Observing Jesus: The Role of Hiddenness in Discipleship

Sermon March 2    Matthew 6:1-18

This sermon was the final in a series in our church focused on the Sermon on the Mount.  Just below, I have posted the audio of the sermon if you would prefer to listen rather than read.

Click on this sentence to listen to the audio.

There is a simple adage that has been around awhile now that reads, “God created humans in God’s image, and then humans returned the favor.”  Said differently, human beings have come up with all kinds of religious teachings and concepts about God that we most like, and then we project those teachings and concepts into the heavens and call them “God.”  We might think Jesus is an exception to this rule, since we have the central teachings and actions of him written right before us every time we open the gospels, but it’s always interesting to listen to our society and how we invoke Jesus’ name in relationship to our political, religious, and social agendas.

Just to refresh my perspective on this subject, I simply googled the search term “Jesus” to see what popped up first.  

The first link was the Wikipedia entry on Jesus, which is refreshingly helpful as a guide for initial questions.  The section most relevant to what I just said is that Muslims, Manichaeans, Gnostics, Bahai’s, Mormons, and some Jews have found prominent places for Jesus in their religions. The Mormon theological perspective on Jesus is maybe most interesting in that they claim that Jesus visited the Americas after his resurrection, that God and Jesus were separate physical people, and that the Garden of Eden was and will be in Missouri.  Now, if you talk to Angela Pancella on that point, or Pastor Stoxen during baseball season, they might agree, but that is an interesting statement nonetheless.

 The second link was a New York Times article about Christians seeking to follow the counsel of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere to seek reconciliation by multiple avenues before going to a secular court.  This is a helpful thing to think about.

The third link was an article about the new movie “Son of God,” which looks interesting, even though Tony Jones hates it, but Tony Jones basically hates anything related to conservative evangelicals.

The fourth link, and another link down the page, were stories about the village in Japan where some Japanese believe Jesus moved after he snookered the Romans, escaped from crucifixion,  made a Marco Polo-like  trans-Asian journey, settled in Japan, had a wife and kids, and died at the ripe old age of 106. 

The fifth link was the “Jesus Christ” Twitter account with such helpful tweets as “Heaven will be temporarily shut down.  Please feel free to do whatever you want until further notice. YOLO” on October 15th, and “I’ll celebrate when my Dad apologizes for what he did to me,” on June 16th.  So, yeah, there’s that.

Then, further down the page, Paul Oestreicher wrote an article in the Guardian in 2012 entitled “Was Jesus gay? Probably.”  Now, you could spend the rest of your life surveying Google searches of Jesus, but that’s just a little glimpse of how our society thinks about Jesus.  Now, some of the more strange and ridiculous notions of Jesus aside, I think we could agree that even amongst the Christian community in America, Jesus comes off looking pretty monochromatic, pretty flat, not extremely interesting.

Many conservative evangelicals I speak with, no matter how hard they try to sound excited,  come off, frankly, bored of Jesus.  Their story of Jesus, that he lived a perfect and sinless life because we cannot, that he died on the cross for our sins instead of God’s wrath consuming us, and that if we accept him as our Lord and Savior, we will be forgiven and saved, has elements of the story, sure.  But does that understanding of Jesus come close to the full meaning of Jesus?  I find that story wanting.  And many of them have heard that one sentence summation of Jesus nearly every Sunday and Wednesday at the end of a sermon for decades on end.

More liberal Christians I speak with, no matter how hard they try to sound excited, come off, frankly, bored of Jesus.  Their story of Jesus, that he was radically gracious, that he welcomed the outsider and was harsh toward the judgmental and religious, that he offers us forgiveness and redeems our understanding of God from an angry, bipolar Father into the embrace of compassion and welcome, has elements of the story, sure.  But I also find that story wanting.  And many of those types are former conservatives who now, out of boredom or curiosity, have rejected the other story and now live in reaction to it, or, frankly, find this version of Jesus more culturally acceptable, more palatable to the American social values of tolerance, freedom, and religion as a hobby.

Now, clearly, there are more pictures of Jesus than these two.  Many charismatics trumpet “signs and wonders Jesus,” all about claiming authority, seizing our destiny as inheritors of God’s blessing.  Anarchists trumpet the Jesus who showed up Pilate and mocked the powerful.  Instead of accepting one narrative, however, is it possible that Jesus is all of these things?

