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The Kingdom of God is Not a Meritocracy

The Kingdom of God is Not a Meritocracy
One of the most cherished beliefs in mainstream American culture is the idea that anyone can make it to the top, if they work hard enough. No matter your circumstances, you too can be healthy, happy, and whole, if only you put your mind to it.

This idea permeates pop culture, politics, and business. From Oprah Winfrey to Mark Zuckerberg, the leaders of our culture tell us that the only limit to our success is our own imagination and grit. It’s almost impossible to go a day without being exposed to a commercial message reminding us that we’re not good enough, strong enough, healthy enough – but that we can be, if we keep pushing ourselves.

American mythology is one of upward mobility. All our lives, we’ve been sold the idea that the best and brightest can have it all. And if you and I don’t have it all, well – we must not be the best and brightest. We must not deserve it. At least not yet.

This myth of American meritocracy is a tempting one, because it seems to be full of hope. Greatness is within our grasp, if we’re willing to push ourselves. Any shortcomings we experience can be explained by our lack of talent and tenacity. Our lack of merit. If our lives don’t measure up to what we were promised, we have only ourselves to blame.

Meritocracy is a powerful ideology. It directs the lives of millions, including many who consider themselves followers of Jesus. Yet Jesus never taught anything resembling meritocracy. Quite the opposite. The life and ministry of Jesus teaches us a way of downward mobility.

Through his cross, Jesus demonstrates a God who releases power, control, and security in order to show love and forgiveness. As a poor carpenter and itinerant prophet, Jesus denies the supremacy of wealth and human influence. And through his association with the outcast and despised – tax collectors, prostitutes, and other “unclean” people of his day – Jesus reveals an upside down kingdom.

The way of Jesus is the furthest thing from the meritocratic myth of corporate America. It’s a community of God that upsets all expectations of our status-seeking, results-driven society. It’s a Spirit whose power is felt on the margins of society, whose love permeates those who have lost everything. The way of Jesus is not a road to glory in any human sense. It is a path marked by humility, brokenness, and shared suffering with the poor. In this kingdom, the last will be first and the first will be last.

Through his parables, Jesus gives us a glimpse of what this kingdom might look like for us. In one of these stories, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a homeowner who goes out early in the morning to Home Depot, to hire workers for a renovation project. There are men standing around in the parking lot, waiting for work, and the homeowner agrees to pay them a decent day’s wage. They jump in the back of the homeowner’s pickup truck.

Around noon, the homeowner realizes he could use some more help, so he heads back to Home Depot and finds other laborers standing around in the parking lot. He hires them, too.

Finally, late in the day, the homeowner returns to Home Depot. There are still some men there in the parking lot. They haven’t been hired by anyone, so they’ve just been standing around all day. “Come with me,” says the homeowner. “Work for me the rest of the day, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.” The laborers don’t have anything else to do, so they agree.

It’s getting to be dinnertime, and the sun will be setting soon. The homeowner calls the workers together and gets ready to pay them. He pulls out his wallet and begins to pay each laborer, starting with those who showed up last. To everyone’s surprise, the homeowner pays the first workers a full day’s wage, as if they had spent all day hauling bags of concrete and installing drywall.

Seeing this, the rest of the workers get excited. If the homeowner is paying a full day’s wage to these men who only worked for an hour, surely the rest of the workers would be paid more! But the homeowner pays each laborer the same wage.

By the time the last laborer is paid, those who had showed up earliest begin to complain. “Listen here, mister. How are you going to pay us the same as those guys who showed up just an hour ago? You’re acting like they worked as hard as we did. We slaved away all day in the sun!”

The homeowner just shakes his head. “Come on, friend. I’m not doing any wrong by you. We agreed on a fair day’s wage, didn’t we? Are you really going to complain if I am generous with those who showed up late? It’s my money to spend as I choose, isn’t it?”

