"Peace upon the earth!" was said. We sing it.
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After 2000 years of mass, we've got as far as poison gas." (Christmas 1924, Thomas Hardy)
Yesterday marked the beginning of Advent, which for the Church is the start of a new year. Our home church is slowly trying to be more intentional with following the church calendar together so we gathered yesterday and lit the first Advent candle with our Eucharist reflection. We talked about hope and then shared in a wonderful meal around the table. The meal concluded with a kids reading of God's Dream by Desmond Tutu (read by Alex Street). Finally, we moved into a conversation around waiting, advent, and the economics of the kingdom. A central question for us was how has the church tended to address the problems of our world in regards to the coming kingdom?
During Advent, one of the figures we look to is John the Baptist as one who proclaimed the coming kingdom prior to arrival of the Messiah. John is a religious revolutionary, a social activist of sorts. He bypasses the systems of the institutional church and baptized people into the kingdom of God out on the margins of society. He was a man who lived between the times, speaking to a group of people who were waiting for God to arrive and rescue them from an Empire. We look to John during Advent because John teaches us what it means to wait for the coming kingdom.
In the Gospel narrative of Luke we find him travelling the region proclaiming a revolutionary message of repentance and preparing the people for the arrival of the kingdom. The crowds, coming to be baptized, want to know what they should do as they wait. He replies:
"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." (Luke 3:11)
Tax collectors and soldiers who also came to be baptized by him asked what they should do as they wait. To the tax collectors he says, "collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." And to the soldiers, "do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." (Luke 3:12-14) Then it says that the people are filled with expectation and they begin to wonder if he's the Messiah...
Hold on, that's it? That's the revolutionary message?
Share what you have with those who do not have. Do not take more than what you are owed. Do not use violence or intimidation to get payment and be content with what you receive.
It really doesn't seem like much and yet these words get John thrown in prison and eventually beheaded by the Roman government. (Oh yeah, if you weren't aware, John doesn't really come to a good ending.)
What's important here is to notice what makes these words so radical that they got John killed. For Christians in the West, we tend to sanitize the Gospels of their political, social, and yes, even economic dimensions. Sure, we've all heard the message that the gospel is offensive and that following Jesus has a cost; but these are usually framed in spiritual or moral terms. The trouble with that is we end up missing what's really going on in the story which has major implications for our present practices.
Here we have a guy who is completely upending the religious system of the day by operating out of their control and opening up the kingdom to all who who want to participate. Then his invitation into that kingdom is a completely subversive economic vision that gets him killed by the empire.
It takes no imagination at all to see how the good news of alternative economics might be welcome news among the debtor class and an abomination to the creditor class that thrives on rules. The Gospel narrative is an interruption of conventional assumptions about money and possessions with enormous practical implications for the ordering of social power. (Walter Brueggemann)
Can you hear what John is saying? The Kingdom economics are going to completely upend the economic system of the empire. If people start sharing with one another that means they're no longer buying more goods. Selling goods was what made the entire system work. Then to those who collect and enforce on behalf of the unjust system, he's telling them to be fair in their practices and content with what they have. Without exploitation, violence, and greed the whole system would collapse.
Can you imagine telling our churches not to buy anything this Christmas season? Not a gift, not a card, not a tree or a single decoration. Instead, share what you already have with those who don't have. Imagine if that caught on... The whole thing might collapse.
During Advent we are reminded that the coming of the Kingdom is not a passive event. We don't sit back and expect God to intervene and make things better. While yes, we have a hope for what the world could be, we are to actively participate in making that hope a present reality. We are also reminded that the coming of the Kingdom is not merely a spiritual event. It is far more a political, social, and economic reimagining that challenges the power structures of the empire - that is, all who benefit from this system.
Throughout Advent we begin a new liturgical year and learn once again what it means to live between the times - in the now and the not yet of the kingdom breaking in to our present world.
"The point is clear: it is not simply a matter of waiting and rejoicing in what Advent promises us. It is about learning how to live while we wait." - Sister Joan Chittister