Why Divide and Conquer Won’t Work

battle map
Image credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/thqinsider/5471549614/">THQ Insider</a>

Galatians 2:6-10

Moreover, those so-called leaders – I say so-called, because I don’t care what they really are, and God doesn’t make distinctions – they didn’t add conditions to my endorsement. Instead, when they saw my mission was to take the Jesus story to the heathen, just as Peter’s mission was to Jews, and that Jesus was working through Peter’s efforts with Jews and also through mine with pagans, and when James and Cephas and John, who everyone agreed were the “pillars of the church” gave their okay, they gave Barnabas and me their endorsement to go to the heathen, while they tended to the Jews. The only thing they wanted was for us to take care of the poor, which I readily agreed to do.

It’s a simple plan. Paul goes to convert the pagans, and Peter (with the old guard in Jerusalem) takes care of the Jews. You do your thing, we’ll do ours. Maybe we can get together and talk about how it’s going every couple years, but otherwise we’ll just stay out of each others’ way.

The fly in the ointment is that little side remark about “God doesn’t make distinctions.” Paul means it as a backhanded insult to the Jerusalem leaders, who Paul sees as having gone back on the deal. But Paul says more than he knows. It’s the reason a deal to parcel out different kinds of folks as being the exclusive domain of a certain faction just won’t work. As much as Paul opposes adherence to “Law,” this deal merely legislates that certain people are fair game and others are off limits. It’s no better than any other kind of competitive “empire building.” It’s the first church arms race, and Paul is determined to win it.

If God doesn’t make distinctions, though, you can’t expect people to follow that God from different walks of life, and remain only theologically, theoretically equal. At some point they have to mix in real life. And if Jesus is really about setting people free, you can’t build a Jesus movement on the assumption that people are pawns that can be shuffled around on a denominational battle map. You have to treat them like – well, people.

The same is true for any strategy to grow a movement. Those who insist that the only way forward is “divide and conquer,” will eventually end up divided against themselves.

Here’s the Plan

Image credit: <a href="http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=1012">Felixco, Inc.</a> via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mark 10:32-34

As they went along the road on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus began to get ahead of those who followed, who were incredulous and afraid. So Jesus took the twelve aside again and told them what to expect.

“Here’s the plan,” he said. “We’re going to Jerusalem, and the chosen one will be handed over to the thought police and the bureaucrats, and they’ll sentence him to death. They’ll hand him over to the heathen who will belittle him, spit on him, beat him and kill him. Then, three days after that, he’ll be back.”

The plan is to make such a spectacular display of the inhumanity and abuses of those in power that a movement of dissent to sweeps them from power. The plan is to inspire the sleeping masses to exercise their humanity and build a new peaceable kingdom.

Jesus knows that it’s a gambit. A pawn is intentionally sacrificed to achieve a strategic advantage and victory later on. Only Jesus isn’t asking someone else to be the pawn. He’s taking that on himself.

It’s a plan that gets implemented over and over again every time Jesus comes back to make a display inhumanity and abuse of power. It was the game plan Gandhi used to bring the British empire down. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s plan for the civil rights movement in the United States. It was the game plan of Nelson Mandela in the South African movement to end apartheid. The chosen one is sacrificed. The empire falls.

Then whenever a new empire arises, at the right time (three days is a Biblical term for “the right time”) Jesus, the chosen one, returns to do it again.

And again. And again.

That’s the plan.

Behind the Scenes at Bernie Madoff’s: A Parable

Bernie Madoff
Image Credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/home_of_chaos/3612816175/">Thierry Ehrmann</a>

Matthew 25:14-30

Its like Bernie Madoff leaving on a trip, called his employees and entrusted them with his fortune. He gave one of them $81.5 million. He gave another $32.6 million. And to a third he gave $16.3 million. Then he left.

The one with $81.5 million went off and invested it, and doubled the money. The one with $32.6 million also invested it and doubled the money. But the one with the $16.3 million went home and stuffed it under the mattress.

After a long while, Madoff came home and called them all in to audit their accounts. So the one who had started off with $81.5 million came in with $163 million and said, “Look, I’ve doubled your money.” And the Madoff said, “Well done! Dang, you’re good! Since you’ve done so well with this little bit, you’re getting a promotion! And, by the way, you should come to my office New Year’s eve party.”