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

The reign of God isn’t about being productive, or smart, or strong, or worthy. It’s not about knowing the right people or being clever. The way of Jesus is one of radical equality, even for those who we think don’t deserve it. Why? Because God says so. It’s his world we’re living in. Doesn’t he have the right to be generous?

We all need God’s generosity. The myth of meritocracy imagines that somehow each of us can earn our daily bread. But Jesus teaches us that no one can earn grace. None of us, not the richest magnate nor the homeless man on the street can say, “I built this. I make it, I keep it, it’s mine.” The whole earth is the Lord’s; our very lives belong to him. We own nothing, we earn nothing. In the kingdom of God, all that is left to us is gratitude. 

This can be scary, but also liberating. When we realize that we can’t earn anything, we awaken to the reality that we don’t have to. Our lives don’t have to be justified by the myth of productivity. We were created by a loving God who will care for us, just like the birds of the air and the grass of the field. Bad things can still happen. Birds do die, and grass withers. But no longer must we carry the burden of earning our keep. We can’t. God doesn’t expect it, and we only stress ourselves out trying.

What does it look like to shake off the shackles of meritocracy and embrace the radical grace of God? What would it mean to share in the upside-down kingdom of Jesus? Especially for those of us who have been working all day for our wages, what does it look like for us to embrace God’s abundant generosity for everyone, including ourselves?

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The Parable of the Two Investors

The Parable of the Two Investors
There were once two investors. One was wise, another was foolish.

One day, the stock market plummeted. For the next few weeks, prices were in free fall. Many were panicking. What if this was another Great Depression?

Early on in this crisis, each investor met with his financial advisor. Each received the same advice:

“Things look bad right now. Stocks are falling, and we don’t know when prices will stabilize. But don’t let fear get the best of you. The markets cycle. Prices will rise again. Hold onto what you have, and you’ll be OK.”

After the foolish investor heard this advice, he was calm for a day or two. But another week passed and the market was still falling fast. He was losing so much money, he couldn’t stand it any longer! The foolish investor sold his shares at a much reduced value and placed the money into a savings account.

The wise investor had a different reaction. He kept the stocks he already owned, but he didn’t stop there. He also immediately withdrew his savings and bought more stocks.

As the prices continued to fall, the wise investor continued to pour money into the market. The lower the prices fell, the more he invested. He risked everything. He even sold his house and his car so that he could buy more shares.

The stock market collapse was very severe. It was several years before the markets began to recover. During these terrible years, the wise investor had hardly anything to live on. It was hard times for everyone.

Finally, the words of the financial advisor did come true. The market began to inch back upwards. Within a few years it was stronger than ever. Unfortunately, the foolish investor didn’t gain from the rising stock market. All his money was still in the bank. He bought high and sold low. He risked little. He was left with little.

The wise investor saw a very different outcome. His investments did more than rebound. All the cheap stocks he bought during the crash multiplied several times. By the time the economy was strong again, he had become a rich man.

The kingdom of God is something like this.

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On Being Human in a Robot Age

On Being Human in a Robot Age
Being human is hard, and getting harder. The decision to remain human consists of hundreds of tiny choices every day. Do I put relationships first, or is it more important to complete tasks? Am I more interested in flesh-and-blood human beings, or do I prefer to deal with abstractions?

These may all sound like nebulous questions designed for an intro philosophy course in college. But for me, I’m finding that this distinction – between being people-centered or idea-centered, relationship-focused or task-focused – lies at the core of what it means to be and remain human in my daily life.

Human nature has been under siege for centuries. In industrial societies, most new wealth was created by mechanizing the power of human labor. Humans were organized into cogs in the vast industrial gearwork. We trained our reflexes to mimic those of industrial machinery. Human bodies are tamed and domesticated to serve the needs of the machine.

In 21st-century America, the mechanization of labor-intensive work – such as in retail, restaurants, and manufacturing – is practically complete. We have learned to behave like machines, achieving high efficiency at performing repetitive tasks, and even social interactions. This benefits the bottom line, producing more goods, services, and products.