Was Jesus perfect and sinless, die on the cross for our sins instead of God’s wrath consuming us, does he forgive us, was he radically gracious, did he welcome the outsider, was he harsh toward the judgmental and religious, was he judgmental and religious himself, did he offer forgiveness, did he redeem a view of God that was too bipolar and angry? Did he teach and reveal signs and wonders and authority, did he strip the powerful of their power even as they schemed to take his life?  Yes, yes, yes, yes!!!!! And yes!

The more I study Jesus, the more I find that he was all of these things, and represented them without becoming the mushy moderate that people so often become.  I think the gateway for all of us into a more full, more dynamic, more meaningful picture of Jesus is to learn more about the story behind Jesus, the social story that he entered into, at the perfect moment.  What I am talking about is the social context of Jesus. 

Jesus was a Jew, a citizen of Israel.  The Jewish people lived under military occupation from the Romans, made even more harsh by the fact that the more radical and violent elements of Jewish society kept rabble-rousing and enraging the Roman authorities.  They lived in a repressive police state.  They were taxed into the ground by the Romans, and many of their Jewish political leaders and tax collectors made the situation worse by intensifying the rates and skimming off the top for themselves.  So the average small farmer in this agrarian society was typically deeply in debt, and many lost their properties that had been in their families for generations, and became drifters and beggars; dishonored and ashamed of their failure.  If we think of the worst of the Great Depression in America, when drifters would beg farmers in the area I grew up if they could split some wood for a meal to stave off starvation, then we’re beginning to catch a glimpse of Jewish social reality.

What made this repressive, brutal situation even worse was the Jewish self-understanding that they were the blessed people of God, God’s special people whom he redeemed out of everyone else.  They understood that blessing to mean material wealth and political power, and over and over in their religious writings after their initial corruption and exile, this concept of the “Day of the Lord” arose.  The “Day of the Lord” was the longed-for day when God would set everything right again, would eject the profane occupiers out, would restore the financial and political fortunes of Israel, and a King like David would rule on the throne, as Israel became the envy of the nations, because God had blessed them.

The fact that Israel saw themselves in this way and the reality that this vision was frustrated and unfulfilled for hundreds of years meant that this vision turned in itself, became ugly and corrupted.  Many carried a low view of themselves, just trying to get by and feed their families.  Revolutionary agitators periodically arose, believing that if they started the violent revolution, that God would join their side.  They were crushed again and again, with the brief exception of the Maccabees in a time of relative Roman weakness.  The Zealots, the revolutionary agitators, were scheming just as much in Jesus’ day.  “Why isn’t God saving us?” was a despair-filled question for them. “Is there something fundamentally wrong with us?” they asked.  

Out of this question and desperation, a group of religious reformers arose, believing that the problem was a lack of religious seriousness.  “God isn’t redeeming us because we don’t care enough, and if we care, then God will come,” said the Pharisees.  And it’s hard to fault them, if we take their social context seriously.  God did, and does, care about religious seriousness.  Their vision involved reforming the morally degenerate and proclaiming the good news of God’s law and the lived value of it.  Unfortunately, they formed simplistic versions of faithfulness, where sickness and disease were signs of God’s curse.  And they focused on outward acts of faithfulness so deeply that in some ways their mission became a form of social theater; with faithfulness enacted in front of the people each day.  When tithing to God, as many people as possible need to see, so that they will reform and do the same.  When keeping purity laws, marginalize the unclean as publicly as possible so society will reform and do the same.  And in their defense, isn’t that how social revolutionaries  have operated through time, using political theater?  Gandhi rejected the British salt tax, so he marched with the Indian people to the Ocean to illegally harvest the salt themselves.  Political theater.  Black and white college students rejected lunch-counter segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina, so they sat down together at the counter, knowing full-well of the reaction that would create.   Political theater.  Learning these aspects of the Pharisees redeemed them from the rather flat story I had often heard that they were too religious and self-righteous.

So the Jewish people were desperate, and in this desperation, there were competing agendas of how to encourage the day of the Lord.  So this is the context that Jesus entered, and makes the way Jesus skillfully built a mass movement in this context infinitely interesting.  Jesus specifically chose one zealot and maybe more as a part of his inner circle.  So was he a Zealot?  Jesus chose a tax collector as part of his inner circle.  Clearly a curious choice, and definitely a political statement.   Jesus chose mostly blue-collar people as part of his inner circle.  Also curious, though we quickly find they were as political ambitious for power as Caesar himself.

