The Naked Anabaptist 4: Good News to the Poor
After another (unintentionally long) hiatus, on to the fourth of Stuart Murray’s seven core convictions of Anabaptists (from The Naked Anabaptist):
The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.
One of the good and necessary things about encountering the “bare essentials” of Anabaptism from the perspective of someone who was not immersed in the culture from birth is that it reminds you of some of the things that are a part of your spiritual DNA. Number four is one of them.
And of Murray’s seven core Anabaptist convictions, this is easily the one that makes me squirm the most, both as a pastor and as an individual follower of Jesus. Am I/are we committed to “exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless, and persecuted?” It sure sounds good to say that I am/we are, but is it true? Do the poor, powerless, and persecuted feel at home with me/us? Is the news that I/we seek to proclaim, in word and deed, seen to be good by those who need it?
According to Murray, the answers to the above questions are often negative ones. The church is often not—or at least is often not perceived to be—good news to the poor:
The association of the church with status, wealth, and force continues to alienate people from the gospel. Despite its reduced size and influence, many still perceive the church as a reactionary institution that embodies and promotes establishment values—concerned about social order rather than social justice. Many churches and denominations are still wealthy property owners and are much stronger in affluent areas than poor communities. Although the church may no longer be able to coerce those with whom it disagrees, it still often speaks and acts as if it occupies the moral high ground and can dictate to the rest of society. The strong impression is that the loss of status, wealth, and the power to exercise control is a result of historical circumstances, not renunciation or repentance.
Not exactly a pretty picture, however you look at it.
I’ve just begun reading Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection, a walk through the book of Ephesians. In a section called “The Miracle of the Church,” he asks us to consider the similarities between Luke’s narratives of Jesus’ birth and the church’s birth. The former is found in Luke 1-2, the latter in Acts 1-2 (Luke-Acts being, of course, one work by the same author). Neither Jesus nor the church are birthed into situations of privilege and power. Both come into being on the margins, both take root and grow in conditions of persecution, misunderstanding, rejection, and trial. Both find themselves at odds with those in respected positions of religious and political authority.
This is not incidental, according to Peterson; rather, it gives us the shape of what it means to be a Gospel community. And Anabaptists have historically agreed.
This fourth of Murray’s Anabaptist convictions needs to be heard both inside and outside of the fold. Too often, even in my own denomination, we take our cues from the mega-churches with the mega-budgets and mega-media south of the border rather than our own legacy as a church that was good news to and for the poor. Too often we are quick to sing the praises and adopt the methods of big evangelicalism rather than advocating for and working alongside organization like MCC or MEDA or MDS—all of whom are attempting, in their various ways, to live out this central Anabaptist conviction that Jesus’ followers are to be good news to the poor. Too often we embrace the cult of celebrity, clamouring after the latest superstar speaker or musician or pastor or church-growth expert rather than simply, patiently, and counter-culturally looking for the voice of God in the weak, the “unimportant,” the inarticulate, and the socially marginalized.
The gospel of Jesus is good news to the poor. The church of Jesus is entrusted with this gospel. If Murray is right (and I think he is) that this is a historical conviction of Anabaptists, all of us need to become more Anabaptist. Including Anabaptists.
Perhaps this emphasis on the poor affirms Nietzsche’s assessment that Christianity represents a slave’s morality, or slave’s perspective. It offers the poor a way to feel superior and the generous rich another way to feel superior – through the enjoyment of pity.
Anabaptist approach to these issues intentionally sought to subvert that tendencies through an emphasis on mutual aid and simplicity over uni-directional charity. The book develops it more fully.
Ken, it seems there is no way to win, on this (rather uncharitable) interpretation—for Anabaptists, the poor, the rich, or anyone else.
Indeed it is a withering critique.
I don’t think it as much withering as it is mere cynicism. It is one thing to say that Christianity offers a slave’s perspective [which I could agree with] it is another thing to attribute the motivation as being “another way to feel superior – through the enjoyment of pity.”
The stated motivation for Christians is that we are “pilgrim’s and strangers” or “resident aliens” on earth. What’s wrong with taking that at face value? Not that I would have expected that of Nietzsche 🙂
Or maybe the emphasis of Christianity is to overcome will to power, which resembles slave morality but is not.