But capitalism is never satisfied. By its nature, the machine must always continue to grow. In an age where the human body has been almost completely dominated by the need for domesticated efficiency, capitalism naturally seeks new outlets for its expansion.

No longer content to control our bodies, post-industrial capitalism is now busily domesticating our minds.

Let me give you a very small, perhaps silly example. This morning as I sat down to compose this blog post, I had to make a decision about a title. I knew that certain titles would be more psychologically effective than others. There are formulae for writing titles that help ensure that articles get read. If I follow them, I can expect a greater audience for my writing.

But it doesn’t stop there. The title of an article is linked to its content. If I had chosen to title this piece, “4 Reasons You’re Already Post-Human,” I would have been required to write my whole piece as a bulleted listicle. As a matter of fact, there are formulae for how blog posts should be written, too. Even now, I have a WordPress plugin warning me that my readability “needs improvement.” Any writing that can’t be easily scanned and digested without thought, any phrasing or nuance that might slow the reader down, is likely to reduce engagement, clicks, sharing.

Thus I am cajoled and pressured to mechanize my writing, my thinking – and yours.

This is how we end up with a vapid internet, saturated with fake news, celebrity gossip, and top-ten lists. It’s this mechanization of thought that threatens to transform us into unreflective cogs in an vast intellectual machine that exists to deepen profits rather than stimulate human flourishing.

Our post-industrial society is training us to be cogs rather than creators, objects rather than subjects. I notice this tendency throughout my everyday life. I’ve chosen it, as I’ve bought into the cult of personal efficiency. I keep all my tasks in an electronic to-do list. My life is managed by Google Calendar. I regularly clear my email inbox. I get things done.

Yet, there is a growing emptiness in the midst of all this efficiency. I have become so good at controlling the details and tasks of my life – so why do I feel lost and breathless? Somehow, I’ve been convinced to program myself like a machine. I myself set the timers, checklists, and goals. But the effect is the same. Each day I find myself leaping through hoops with little thought as to why. My life becomes so full, it’s mostly just stimulus and response.

Hannah Arendt wrote that the ultimate goal of totalitarianism is to see every human being completely stripped of personal will and creativity. The ideal totalitarian society would consist of men and women who marched along through their daily routines, without spontaneity or joy – simply responding to commands from beyond themselves, drooling like Pavlov’s dog.

This description of total domination does not yet describe the world we live in. But it’s too close for my own comfort. I am astounded at how, even in the midst of a relatively free society, I have allowed myself to be conditioned to treat life as a series of tasks to perform. I’ve come to regard myself as an instrument for accomplishing things beyond me, rather than simply embracing myself as a unique creation of God, valuable and worthwhile in my own right.

The present social and political crisis in my country provides yet another temptation. It would be easy to tell myself that now, because we are in a time of emergency, I must place all my focus on accomplishing effective resistance to an evil regime. Yet it is precisely the growing danger of totalitarian government that has convinced me that I must root out the seeds of totalitarian thinking and behavior in my own life. How can I resist tyranny if I insist on being a tyrant to myself?

As odd as it may sound, even to me, now is a time for beauty. Now is a moment to acknowledge my own life’s joy and intrinsic value, fully apart from any work I might perform. With idolatrous and tyrannical movements on the rise, it has never been more important to bear witness to the fact that this whole life is a gift. We don’t make it, we don’t earn it, we can’t justify it with our labor. This unexpected divine grace is the foundation of all faith, and a stern rebuke to the ideologies and regimes that would domesticate our lives and mechanize our spirits.

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God’s Economy Turns Everything Upside Down!

God's Economy Turns Everything Upside Down!
One of my favorite stories from the Bible is that of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. After his baptism by John, he went out into the desert and spent forty days in fasting and prayer. In one of the biggest understatements ever, the Bible says that “he was hungry.” It’s at this point, when Jesus is at his lowest physically and spiritually, that the Devil makes an appearance, seeking to tempt Jesus to betray his God-given mission.