Jesus’ movement began in full force in a synagogue in his hometown where he invoked Isaiah and the oppressed being set free.  Who does he think is, but if he isn’t insane, that’s a good place to start, because they’re all oppressed, and the “year of the Lord’s favor” is Isaiah’s version of the “Day of the Lord.”

In this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to stake out the boundaries of what his message and movement will look like, and the different groups are there, looking to check off their boxes of whether he really is the Messiah or not, because they know who the Messiah will be.  Beatitudes? Confusing, but referencing the poor in spirit, those who mourn?   We are those things, so the average Jew checks that box.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart?  The Pharisees want to check, but there’s that troubling bit about meekness.  There’s no room for meekness in the need for purity.  Salt and light? The Pharisees’ eyes are lighting up, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law,” obvious, but eyes lighting up even more, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Boom, throw-down.  (band music) He’s one of us!

Murder, adultery, divorce, oaths; his teachings on these all situate him as a theological conservative.  Many of the socially marginalized may have been tempted to see him as a social enemy of theirs in this section. Passive resistance of an evil-doer, love of enemies?  Zealot purists are now convinced he is not one of them.  And that’s a bad community to have opposed to you, since they’re the ones that will knife you in the middle of a crowd.  

And now, in the section of teaching we encounter today, Jesus focuses on the hiddenness of faithfulness.  Here, he is staking out a position of deep contrast from the Pharisees, where giving to the needy, praying, and fasting should not be political theater or public teachable moments, but rather something much different.  The teaching would have been troubling to the Pharisees, so used to their public theater that made obvious to the people of Israel the things they needed to do, but Jesus also embeds this “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites.”  That line is like a papercut on the lip for the Pharisees, a jolting difference.  For the average Jew who had questions about the incessant publicity of the Pharisees, this is interesting.

At this point, I want to leave the consideration of the social context of Jesus and draw us into consideration of our response.  In just the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, it is easy to see why we so often pick one thing Jesus cared about and make it the whole story for us.  Jesus is frustratingly complex, and a joltingly uncomfortable kind of teacher. 

 Jesus, should we focus on outward acts of faithfulness? 

Yes.  

Should we focus on inward acts of faithfulness? 

Yes.  

Well, which one is it, Lord, the inward or the outward? 

Yes. 

Which one is more important, man, I need some simplicity here! 

Well, how would you sum up the last ten minutes of my teaching? 

Hmmmmm.  Sometimes our faith needs to be expressed outwardly, and sometimes inwardly, with both being important, and neither canceling out the other?  But how do we know when one is better than the other?

What else have you heard me teach?

Hmmmm……oooohhhhhhh.  I see you sneak away early in the morning or late at night, and sometimes in the middle of a crowd, I see your attention focus inwardly.  You’re listening, aren’t you?

Bingo.

Today, the term we use for this activity is “practicing the presence of God.”  The name we most often associate with this activity is Brother Lawrence, and attention to his practice is very fruitful for contemplation and action.  I would like to check in this morning, however, with the practice of one of my heroes, Frank Laubach, who is often mentioned in the same breath as Brother Lawrence when it comes to “practicing the presence of God.”  Frank had a wonderful sense of curiosity with the realm of prayer and listening to the Spirit.  He played what he called the “game of minutes,” where he desired to spend one second out of every waking minute in conscious attention to God.  He also engaged in what we could call “experiments in hiddenness” with prayer.

But before I mention a couple practices of Frank, I want to invite each of you into a simple reflection right now. You have been provided with a piece of paper and a pen this morning. I simply want you to think about a typical day for you.  What happens between you opening your eyes in the morning and closing your eyes at night?  What is a typical day?  I’m aware that there is no “typical” day, say, for a parent of a child, but there is still a rhythm of the usual day even for parents.  Write down the events of a typical day for you.

Now, Frank Laubach would do what we just did.  He would consider his day, and aggressively look for opportunities for hidden prayer.  If in a car or bus or walking, he considered how to transform his commute into an opportunity to listen to God and pray for others.  If in a doctor’s office or business, he considered how to transform the waiting into an opportunity to listen to God and pray for others.  If preparing food, he considered how to redeem the time by listening to God and praying for others.  When lying in bed just before sleep, he considered how to listen to God and pray for others.  In his outward public life, Frank was a hero of literacy and poverty alleviation, and in his inward life, Frank became a hero of experiments in hiddenness.

