Our government no longer refers to us as “citizens,” but as “consumers.” If we can get you to consume cigarettes, cars, mouthwash, and sedatives, then we can get you to consume people. That is why Calvin Klein uses soft kiddie porn to sell blue jeans. Consumption.
Therefore the question: “How could we, who confess Jesus Christ as Lord, rather than say Michael Eisner as Lord, how can we as a church resist the corrosive acids of Capitalism?”
The immediate problem that confronts is that our church is accommodationist. Even though we know that there is a strong, critical strain in Wesleyanism against the evils of “riches,” we quickly learned in this society that there is no way to be a successful, responsible, public church, without submitting to the political vision that says that there is no greater purpose of human community than accumulation and aggrandizement.
For this reason, the “user friendly” approach to church won’t work. There is no way to entice people off the streets with hymns that are based on advertising jingles and end up with the cross-bearing, self-sacrificial, burden-bearing Jesus. Evangelism cannot be based upon our basic selfishness (“Come to Jesus and get everything you want fixed.”) and end up with anything resembling historic Christianity.
One of the reasons why Church is difficult is that the modern media culture (a culture which has no other purpose than giving us what we want, since “getting what we want” is the main purpose of life) has been so successful in forming us into such consumers.
In the middle of a sermon I said, “If you bring a child into this church, say a child of four or five, that child will have a difficult time during the service. Church does not come naturally. The child will have to be trained to sing this music, to bend his life toward these stories, to pay attention to that which he quite naturally avoids. If you take that same child into Toys R Us, no training is necessary. Greed comes to us quite naturally. After all, this is America.”
But then I caught myself in mid-sentence, and said, “No, that’s not quite fair to Toys R Us. Billions have been spent, and our very best talent expended, in forming that child into the habits of consumption. Barney is not innocent.”
For me, one of the most moving moments, is when people come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper. They shuffle forward and hold out their hands to receive the elements of communion. I look into their outstretched empty hands. I say, “I notice that your hands are empty, as if you were empty, needing some gift, grace.”
They reply to me, “Oh no, not at all. I have my Masters degree, a well-fixed pension.”
I persist, “That all may be true, but in this moment, you look touchingly dependent, as if your life would be nothing if you did not receive a gift.”
The good news of the gospel is that such bad news about us is the great good news about God. God is determined to get back what God owns. And we, timid church though we are, are part of God’s plan to win back the world.
One night in a Duke dormitory Bible study I had some bad news to deliver. Luke 18:18-26. Jesus meets a young, upwardly mobile, smart young man. The students perk up upon meeting one of their own in the Bible. Having kept all the rules so well, the young man is looking for a real spiritual challenge. Jesus says, “Just one little thing is left. Go, sell all you have, give it to the poor, strip down, follow me.”
With that the young man got real depressed. Jesus remarks to his students, “It is hard to save these upwardly mobile types. Easier to shove a fully loaded dromedary though the eye of a needle. Impossible! Of course, with God, anything is…possible.”
I then asked the students what they thought of Jesus’ prejudice against wealth.
“Isn’t that great?” one said, “Just laid things out so directly. Lots of times with Jesus, you can’t figure out what he wants you to do. Here, it’s different. I like his candor. He’s so clear, almost anybody can figure it out. This guy hears what Jesus is up to and knows he doesn’t want any part of it. That’s great.”
Then another student. “I like the way Jesus believes in him. He invites him to join up. I’m looking for a challenge just now; maybe that’s why I like this. Jesus believes in him. Like me, this guy probably can’t imagine that it’s possible for him to break free, to let go of all that stuff, not to go to law school, not to please his parents. But Jesus thinks he can do it, even him.”
That night I learned that sometimes the difference between bad news and good news is where you happen to be when you get the news. The breakdown and dissolution of American culture, otherwise known as Disneyworld, is a gift, a marvelous time for us to attempt to save people before it’s too late, to learn to worship a God whose victories come through righteousness not riches. To call everyone to confess that Jesus Christ is the one Word of God whom we must listen in life and in death.
William H. Willimon
Don’t forget to join Tony Campolo, Dr. C.T. Vivian, and me at ClearBranch United Methodist Church on January 6!