Thursday, March 22, 2018

Mao, Conditional Approval, and Palm Sunday

Dealing with the message of Palm Sunday upcoming, the gun debate ongoing, and the historical context of protest, revolution, and resistance, there's a lot of think about when it comes to challenging power. I live in country built on armed rebellion. One of the most problematic aspects of the US gun control debate is the continued tradition of citizens seeking to be prepared to overthrow a corrupt government.

Palm Sunday presents the challenge to the powers of the world - a law of peace and love and suffering over a law of power and might. It's easy for us to constrain it in the ghetto of idealism and ignore it as we tackle the real world. Jesus says love overcomes hate and peace, violence, suffering over power and control. We're down with that until it's too difficult, then we make justifications.

It's called conditional approval - we can do bad things in certain situations because it's for the greater good. We can nuke Japan, but North Korea can't. We can blow up buildings all over Iraq and Syria, but Saddam Hussein and ISIS can't. A police officer or, perhaps, a local vigilante who feels threatened, can shoot unarmed teenagers, but they can't shoot back.

They're cut and dry situations because conditional approval always goes to the powerful over the less so. Why? Because the powerful make the laws. They get to decide. (I guess I should fairly say "we" here, since I benefit from conditional approval far more often than I suffer from it.) We like to say it's just democracy or fairness or good vs evil, but that's really not true. We skew the rules to benefit us. When we do it, it's good; when other people do it, it's wrong.

This is precisely why the radical gospel of Jesus Christ is so dangerous: there's no conditional approval. Killing is wrong, no matter what your justification. Abuse, oppression, selfishness, violence, power - they're all out, regardless of context. What's wrong is wrong, no matter who does it. Without an "us" and "them" the powers that be have no means of coercion or co-option.

The gospel is good news for the poor because the message is literally, "we have nothing to lose." The Empire took over Christianity when it gave the Church something to lose, something worth protecting, something requiring conditional approval. God is an easy excuse to give ourselves cover. "I'm just doing it for your own good," or "I don't make the rules, God decides what's right and wrong."

The problem with conditional approval, though, is when we find ourselves on the other side. We're down with killing our enemies until we become the enemies of a more powerful force.

Jesus marched into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, accompanied by losers, and proclaiming peace to people who'd always been under the heel of conditional approval. Pilate marched into Jerusalem on the very same day, astride a white war horse, accompanied by legions of soldiers proclaiming peace to anyone who fell in line and followed the rules of conditional approval.

Many through the years have been tempted by the power of power. When you've been on the wrong end of justification, it's quite easy to use the same rationale to overthrow the oppressors. Forgiveness doesn't jibe very well with justice. Yes, we can argue that our conditional approval is necessary - that's how it works - those rules don't just protect us, but the people we love, innocents, children. It's not about war, but about self-defense. Surely staying alive is the most important thing?

Jesus didn't think so.

The call of the Christian is the call to Christlikeness. It's not the call to use the weapons of the world for some purportedly righteous end; there's nothing of God in that. The very notion of friends and enemies, good guys and bad, is directly contrary to the gospel of love and grace.

I ran across a quote this week that perfectly sums up the problem of the spirit of empire, of power - the ideas that seem to run the world:

"We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun."

You may say that's foolish, but it under-girds just about every dealing with power that exists in every society. Those who fight for righteousness do it to destroy evil. We never both to wonder if perhaps we're just as evil as the ones we try to kill or if they're as good as we think we might be. We really don't stop to wonder if perhaps power just simply can't overpower itself. Maybe violence can't stop violence and war can't end war. We know that deep down, but we keep giving conditional approval, because we don't really believe there's another way.

It's not just about intellectual assent, it's about putting our lives where our minds are and living differently in the world. Do we do it perfectly? By no means; in fact we're downright failures, but I'd rather be failing in the right direction that succeeding on the highway to hell. the way, that quote? It's from Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and one hell of a success.

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