There are several temptations – religious authority, imperial power, and just simple materialism. Jesus answers each temptation with a quote from the Torah. One of the most memorable lines of the Bible (at least for me) is when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, saying that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

This passage comes from another desert time, a time when God led Israel through wilderness tracks for forty years, until the Hebrew people had been entirely purified and ready to enter the promised land. Deuteronomy reminds us that God humbled the Hebrews by letting them hunger. He fed Israel with manna from the sky – a strange substance they had never seen before. This was in order to help them understand that there are needs that run deeper than even food. God provides everything that we require when we hear and obey his word in our hearts. But the hearing and obeying must come first.

This runs entirely counter to a humanistic interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which would indicate that a basic physiological need – like eating – would supercede any higher-order needs like faithfulness to God’s will. Maslow’s model makes perfect rational sense. What good does it do to worry about the realm of meaning if the basics like food and shelter haven’t been addressed?

Yet Jesus affirms the Torah’s claim that faithful relationship with God precedes all other priorities. We find our deepest meaning first, and then God provides what we need – even if sometimes it comes in a really bizarre form, like manna.

This understanding of God’s economy fits very well with the “upside-down kingdom” that Jesus speaks of throughout his ministry. He tells us that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” This great turning of the tables seems to apply to every kind of hierarchy that we experience – whether they be the social hierarchies that human beings set up amongst ourselves, or the hierarchy of needs that seems so basic to the human condition. In the kingdom of God – God’s economy – God will have the primacy in all things. Jesus will be both the starting place and the ending point.

For those of us who are seeking the reign of God, what does it mean to put this amazing relationship first – even before the needs that we consider most basic? What does it mean to abandon all and follow Jesus, as he repeatedly commands us to do?

The details probably vary for each person, but the underlying spiritual posture seems clear enough: God comes first. Not your house, job, family, or even food to eat. We are called to seek faithfulness to the Holy Spirit first, even if it threatens to cost us everything. Only then can we fully enter into the living presence of Jesus – the kingdom of God. Only then can we discover the manna that comes from heaven, the daily bread that Jesus promises to each of us if we will follow in his way.

This is a huge challenge – the greatest ever issued. How are you called to respond?

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You Don’t Have to Earn It

You Don't Have to Earn It
Throughout my life, I’ve had this itch, this need: to be someone who earned his keep, who produced enough to justify my existence. Simply being isn’t enough.

When I was a student, I imagined that once I got out into the workforce and had a full-time job, I would feel justified. I would be producing value, making a difference. Then I would feel like I had earned the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the gas I burn.

Then I got that job, working at a bank in Wichita. I helped people – especially folks in the Spanish-speaking community – carry out their financial transactions. I was doing good, necessary labor. I was giving back to society in tangible way. And yet, I still felt a deep emptiness inside. No matter how hard I worked, it didn’t feel commiserate with the abundance of goodness and comfort I enjoyed.

I’ve grown a lot since my job at the bank. Part of that growing has been learning to be less hard on myself. But to this day I have a tough time believing that I really deserve to live on this beautiful earth, to enjoy good food, safe housing, and rapid transportation. Billions have worked so hard to provide me with material wealth that I enjoy. It seems impossible to give back even a small portion of what I receive. I want to repay the debt I owe to so many, but I can’t.

And my debt isn’t just to other people. The reality is, every single one of us relies completely on the amazing gifts of the creation. All of this wealth and beauty that we as a species enjoy – we didn’t make any of it. We’ve never created a single tree, rock, or bird. All of the food, fuel, plants, and animals that we rely on come from something beyond us. It’s a pure gift that we could never have possibly earned, and can never repay.

For so long, I’ve felt a compulsion to repay all the good things that I receive, to somehow get square with the Creator. But I’m realizing that all I really need to do is say, “Thank you.”

