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Radical Disciples

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

According to the Oxford (pages 83-86), life in the first century hinged, in part, on the poles of honor and shame. The rich man would erect a monument as a demonstration of his honorability, and as for shame, the social pressure to avoid it governed the people. In such a society, here come the disciples proclaiming a God who made himself nothing – unthinkable – while they themselves rejoiced in moments that tested their resolve to abandon allegiance to their own sense of honor.

Oh, we have our versions of honor today, and no one likes to be shamed, but it’s not the same. Our social contract is not organized around this need to attain honor and steer clear of shame, not like theirs was. We have our own analogous yet distinct social pressures. In fact, that’s exactly what intrigues me. Analogous yet distinct. We cannot just transplant the disciples’ behavior into our own time and expect it to accomplish the same things. Yet we can translate it.

What were they doing but challenging one of the dearest attachments of their day? What were they saying but that this social contract of theirs didn’t always serve the right things, and shouldn’t always be blindly obeyed, even when the act of abandoning it made one look a fool? Today we don’t uphold the twin values of honor and shame as our basic point of reference in determining how we live. So, what’s our own dearest attachment? And what shape would the disciples’ radical initiative take, today? What kind of splash would godliness make among us; what would it challenge?

I think the challenge I’m inclined to make is twofold.

First, the sacred must be honored, not humored, even when it costs: when it’s not convenient, when it’s not financially tuned. I still believe that money is the only sacred object we acknowledge societally, and that this is unspeakably wrong. Whatever is sacred – family, or nature, or what have you – must still be considered sacred when it costs you financially. That doesn’t sound like a radical statement, but it is. In those occasional moments of choice, when acting on this means losing big, serious bundles of cash, it is doubtless radical.

Second, the ubiquitous power structure of our time – top-down and hierarchical – is not the best or only way, and that “power among” is the alternative to “power over.” Because the structure is ubiquitous, these moments of choice are ubiquitous too and therefore almost too subtle to notice. They are a thousand microscopic threads weaving a broad and durable tapestry. But notice we must. By taking each step differently, we can rough out a different destination. By unthreading one strand after another, we unravel the whole and reweave it into something better.

Both of these challenges can make one look a fool given the right circumstances; both are opportunities to transform the world into something more akin to the kingdom of God as I understand it. So I try to perceive them and rise to them wherever I can. Choose the sacred, not mammon. Choose power among, not power over.

The disciples, for their part, didn’t succeed. The humility experiment began as a back-swing from the obsession with honor, a strike toward something more egalitarian in which the face of God could be seen in every man or woman, slave or free, Jew or Greek. Yet the force of context is strong. They lived within a system of complex and interdependent societal rules, a web as subtle as an ecosystem, and such a system is not easily dismantled. Paving the way with bright, heroic words of challenge and truth they set out; yet they were not independent of the way things were. Rich and powerful people naturally gravitated to rich and powerful roles, because they were equipped for them, and because they were used to them. Powerless, dependent people needed their help because they had no reserves, and they accepted it because they understood it. So generations later, bishops were being selected from “more honorable” levels of society (Oxford, page 86), even with the disciples’ words ringing in their memory: don’t be infatuated with this. Don’t cling to it. There is a better way. There are other laws to live by, laws to free us.

It is a lesson to hold in mind.

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