Friday, July 4, 2008

Self Preservation is not a fruit of the Spirit

This was originally written and posted on MLK Jr. Day of this year

One of the conclusions made in Darwin's Origin of the Species is the idea of "the survival of the fittest". Essentially, the idea is that the strongest species will prevail against the weaker species and will continue to remain in its natural community, while the other species will cease to exist. As we live out our life in the "real world", we see much evidence of this being true. We see this in nature and we see it within our society. The kid who wins the fight at school receives a certain amount of respect and rises on the social ladder. The corporation that takes out the small business will take over the customers and money of the "weaker" company. From here on out, this is where all will shop. The world superpower nations take the culture, capital, and natural resources of the "weaker" nations. "From here on out, they will make our products, speak our language, and 'share' their natural resources with us," says the empire.

I just listened to MLK Jr's "I've been to the mountain top" speech. It ended up being the last speech that Dr. King ever gave, as he was assassinated soon after. About half way through, he exhorts his listeners of the importance and urgency of their actions. He tells them to skip their jobs to go to the marches. He then launches into a sermon about the Good Samaritan. Why did the Levite and the Priest walk past the man who had been beaten and robbed? King says he imagines that perhaps the Priest and Levite were not being apathetic or cruel; rather, they were afraid. That particular road was known as a place for bandits and robbers. Maybe the robbers were hiding out nearby, ready to prey upon whomever might stop. Or maybe the man lying on the ground was himself a bandit, pretending to be hurt so that he could take advantage of the benevolence of a stranger. Surely this is a valid concern, to look out for our own self-interest. Fleeing danger seems to just be common sense. If we don't look out for ourselves, who will?

I'd like to propose that self-preservation and the laws of natural selection are incongruent with the teachings of Jesus, insofar as it relates to how the individual and the corporate people of God conduct life in the world. Perhaps the clearest teaching on this, is one that can be found in all 3 of the synoptic gospels: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?"

The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to love God with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength- and to love ones neighbor as their self. It was when Jesus was asked, "who is my neighbor?" that he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. Dr. King continued in saying that the Priest and Levite's concern may have been, "what will happen if I stop?" The Samaritan on the other hand, who modeled the true love of one's neighbor (and true obedience, for that matter) asked himself "what will happen to this man if I don't stop?" King goes on to tell of the joy and pleasures that the small victories of the civil rights movement along the way had given him. Though beaten, jailed, and faced with constant death threats, in his final speech he said, "I'm not concerned with [the threats on my life] now, I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I've looked over and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land…I'm not fearing any man, because my eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." These words sent chills up my spine and brought tears to my eyes as I recalled the way history played out a short time later.

Perhaps, as Christians, we've forgotten what a cross really is. Somehow, we've interpreted "taking up your cross" to mean burdens or hardships in life. Are we unaware that the cross was a tool of the empire used to humiliate any that second-guess their ways and offer an alternative way of life? Was Jesus' death upon the cross just a metaphor for carrying burdens, or did he live a life contrary to the ways of the world, for which he was publicly shamed and brutally killed? Why, then, do we reduce the most powerful example of discipleship, self-sacrificial love and non-violent resistance to a mere metaphor? May I suggest that there is something extremely backward about the way Christians and churches in America live out their faith?

Christian pacifist Stanely Hauwerwas does well in pointing out the beauty of war. For some reason, Christians seem to be among the most militaristic people in our culture. One of the reasons (though there are many to be sure) for this is that war gives our lives meaning and purpose. Self-sacrificial love is in our soul, and often war is the only place in our culture where we can fully exercise this deepest of longings of our spirit. As much as we may want to believe that wars are good and necessary to protect our freedom and to spread democracy, we (Christians) are ignoring the message of the gospel and following the ways of the world. A good indicator of your priorities may be to know whom you associate yourself with when you talk about "we". If your "we" is white people, black people, republicans, democrats or most probable of all, Americans, then your "we" is not the global body of Christ. And "we" are called not to kill, but to lay down our lives for others.

Aside from war, there is a great myriad of other problems in the world today. Global economics have taken over the world through corporate Darwinism. Cultures are gone, Children are making our products in sweatshops for pennies, we've wrecked ecosystems and raped the planet with our greed, and we've marred the image of God inside of each person by the blasphemous practice of reducing them to mere "consumers". If the people of God are to have any integrity in their meager claims to "follow Jesus", then they must embrace the teachings and life of Jesus. It's time to stop aligning ourselves with the powers of the world that protect our way of life, and instead seek peace, justice, love and truth for all of God's creatures. No doubt, if this is taken seriously, our economy may collapse, for its is dependent upon war and exploitative economics. Life might get hard. America may even be replaced by an even more brutal and oppressive empire. Perhaps we (the church) might not even seem "relevant" to our culture anymore. Perhaps people will really start hating us. Perhaps we'll lose our tax write-offs or our freedoms. Who knows, maybe we'll be beaten or killed. We should not fear these things. We must take up our cross and follow Jesus. That may mean being a social rights martyr, it might mean living in a radical simplicity, it might mean going home empty-handed because there is nothing in the whole store not made in China. It might mean going to the Middle East to be a human shield to die for those whom the nation that you live in has labeled "enemy". Heck, it might even be as simple as working less so you can volunteer at an after-school program, or a soup kitchen or an old folks home. For me today, it meant riding to school on my bike in the frigid cold instead of driving. This is not a call for heroic piety, but a call for the church in America to come out of America and be the church. May we follow the example of Jesus, MLK jr, and all the saints and martyrs through the ages. If the people of God don't take up the cause of the oppressed, the hurting, the poor and destitute, the widows and orphans, or the prisoners and the least of these, then who will? Let us not worry of the consequence to ourselves as we seek to love with all that we have. Thanks be to God.

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