Then the next employee, who started with $32.6 million came in and said, “Look, here’s your money doubled: $65.2 million.” And Madoff again replied, “Well done! Dang, you’re good, too! Since you’ve done so well with this little bit, you’re getting a promotion. And, by the way, you should come to my office New Year’s eve party.”

So it was the third employee’s turn, the one who started with just $16.3 million. He came in and said, “Boss, I know you’re a hard-ass, and you’re a robber baron, and you’re the worst kind of venture capitalist. I was so afraid of losing any of your money, I kept the whole wad under my mattress, and here it is, safe and sound.”

Madoff replied, “You lazy bastard! If you knew that I’m the worst sort of venture capitalist and a robber baron you should have at least put the money into a CD so I could have had some interest on it. Your fired! I’m reallocating your money to the guy with the $163 million. It takes money to make money, but I’m going to wring every penny out of the little guys. And send this no-good former employee to slums where he can cry and worry himself to death.”

Again we have the kind of story that is traditionally interpreted as an allegory in which the Madoff character stands for God, the Christians are the employees, and somehow, this situation is supposed to be like heaven.

But this story doesn’t sound like any kind of heaven, and if the world’s Madoffs are stand-ins for God, it’s a religion to which only the Madoffs would willingly ascribe. So what’s really going on here?

This is the third of four apocalyptic parables Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel following his teach-in at the temple. As such, it’s not about what the kingdom of heaven is like, but what it’s like at the apocalyptic moment on the verge of that kingdom.

Jesus has already admonished his followers to be able to read the world’s signs of the approaching change in the same way changes in a fig tree indicate the approaching change of season (Matt 24:32-33). These four parables are the signs. And they’re not meant to be cryptic. They’re pretty obvious. Then and now. They’re signs that the present reality is simply unsustainable. Madoff’s ponzi scheme fell apart.

Note, this is not just sour grapes at some people being rich. It’s about a social order that leaves people with only two options: Either participate in the robber baron’s crime or live in a state of perpetual weeping and anxiety. Either choice is a losing proposition: to be complicit in the crimes against humanity is to be swept from power when the whole thing crashes (as it will in the next parable). But the one who ends up in crying and worry has been worried all along. So his situation is the same whether he’s in or out of the robber baron’s graces.

So the sign that the kingdom is near is the simultaneous widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the narrowing of options to the two end states of complicity in inhumanity on one hand, or misery and fear on the other.

At that point, where people have been reduced to the point of having nothing to lose, a third option becomes thinkable: leaving the old social, political, and economic system altogether and letting the cards fall where they may. And that is exactly what Jesus was contemplating on the Mount of Olives.

Two days later, he’d be crucified.

A generation later, the temple would lie in ruins.

Who knows what empire may fall tomorrow.

Have We Reached the Imperial Tipping Point?

Bloody hands
Photo credit: Luca Rossato

Revelation 18:21-24

Then a strong messenger grabbed a giant stone (it looked like a millstone), threw it into the sea, and said:

Babylon will be thrown down with such violence
that it will be impossible to find.

The music of harps and singers and flutes and trumpets will be silent there.
No artist of any kind will be there.
No useful work will be done there.
No light will shine there.
No weddings will be celebrated there.

Why? Because the multinational corporations and nations were taken in by your siren song,
and the blood of the truth-tellers, the innocent, and the common people is on your hands.

So long as the siren song of empire continues to beguile people, the truth can be quietly swept aside and the innocent quietly killed. The music is too loud. There is too much to distract attention away from the human suffering that is extracted as a part of the cost of keeping the empire’s extravagant lifestyle afloat.

But it’s there. And within every empire’s continuing extraction of the wealth from the nations and people who can least afford it lie the seeds of its own ruin.

Until, suddenly the people say, no more. And the slight of hand that had covered over the dark side of empire is removed revealing what the real cost of imperial indulgence has been all along. And then, silence.

But not before the whole thing sinks like a rock into the abyss.

With the Occupy Wall Street movement taking hold around the globe, we have reason to suspect that we have reached that point. The cost to maintain the facade of empire and to maintain the rulers of the imperial system in their luxury has reached the proverbial tipping point. The denial that the costs to the innocent and to the general public is a huge embarrassment of blood guilt has been – for the moment – swept away.

We shall soon see whether John of Patmos’ prophetic voice will again tell us the truth about our own time.