I was raised in a Christian home in suburban Miami. My parents dragged me to church every week when I was a child until I actually came to enjoy going. Throughout high school, I was heavily involved with my youth group and I often tried to assume leadership responsibilities there. Church was an exciting place where I could meet new acquaintances, eat free food, and debate theology with my friends (being an INTP, there were few things I enjoyed more than debating theology). When I moved to Orlando, that umbilical cord was finally and irretrievably cut. I had to find a new church to attend, in hopes that I might also find a group of people with similar beliefs and lifestyle as my own. I began attending a ministry for “twenty-somethings” called Status which greatly challenged virtually every notion I had in regards to Christian spirituality and the relationship of the Christian to God, the church, the world, and humanity.
During this time, I learned what discipleship was and began to realize that I had never really been a Christian, since I had never truly known what it meant to follow Christ. I began to understand what Jesus meant when he said to his would-be disciples, “come, follow me.” And it became painfully clear to me that I had met far too many “Christians” and not nearly enough Christ followers. This excerpt from Claiborne's Irresistible Revolution should help illustrate what I mean:
“I asked participants who claimed to be ‘strong followers of Jesus’ whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, I sneaked in another question. I asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time with the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did.”32
When I moved to Orlando, I realized that the Jesus of the New Testament was not all what he was cracked up to be in American-Christian ideology. The New Testament Jesus was homeless; a man of peace and goodwill; a devoted follower of Judaism; he even taught that we should love our enemies – these were a teaching and lifestyle that were antithetical to the entire American way of life. And yet somehow, this same figure (or perhaps a severe distortion of the same) has become central to a church that preaches a “prosperity gospel”; treats the homeless like vermin; promotes war and racism; and seems to hate anything and anyone who doesn't agree or follow lockstep with their views and lifestyle. I even once had a conservative friend tell me that “there is no such thing as a Christian Democrat.” While he was joking – one can only hope – it's a wonder that Christians seem to have become so entirely disconnected from the man that they purport to follow; I wonder whether the churches that espouse ideologies of hate even own a New Testament Bible.
Thankfully, I am no longer a part of this dead church, the pagan cult of American "Christianity". I am now part of a much more vital source of life, love, and inspiration that is emerging from the youth of America's churches – we do not just go to church, but we can imagine that we are the Church, an extension of the ekklessia (assembly) that revolutionized the world in the first century with their love, faith, and compassion. Recreating this church would be a revolutionary act in itself, but in our postmodern twenty-first century world, this is not as easy as we might hope. Nevertheless, there are two specific tenets of the Acts church that we are dedicated to realizing which better illustrate how we are moving toward revolutionary living.
The first is the revitalization of an economic system based on Christ's teachings and the model of the Acts church. As Shane Claiborne explains,
“Jesus did not set up a program but modeled a way of living that incarnated the reign of God, a community in which people are reconciled and our debts are forgiven just as we forgive our debtors (all economic words). That reign did not spread through organizational establishments or structural systems. It spread like disease – through touch, through breath, through life. It spread through people infected by love...”33
He later quotes O'Brien, who says “When we truly discover love, capitalism will not be possible and Marxism will not be necessary.”34
This is an aspect of Christian living that has been largely ignored by American Christianity, probably because it would result in a large shift in the power structure of our country. Perhaps it is for the same reason that Thurman suggests the American slaves were never taught about Jesus' birth:
“In the teachings of the Bible stories concerning the birth of Jesus, very little appeal was made to the imagination of the slave because it was not felt wise to teach him the significance of this event to the poor and the captive. It was dangerous to let the slave understand that the life and teachings of Jesus meant freedom for the captive and release for those held in economic, social, and political bondage.”35
It is unclear as to how and why the American church would become so distanced from their prototype and why they would ignore the wide margin of socioeconomic stratification in America, even within the church. It is evident that the American church is a far cry from the Acts church, whose believers were reportedly “one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had... there were no needy persons among them.”36
The second revolutionary aspect of the early church that we are trying to rejuvenate is a sense of personal responsibility, a higher social consciousness, and hearts dedicated to bringing justice to the oppressed. We refuse to stand idly by while injustice is carried out – we speak out and act against war, terrorism, and poverty – and we start by taking a long hard look at our own government, the empire of the United States which looks ever more like the Roman empire which held the peaceful church of Jesus under strict persecution. We aim to subvert the US in its proliferation of hate by spreading a doctrine of love and compassion for all people, even our enemies – that's right, even the government officials. We long to be a force for peace and reconciliation against the imperial forces which champion war and destruction. We hope to be the answered prayer of men and women around the world who suffer at the hands of American self-interest.
Rigoberta Menchú was one such woman who prayed for the deliverance of her people, the peasants of Guatemala. She said of the church, “[They have] always talked of love and freedom, but there is no freedom in Guatemala. Not for us at least. And we're not going to wait until we see the kingdom of God in the sky either.”37 It was extremely disconcerting to discover how out of touch the church in Guatemala was with the suffering of the Guatemalan peasants, but it was equally encouraging to read about the faith that this woman and her fellow peasants had in the midst of their suffering. She writes:
“When I first became a catechist, I thought that there was a God and that we had to serve him, I thought God was up there and that he had a kingdom for the poor. But we realized that it is not God's will that we should live in suffering, that God did not give us that destiny, but that men on earth have imposed this suffering, poverty, misery, and discrimination on us.”38
The men she refers to here, the ones who imposed the suffering upon her people, were in power primarily because of our government's vested interests in the United Fruit Company.
The Church that I am a part includes this woman and her peasant family and all others who have been oppressed by the evil forces of this world; and all those active in actually doing something about it. We stand alongside the sick, the hungry, the poor, and the powerless and acknowledge that none of us is really any better than the other; we are all sick, hungry, poor, and oppressed – it is the nature of the corrupt world in which we live. When we do this, when we become aware of our own brokenness, “our eyes are opened to see our own faces in the faces of the oppressed and to see our own hands in the hands of the oppressors. Then we shall all be truly free.”39 Indeed, it will be then and only then that we can declare that our love has conquered all, and that our revolution has come.
31 Lennon/McCartney, “Revolution”
32 Claiborne, p. 113
33 Claiborne, p. 159
34 Will O'Brien, of Alternative Seminary, as quoted in Claiborne, p. 167
35 Howard Thurman, as quoted in Cole, p. 50
36 Acts 4:32
37 Menchú, p. 234
38 Menchú, p. 132
39 Claiborne, p. 253