I don’t have to earn my daily bread, to justify my existence through the work that I do or the value that I provide to human economies. God provides everything as a pure gift. Our job as human beings is to receive that gift, and to pass on the gift to those around us. What a beautiful reality, and how different from the stress-filled visions that our culture often feeds us!

In contrast to God’s economy of love and gratitude, we are frequently surrounded by messages of guilt and consumption. We are taught to think in terms of who owns what. We to live in a world governed more by property rights than by thanksgiving and wonder. Rather than embrace the awesome beauty of God’s reality, we are blinded by a mindset that sees the whole created order – even human beings – as property to be owned, and disposed of, as the owner sees fit.

This distorted vision has far-reaching implications. Our need to justify our own existence, our fixation on equal exchange and ownership, is the ideological foundation for environmental destruction. Our world is an unearned, unwarranted gift from God – a gift we should honor and cherish. Yet as long as we cling to the false story of debt, ownership, and self-sufficiency, we will continue to ravage this planet, seeking our justification in work that never was ours to do.

What would it feel like to rest in the knowledge that every single moment is a pure gift from our Creator? What would change if we truly believed that we don’t have to earn God’s love, our daily bread? How might our lives be different if our starting place was an acknowledgement of the gift, and an intention to pass on that gift to those around us?

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What Does Solidarity Mean?

What Does Solidarity Mean?

I grew up with a weird mix of influences. My parents were pastors of an Evangelical Friends Church in Wichita, Kansas. They were also radical social justice activists who were getting into all sorts of trouble with mainstream Christian culture. In the early 90s, they were taking me along to gay pride rallies. They trespassed at the local Air Force Base and stood on railroad tracks to block the transport of nuclear weapons. They involved me in creative protests at stores selling violent toys. My parents taught me that it was the duty of Christians to disobey unjust laws and reject violence – whether by individuals or the state.

My family straddled two worlds that are often kept apart: Biblically-based Christian discipleship, and radical movements for social transformation. It wasn’t until later that I would understand just how unusual, and amazing, this early training was. I got exposed to the nonviolent principles of Gandhi and King, as well as to a variety of other radical ideologies not explicitly based in the gospel. I absorbed all of this side by side with a reading of the Bible that emphasized God’s love for the poor and Jesus’ invitation to participate in a new social, political, and economic order.

Growing up in this milieu, I heard the word “solidarity” a lot. To be honest, I never quite figured out what it meant. It was a nice word to throw into an email to make myself sound a little more radical, but my understanding never went much beyond that. “Solidarity” was an insider word that helped signal that I was part of the movement.

The first time I truly began to grasp the meaning of the word “solidarity” was during the Occupy movement. Thousands of like-hearted people were coming together to make immediate, concrete change in our society. This was a new experience for me, on a whole new order of magnitude from the what I had seen before. It opened my eyes to what solidarity could mean in practice.

Suddenly, I was part of a community so much bigger than myself, a movement whose total focus was the transformation of the world, now. We made decisions together, we prepared food and tried to stay warm. When the police attacked, we all felt it. We were so identified with one another than an assault on another occupier felt like a personal slap in the face. “Solidarity” wasn’t just some convenient movement word anymore; it had taken on flesh and bone. We were ready to suffer and sacrifice for one another. We believed we could change the world through our endurance. And we did.

I find it striking how this experience of solidarity parallels with the story of the early church and other movements of the Holy Spirit. Solidarity corresponds to that sense of being “one body” that Paul describes in his first letter to the Corinthians. Communities gathered together by the Holy Spirit experience this kind of organic unity: a readiness to prioritize love for one another over personal fear and ambition.

For the thousands of us forever changed by our experiences in the Occupy movement, we know that solidarity is a key ingredient. It’s like salt, without which our lives have very little flavor. Yet solidarity is such a rare thing for many of us. It’s a reality that is lacking almost completely from middle-class American culture. We’re individuals. We don’t rely on one another. We’re not knit together as one fabric.

