(Fourth in a series contrasting religion with faith and discipleship)
Religion, as I am using the term in this series, arises from our human desire for stability fortified with assurances of survival, comfort, approval, and peace. In contrast, faith and discipleship are called forth by gospel, which means good news from outside the parameters of the established systems of life. Religion rests in sameness: “Give me that old-time religion” that was “good” for my ancestors and now is “good enough for me.” The religious settle down into a quiet place that is predictable in its continuity and, therefore, manageable. Gospel promises change. Disciples follow in faith a new way that leads they know not where, but they go forward into the unknown because they trust the one whose way it is, the one who has walked that way ahead of them, the one who has promised to be with them and to guide them.
From the Prophet of the Exile come words bearing promise for the people whose hope has dried up, who have been defeated and crushed by an empire too powerful to oppose.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19a NRSV)
This prophet announced the unthinkable. The unbeatable empire would fall. The God-forsaken exiles would be forgiven and healed, aroused to hope and courage, and led home to rebuild their ruined land. The powerless would be strengthened because the One coming to reclaim them was the Lord of the universe whom no mere empire could impede.
Religion is easily co-opted by the current empire, by the reigning royalty of whatever type. Once co-opted, the established religion sanctifies the status quo, declaring God’s approval over and over again of the way things are and the way things work. “Law and order” becomes the pseudo-pious cry of the powerful for continued repression of the powerless because, after all, the catchphrase “law and order” means only the enforcement of the current orders of the society, and the powerful are the ones who get the laws passed in their favor.
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain? (Isaiah 10:1-4 NRSV)
Tyrants love religion but fear and hate gospel that calls the people to reject sameness and long for something new that promises, not “peace, peace, where there is no peace,” but the triumph of justice for those denied it and hope for those who have been pushed down so far they cannot even imagine feeling hope.
Yet, even “the gospel” itself has been co-opted by the established powers and so turned into good feelings now and heaven after death. Today, the most dynamic form of American Christianity (if not the most thoughtful), evangelicalism, has been domesticated into the lap dog of Donald Trump, barking only at those who dare speak against his corruption and cruelty or question his multitudinous lies.
When Jesus introduces his good news from God, he announces the coming of the reign of God. His announcement is good news for the poor, the outcast, the shamed, the repressed (including women and others regarded as lesser humans), and the powerless. The old orders of power and of religious self-righteousness now face the judgment of God, and those who will be blessed are the grief-stricken, the impoverished, those who hunger for justice denied, and the day laborers who cling to meager life each day without hope of rest or advancement.
Gospel – good news from Jesus the Christ – announces God’s judgment upon all forms of self-satisfied and self-preserving power. But judgment comes to open the doors of hope. We must be freed from the grip of systems of power that perpetuate injustices and turn even faith into an insipid, self-serving packet of assurances designed to pacify us rather than revitalize us. The newness of the reign of God is for those who want it, who hunger and thirst for it, who long to welcome it despite having no clear idea how it can come when the powers in control of life seem so overwhelmingly powerful.
So we walk by faith (trust) and not by sight. We do not try to take charge because, even if we were to succeed on our own in overthrowing the old and establishing something new of our making, it would not be the reign of God, the new creation, the consummation of all God’s promises. We protest what hurts and destroys the vulnerable, what exploits many for the over-advantage of a few, what discriminates against unpopular minorities. We join with others in common cause even when their motivation for seeking justice differs from our own faith. And we wait, never forgetting that what we are waiting for is better than anything we have ever known. Waiting is not passive. We’re not to be sitting on our hands (or just wringing them in despair). There are choices we must make – none perfect, but some clearly wrong, which makes not choosing a poor choice for faith to make.
Discipleship looks forward in faith and hope, daring to leave behind the security of established orders of life which are now revealed to be unjust and phony. Disciples answer the call: “Come, follow me.” We may not know where the new way will lead us, but we trust the one who calls us.