Frank celebrated the opportunity to pray, and often highlighted that he didn’t see discernible results of prayer right away.  But he shares some crazy cool stories along the way in his experiments.  My favorite is one from a church in Bombay (now Mumbai) India…

When I think of Jesus’ admonition “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others… but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen,” I think of Frank Laubach, and I can imagine Jesus saying, “when you travel, quietly bless the person in the car next to you, when you walk, quietly bless the person in front of you, when you parent, quietly bless your child, when in a meeting, quietly bless each person who speaks…and while you’re at it, quietly bless the person who never speaks.”  For me, it could be, “when walking around your classroom, quietly bless each student you pass.”  As we consider the events of a typical day for us, what are places we observe are opportunities for hidden blessing?

There is great value in hiddenness, and in an age where nearly every thought a person has somehow finds its way onto Facebook, these quiet experiments in hiddenness hold the opportunity of helping us regain a sense of what needs to be public and what needs to be hidden in our path of discipleship. May we, like Jesus, cultivate a deep listening to the voice of our Father.

 

 

Rare opportunities, and the reminder that we are not in control

RCL screenshot

Anyone that knows me well knows that I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the lectionary.  If you’re not familiar with the lectionary, it’s a set of Scriptural readings (daily, and Sunday) that run on a three year cycle before repeating.  As you could imagine, the central idea is that the major themes of the Scriptures are covered; so Christians who follow the lectionary will have a higher Scriptural literacy and stronger foundation for faith.

That’s the idea, and I LOVE that idea.  In practice, the things come out pretty mixed.  In important times of the Christian year (Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc), the lectionary focuses us on the season pretty well. In general, it covers some important Scriptural territory.  However, the lectionary has a couple frustrating, even angering holes.

One intermediate problem is that the Sunday lectionary readings tend to hop all over the place during Ordinary Time, leaving churches and pastors that follow them to try to draw some kind of continuity from week to week.  As a result, worship on the lectionary tends to be whatever the church constructs.

One horrific problem is that the lectionary readings often omit the sharper edges of the Scriptures in favor of passages with vocabulary we can bend to fit what we want to say or do.  I’m very aware that “horrific” is a strong word.  I used it on purpose.  Systematically excluding parts of the Scriptures you don’t want to hear or have to explain is a living example of the prophetic critique that Jeremiah brings twice against the people of Israel, “Prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.  They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:13-14, 8:10-11)

Now, you may have several responses to my introduction here.

1. You may be skeptical about the accuracy of what I’m saying about the lectionary.  If you’re a part of a church that follows the lectionary, I would encourage you to take a three or four-month segment and read the passages.  Pay particular attention to what the lectionary leaves out.  Specifically, look for passages like “10-12a.”  You will often find that “12b” isn’t quite as comforting.  In addition, look for passages like 10-12a, 13-15, 19-21a.”  I’ve seen this multiple times in the last few years.  Take a wild guess at what is often repeatedly excluded in the skipped-over sections.

Maybe they’re just setting it up for a simple message to be taken away from the reading, Nathan?” you might say in response.  Yes, maybe.  Sometimes simplicity is helpful, and complexity muddies the water too much.  I get that.  But again and again?  One begins to see a troubling pattern that leads to troubling conclusions.

2.  You may think it’s entirely appropriate to skip certain sections of the Scriptures, because they’re not relevant anymore, or even may be destructive to read and follow.  I’m sympathetic to some of that belief, and deeply aware of the darker implications of that kind of commitment.

I’m sympathetic to that belief, because the Scriptures are a set of living, evolving, progressing writings that emerge from a living, evolving community.  I very much take a narrative approach to the Scriptures that proclaims that God is meeting God’s creation where they’re at, connecting with them, and taking them a step further.  Sometimes those steps are smaller, like the call of Moses to speak up, and sometimes those steps are bigger, like the advent of Jesus; which was such a big step that Israel killed him off as quickly as they could.  Because of this narrative approach, if we happened to read, “Happy is the one who seizes (Babylon’s) infants and dashes them against the rocks,” (Psalm 137: 9) or “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.  They are to be put to death,” (Leviticus 20:13), I would refuse to say our typical response,

“Reader:  This is the word of the Lord.
Congregation:  Thanks be to God.”