And why should we be? We don’t share one mission. Each of us looks out for our own interests – our careers and families, dreams for the future conceived of in personal rather than collective terms. At times it seems that there is nothing uniting us but shared consumption. But in the words of Charles Eisenstein: “Joint consumption doesn’t create intimacy. Only joint creativity and gifts create intimacy and connection.”

It’s time to break out of this middle class trap of fear and consumptive materialism. We’re invited to experience solidarity, which breaks down the barriers between us and creates genuine community. When we become friends of Jesus, we discover the true meaning of unity. Based in shared mission, gifts, and care for one another, we are drawn together as one body in his Spirit. Living as members of one another, we can discover a life that goes beyond the hungry selfishness of consumerism.

Are you ready to open yourself to this journey of discipleship together with me? The Holy Spirit is present to break your shackles and fill you with life. You have nothing to lose but your fear.

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Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity?

Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity

When Jesus called the first disciples, he totally disrupted their economic lives. Simon and Andrew, James and John were working for their family business as they were raised to do. Their fathers were fisherman, just like their fathers’ fathers, stretching back beyond memory. Fishing was a way to make money, but it was also much more than that. The family business provided a sense of place, of meaning. It was a social order that allowed each member of the family to know exactly where they fit.

Only when we understand this can we begin to grasp the radical nature of Jesus’ invitation to his first followers and friends: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. Jesus offered an entirely different economic and social order. His was an invitation without safety nets, justifications, or guarantees. The first disciples immediately abandoned their nets, their livelihood, the whole social order that gave them a place to stand. They left everything, even their own worldview, to follow Jesus.

Today, Jesus’ challenge is no less serious. He is inviting us into a life so radically different from our everyday assumptions that we have a hard time wrapping our heads around it. The path of discipleship to Jesus will not allow us to merely incorporate his teachings into our pre-existing social order. The good news of the reign of God – our mission, should we choose to accept it – yanks us out of our comfort zone no less than it did for the first followers of Jesus all those years ago by the Sea of Galilee.

Of course, most of us don’t fish for a living. And if we do, it’s probably not for the family business, passed down as a trade from generation to generation. We don’t live in the pre-modern economies of peasant farmers and blacksmiths, priests and imperial governors. Thank God.

But we do live within a vast, largely unquestioned economic order that defines our lives no less than the family trades and economic ties that were so critical for the early Christians. We live within a new world order, one so pervasive and powerful that most of the time we don’t even notice it. It’s just reality.

Today, we lead our lives embedded in the economic and social order of global capitalism. Just as the power of Rome and its imperial economy was a virtually unquestionable reality in the ancient world, the modern dominance of the neo-liberal global economy is reality for virtually every living person on earth today. Love it or hate it, it’s just how life is.

Or is it? What if there is a power greater than Wall Street, consumer capitalism, and the violent apparatus required to sustain it?

Christians can argue until the cows come home about how to define capitalism, and whether it is a boon or a menace. That’s a conversation worth having, but it doesn’t strike to the heart of the matter. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t focused on forming a debating society. He built a movement, a family.

He’s still inviting us into this new social order today. The family of God is in our midst, and it challenges all of our assumptions about what is valuable, who should be honored, and how we must live. Jesus continues to stand on the seashore, calling us to drop our nets and follow him.

What does this calling look like for us, in concrete terms? Are we being called out of jobs? Social ties? Our entire conception of who and what has value? What does it look like to repent (that is, to change our entire way of living in the world) in the context of a global capitalism that threatens to make our precious planet rapidly uninhabitable? What tangled nets are we being called to drop, and what is the way, the community, the family that will replace them?

The time has passed for a merely religious approach to these questions. It’s not enough to change in our hearts, when our lives remain so thoroughly entrenched in the assumptions and economy of global empire. What is needed now is a hard-minded call to re-examine everything, to change our whole lives in pursuit of the truly abundant existence that Jesus promises.

But first things first: Let’s leave our nets and follow him.

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