Every Thursday, I write a pastoral letter to the people of the West Congregation of The Austin Stone. This was my letter from January 7th.
Dear West Family
“Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?” (Ps 2:1)
Welcome to 2021, or as a friend suggested after the year’s beginning we may have to refer to it as “2020 won.” Gosh, I hope not, and I honestly don’t believe so. My plan had been that we could begin the year’s weekly pastoral emails with some quirky observation from the mundanity of my suburban life and family, connecting it to something that the Lord had been teaching me from the Scriptures. After yesterday though, I just can’t bring myself to do it this week.
Like most of you (I presume) I sat aghast yesterday as I saw the scenes unfolding in Washington DC, and in particular, the scenes of rioters overtaking the US Capitol. As someone who is strangely as steeped in decades of US exceptionalism as the rest of you even though I didn’t grow up here, it was stark and troubling. We expect to see scenes like this on our screens from far flung places that don’t have the experience and “sophistication” of generations of democratic experience. It felt like a movie, a far-fetched one with really bad acting. And yet, it wasn’t a movie. It was a mirror. We would do well to not look away or attempt to explain away or “whatboutism?” our way away from what we saw.
Four people are dead. Dozens are injured. The nation’s reputation lies in tatters.
How do the people of Jesus respond?
Well, I think we need to come to terms with one of the images that is being broadcast around the world as we speak. The image that troubled me the most yesterday is the one that has been shared with me from friends across the globe today. It is the image of a cross on the steps of the Capitol, while rioters storm through the doors of some of the highest halls of American democracy. It is an uncomfortable image of the American church, and whether we like it or not, it is how we are seen in much of the world. It is the image, dear friends, of Christian nationalism, which is the thinking that conflates God’s Kingdom with this country, and goes beyond what can be the healthy bounds of patriotic duty, service and respect, to a fervent worship of a particular picture of the flourishing of this country as both the sign and the means of God’s blessing and favor. Having grown up in South Africa under the explicitly “Christian” nationalist ideology of apartheid, I can tell you, that it doesn’t lead to God’s blessing and favor, and it doesn’t represent the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As I looked at that cross on those stairs yesterday I had a stark realization.
This is not the way of Jesus, but it does represent a way that was present at the crucifixion.
This is the way of Barabbas.
Barabbas was a religious nationalist. He confused his version of a flourishing Israel with what it meant to be a faithful covenant people. He was a violent insurrectionist, willing to kill, willing to cause chaos, willing to live in anarchy in order to overthrow Rome and restore God’s people to his idea of national flourishing. But, what he missed was that God was at work right in front of him with a truly different form of Kingdom establishment. A cross was there too that day, not as a symbol of pride or power, but as the only hope of true flourishing for God’s people, that would be won not through dominance but through submission; not through subjecting others to violence but through God’s Son submitting Himself to the violence of the world; not through taking power but through giving power away; and not through might but through meekness.
The way of Barabbas conflates country and Kingdom.
The way of Jesus builds a Kingdom for every tribe, tongue and nation.
The way of Barabbas sees dominance as power.
The way of Jesus sees gentleness as strength.
The way of Barabbas cries out for the crucifixion of our enemies.
The way of Jesus submits to crucifixion for the benefit of our enemies.
This is what the cross is supposed to symbolize for us when we see it, and it is supposed to remind us to be a people who are called to be increasingly conformed to the image of the one who died on it. We are supposed to be a Jesus-shaped people, building a Jesus-like Kingdom, and we still can be.
A Kingdom where our King is gentle and lowly in heart (Matt. 11:29).
A Kingdom where the poor in spirit get the spoils of the Kingdom; where those who mourn are comforted; where the meek inherit the earth; where the peacemakers are called children of God; and where persecution is welcomed in a spirit of rejoicing (Matt. 5:3-12).
A Kingdom where good news is proclaimed to the poor, and those who are oppressed are set at liberty (Luke 4:18-19).
A Kingdom that will know no end, and that will one day flourish with full justice and ultimate liberty, for all who know the King (Is. 9:6-7).
And so friends, I know I might be annoying some of you. I promise that is not my intent, and doesn’t represent my posture. I love you. I love the church. My heart has no judgment in it today, rather, it has a mix of sadness and cross shaped hope. My sadness is that we as the people of God have not done enough to live in a way that stands apart from the systems of power of this world. We can and must face up to that reality in a posture of humility and the ongoing repentance that ought always to mark truly gospel-driven people. My hope though remains the same as it has always been, and that is that Christ will build His church, and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it as it stands faithfully on the solid rock of the gospel. And so, this is the time for the church to be the church. This is the time for the people of Jesus to be more like Jesus. This is the time when we can truly serve America through our stubborn refusal to allow a nation to be our Messiah. This is a time for genuine rebellion, the rebellion that the people of God have always adopted, which is the rebellion of humble, holy, servant-hearted, Kingdom-shaped lives that look like Jesus and not like Barabbas.
I started this mail with a portion of one of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 2. It goes on to say that God finds human power-clambering to be tragically comedic. His reason …
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.” (v6)
We have a King. Let us be His people. Let us seek His Kingdom first.
So much love to you.