Mike Brown, Robert Jeffress, and Faith Bigger than the System

Three years ago today, Michael Brown was killed in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. The community was rocked. Many of us were in mourning. We were angry. The officer who shot him was not even indicted, but there was nothing new about that. Amidst all the pain, chaos, protests, and posts, Steph and I felt like we needed the company of our friends. So we opened our home and asked folks, "Hey, you wanna come over and process how we are thinking and feeling together?" 

That night, one of us mentioned their Christian faith and how it gave them certain ways of thinking about what happened to Mike and many others like him. A friend of mine, who isn't particularly religious, responded, "Wait, can you clarify something for me? You're saying that your faith has something to do with these broader systemic issues? It's not just about your personal life?" 

It was a fantastic question, if only for the reason that far too many Christians in the Eurocentric, Post-Enlightenment West conceive of faith as a purely individualistic reality. It's about me and my salvation. Me and my personal growth. The "gospel"--the good news Jesus shared--has nothing to say to societies, systems and structures that shape our world...so says much of (at least) American Christianity.

I believe this vision of faith is so near-sighted it's almost blind. First of all, I've never met a single individual whose life circumstances, beliefs, and even personality weren't radically shaped by their culture and context! Society shapes people, and people shape society. You can't care about one and not the other.

And from the spiritual side, this over-individualized faith is radically contrary to the story of the Bible. Not only is the Old Testament mainly a story about God with a community (the Israelite people), but also the New Testament has a pretty sophisticated spiritual approach to the systems and the powers that be. 

The apostle Paul's letters are chock full of language about "the principalities and powers," (cf. Eph 1:21 & 6:12, Col 2:14, etc.) by which I think he means not purely ethereal spirits floating in space, but as the norms, offices, traditions, and institutions that stand behind and above the individuals exercising the authority. The Police Force is a real power, even if it's not identifiable with any one individual or department. The Presidency is a real authority, even if it can't be reduced to an individual person holding the office. And yet, we always meet these "powers and authorities" always work themselves out through actual people with physical repercussions, like Jesus facing the Sanhedrin (religious power) and Pontius Pilate (political power).

What does Paul say happened when the powers collided with Jesus? They killed him because he opposed their authority, and he, "having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col 2:15). In other words, they threw the full weight of their power at him, emptied their chamber into him, and he rose. 

What does that mean for Christians? That means we have faith in someone more powerful than the powers, more authoritative than the authorities. We're not anarchists. We don't reject authority per se. God gives structure and stability to the world through the powers. But every authority is relativized by it's relation to the one who drained the cup of their power, and rose back up.

So, as opposed to Robert Jeffress who assumes that God has given Trump the authority to do "take out" Kim Jong Un, we don't assume God gives our President the power to do whatever he likes in the name of America. The power of the president is relativized by Christ and his way. If a "power" opposes the love of Christ, we stand in prayerful and direct opposition to that power, just like the early church bowing their heads in prayer in the middle of the Coliseum. If an authority abuses one of God's beloved then we march, we write letters, we vote them out, we put our bodies on the line for the bodies of our brothers and sisters.

We do these things so that the world will know that the deepest system and most exalted power at work in the universe is the love of God in Christ. May God give us the courage to live out this bigger faith together.