the church should not concern itself with what goes on outside its walls. To the contrary, the good news of Jesus Christ is addressed to the “cosmos” for which he lived and died. But we have to start somewhere and where we start matters. Bold proclamations condemning racism are somewhat undercut when they come from a church that continues to be over 90% white. So, too, preachy-screechy social statements calling for a more just economic order ring hollow when they come from congregations who underpay their pastors and staff and who live lives that are often tangential to the church’s mission and largely independent of one another. What made the New Testament church’s witness so persuasive was its remarkable communal, interdependent existence telling the whole world that there is a better way than imperial bondage. The early church seized space for the reign of God. It became the river that brought John’s prophetic imperatives to the gates of Rome.  That is what intentional Christian communities do. Often they fizzle out over time. Sometimes they fail. But always, like John, they are a light burning, shining and preparing the way of the Lord. John 5:35; Luke 3:4.

Here is a poem by Martin Espada about communal struggle that I think John the Baptizer would understand.

Vivas To Those Who Have Failed: The Paterson Silk Strike, 1913

Vivas to those who have fail’d!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!
—Walt Whitman

  1. The Red Flag

The newspapers said the strikers would hoist
the red flag of anarchy over the silk mills
of Paterson. At the strike meeting, a dyers’ helper
from Naples rose as if from the steam of his labor,
lifted up  his hand and said here is the red flag:
brightly stained with dye for the silk of bow ties
and scarves, the skin and fingernails boiled away
for six dollars a week in the dye house.

He sat down without another word, sank back
into the fumes, name and face rubbed off
by oblivion’s thumb like a Roman coin
from the earth of his birthplace dug up
after a thousand years, as the strikers
shouted the only praise he would ever hear.

  1. The River Floods the Avenue

He was the other Valentino, not the romantic sheik
and bullfighter of silent movie palaces who died too young,
but the Valentino standing on his stoop to watch detectives
hired by the company bully strikebreakers onto a trolley
and a chorus of strikers bellowing the banned word scab.
He was not a striker or a scab, but the bullet fired to scatter
the crowd pulled the cork in the wine barrel of Valentino’s back.
His body, pale as the wings of a moth, lay beside his big-bellied wife.

Two white-veiled horses pulled the carriage to the cemetery.
Twenty thousand strikers walked behind the hearse, flooding
the avenue like the river that lit up the mills, surging around
the tombstones. Blood for blood, cried Tresca: at this signal,
thousands of hands dropped red carnations and ribbons
into the grave, till the coffin evaporated in a red sea.

III. The Insects in the Soup

Reed was a Harvard man. He wrote for the New York magazines.
Big Bill, the organizer, fixed his good eye on Reed and told him
of the strike. He stood on a tenement porch across from the mill
to escape the rain and listen to the weavers. The bluecoats
told him to move on. The Harvard man asked for a name to go
with the number on the badge, and the cops tried to unscrew
his arms from their sockets. When the judge asked his business,
Reed said: Poet. The judge said: Twenty days in the county jail.

Reed was a Harvard man. He taught the strikers Harvard songs,
the tunes to sing with rebel words at the gates of the mill. The strikers
taught him how to spot the insects in the soup, speaking in tongues
the gospel of One Big Union and the eight-hour day, cramming the jail
till the weary jailers had to unlock the doors. Reed would write:
There’s war in Paterson. After it was over, he rode with Pancho Villa.

  1. The Little Agitator

The cops on horseback charged into the picket line.
The weavers raised their hands across their faces,
hands that knew the loom as their fathers’ hands
knew the loom, and the billy clubs broke their fingers.
Hannah was seventeen, the captain of the picket line,
the Joan of Arc of the Silk Strike. The prosecutor called her
a little agitator. Shame, said the judge; if she picketed again,
he would ship her to the State Home for Girls in Trenton.

Hannah left the courthouse to picket the mill. She chased
a strikebreaker down the street, yelling in Yidish the word
for shame. Back in court, she hissed at the judge’s sentence
of another striker. Hannah got twenty days in jail for hissing.
She sang all the way to jail. After the strike came the blacklist,
the counter at her husband’s candy store, the words for shame.

  1. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed

Strikers without shoes lose strikes. Twenty years after the weavers
and dyers’ helpers returned hollow-eyed to the loom and the steam,
Mazziotti led the other silk mill workers marching down the avenue
in Paterson, singing the old union songs for five cents more an hour.
Once again the nightsticks cracked cheekbones like teacups.
Mazziotti pressed both hands to his head, squeezing red ribbons
from his scalp. There would be no buffalo nickel for an hour’s work
at the mill, for the silk of bow ties and scarves. Skull remembered wood.

The brain thrown against the wall of the skull remembered too:
the Sons of Italy, the Workmen’s Circle, Local 152, Industrial
Workers of the World, one-eyed Big Bill and Flynn the Rebel Girl
speaking in tongues to thousands the prophecy of an eight-hour day.
Mazziotti’s son would become a doctor, his daughter a poet.
Vivas to those who have failed: for they become the river.

Source: Espada, Martin, Vivas To Those Who Have Failed (c. 2015 by Martin Espada, pub. by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.) Martín Espada (b. 1957) is a Latino poet and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he teaches poetry. He was born in Brooklyn, New York and was introduced to political activism by his father, a leader in the civil rights movement. Espada received a Bachelor of Arts in history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a Juris Doctor from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. For many years he worked as a tenant lawyer and a supervisor of a legal services program. In 1982, Espada published his first book of poems, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero. In 2001, he was named Poet Laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. You can find out more about Martin Espada and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Scott, James C., Two Cheers for Anarchism, (c. 2012 Princeton University Press) pp. 14-29.

[2] (c.2016 by Plough Publishing House).

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