I would refuse to say this not because I confidently believe we know better than our ancestors, but because both of those sentiments (vengeance against enemies, and the death penalty for homosexuality) are contradicted explicitly by Jesus and therefore no longer the truth we turn our life upside-down to follow.  I don’t know exactly what the proper response to a reading of those Scriptures would be.  Maybe,

“Reader:  The story of the people of God.
Congregation:  Damn, that’s different than Jesus,”

or

“Reader:  God’s word to Israel then.
Congregation:  Thanks be to God for the way of Jesus now.”

or whatever else would better fit.

Now, the darker implications of our belief that certain parts of the Scriptures are no longer relevant or helpful is that we presume to believe we know better than our ancestors what faithfulness is and how to live.  In other words, we don’t really care deeply about the narrative progression of the Scriptures unless they reinforce what we already believe about ourselves and the world.  When the Scriptures present a situation that offends us or present a hard boundary on our behavior, we go out of our way to minimize, spiritualize or otherwise metaphorize (is that even a word?), or ignore the passage.  Conservatives and liberals both do this in our society.  Conservative American christians often minimize or relativize Jesus (as crazy as that sounds), while Liberal American christians often minimize or relativize the Old Testament and/or Paul and/or the Scriptures period (to give several quick examples).  In our church family here in Norwood, I often sense the greatest tension in the room when we read passages that challenge a more liberal perspective on the world.

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All of the above is a prequel of sorts for a simple observation I made last Sunday.  The lectionary’s outline highlights certain themes because it has to pick something, and the lectionary very rarely includes “sharp” words that challenge and offend.  Yet for some reason, the shapers of the RCL, in tune with the Lenten season, chose to include last Sunday some very strong Scriptures that were BEGGING, JUST BEGGING, PLEADING, to be central in the time of worship.   Our church family is focusing in the Lenten season on the appropriate themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation.  We read from:

Isaiah 55:1-9 (theme: Listen to the Lord and obey, and you will live!)

Psalm 63:1-8 (theme, devotionally: “My soul thirsts for God!”)

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 (theme: Warning, continue to choose disobedience and idolatry, and God has every right to end you)

Luke 13:1-9 (theme, from Jesus’s lips, “Repent, or perish!”  Perish.  Spiritually: unsatisfied, unfruitful.  Physically: Wasting away, death.  Again, God has every right to end you if you aren’t serving the purpose you were created for).

What important passages to be reminded of!
How appropriate for the themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation!
How timely and needed for a congregation that tends toward liberal perspectives!
What a gift from a lectionary prone to avoidance of passages like these!

We read the passages near the beginning of our worship gathering.  Tension developed in the room as the passages were read aloud one after the other.  I looked around and could see faces responding in certain ways, some seeming to cringe in embarrassment at what they believed to be the provincial backwardness of the passages, some seeming to cringe at the starkness of “Repent or perish!” because there isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room or room for mystery or complexity, others offended with some masking it better than others, some wondering how to respond faithfully to such stark words, others grudgingly hearing the passage as a surprising and hard teaching, and others seeming to come alive in response to the words!   A spectrum of responses.

In other words, a ripe opportunity to be reminded in practical, meaningful ways that we are not the authority.  A ripe opportunity to listen to the testament of our ancestors in thinking they could construct their own ways of defining good and evil.  A ripe opportunity to consider how the grace and compassion of God lives alongside the wrath and judgment of God; with both being vital parts that make up God’s love.  Ripe, ripe, ripe, RIPE, RIPE!

The simple reading of the Scriptures gave us the opportunity to begin this importance reflection on God’s authority, that in fact, our belief that we are free to construct our own understanding of truth and life is a central component of the chains that enslave us as God’s creation.  It is a twisted, wicked lie passing as truth that constrains, sickens, and ultimately destroys us.  And yet God compassionately, graciously, patiently waits for extended periods of time for us to abandon this false pretense. God forgives a thousand, a million times over as we offend and rebel against him.  And eventually, because God cares more about his kingdom breaking out in this world, a kingdom of people under his authority bringing healing and reconciliation to that which is twisted almost beyond recognition, God is willing to end us, to destroy those who would militate against his purposes.

We don’t want to hear this, whether liberal or conservative.  We would rather plug our ears, sing comforting songs, read books that reinforce our beliefs, continue constructing our own world, and only read Scriptural passages that feed our perspectives.  And thus we remain ignorant, but willfully so.  And God will not stand for willful ignorance. God will eventually act, and do it because of His great love for this creation that with agonizing groans begs for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed.

Lent is Lent for a reason.  It is a season we still set aside to focus on our need for repentance, our desire to rule our own lives, our sense of justification for rejecting and excluding others from our love.  I needed to sit and reflect with my brothers and sisters on the FACT that God is the authority, that we are NOT, and that that fact is GOOD, GREAT news.

I know we will have more opportunities during Lent to dwell deeply in our sinfulness and rebellion, to dwell deeply in God’s long-suffering patience, compassion, and just judgment.  I sincerely hope we take those opportunities, because after Lent, the lectionary will return to its old ways, release us to resume building our own world and religion the way we please.

I lament.
I hope.
I thank you, God, that you are awakening me to see the chains wrapped about my arms, legs,
the fog slowly clearing from a mind clouded and confused by my sin.
Thank you that your Way is good and right.
Thank you that we have a role to play,
that you have invited us to collaborate with you,
under your authority
for the healing of your world.

Sexuality, our culture, and the gospel

I read Rachel Held Evans’ new post “How to Win a Culture War and Lose a Generation” (primarily reflecting on the passage of Amendment One in North Carolina) with a growing sense of sadness and lament this morning.

I was sad to read Rachel’s highlighting of how many people of younger generations view the church. The (evangelical part of the) church HAS made homosexuality, inappropriately, one of two big issues we should care about. We have obsessed over, preached on, talked about this issue in such a disproportionate way that many in our culture believe it’s all we care about. Meanwhile, our marriages fail at the same rate as the wider culture, an increasing number of our teenagers and young adults openly have sex outside a marriage covenant, and an increasing number of heterosexuals cohabitate and participate in hook-up culture.

Many of these heterosexual couples enter church doors with folks knowing what they’re doing, but people are glad they’re there and hoping they find healing. People tend to “meet them where they’re at and love them” pretty well, generally speaking. Yet if a gay couple enters the church openly parading their lifestyle and commitments, they’re treated like filthy trash. This is wrong, dead wrong.

AND…

I then read Rachel proceed to write the rest of her piece and come to the capstone of her argument regarding Christians and “culture wars”,

“Young Christians are ready for peace. We are ready to lay down our arms. We are ready to start washing feet instead of waging war. And if we cannot find that sort of peace within the church, I fear we will look for it elsewhere.”

When I read that, I was saddened even further. Because while it is true that many people in our culture have been turned off by an unhealthy obsession with the issue of homosexuality, it remains true that the biggest portion of people are turned off by an insensitivity towards the demands of the truth. One of the things I observe with the younger generation surrounding me (in my church, neighborhood, city, and wider culture) is the belief that we innately and easily understand what is good and true.  Whatever comes most natural is interpreted as most true, to generalize the idea.  As it happens, however, the Scriptures remind us (and we can confirm with experience, if we’re courageous enough to face the facts) we are confused, selfish people darkened in our understanding of what is good, right, and worth pursuing in this world.

When confused, selfish people who are intimately shaped by our culture to think and act in certain ways are confronted with the truthful  way of the kingdom of God, our first (and for many, only) reaction is rejection. Nobody wants the core of who they are challenged. So when a group of people is openly advocating a way of life that is opposite in many ways to what you hold dear, you seek to discredit, diminish, or openly mock them. And I’m not talking about sexuality here at all. I’m talking about radical forgiveness, non-violence, the way of simplicity, covenantal marriage vows, humbly bowing before an authority that is not you. And the list goes on.

So, as it happens, because we all are so intimately formed by our culture, many young Christians live with a “Christian-lite” version of faith where any sort of stark line-drawing or boundary-making is interpreted as inappropriate and even hateful. Why? “Well, we may have given our lives to God,” we reason, “but God would never rip my life apart or subject me to serious emotional, spiritual, or physical pain for long stretches of time. God wants to enter into my life and make me more compassionate and caring.” We don’t want to look weird. We don’t want to stand out. So, if we “keep our faith,” we latch on to vague spiritual teachings and teachers that enable us to live our lives as normal with a little Jesus seasoning to alter the flavor a bit.

In addition, many young Christians are conflict-averse in the church, and when someone challenges their understanding of truth, are quick to be offended, unwilling to listen, and too quick to leave. Some may even leave a church because of political signs posted in the yards of other families in the church they disagree with.

And above all, many young Christians are so swallowed up in the values of the Babylon of our culture that we are blind and deaf to the call of God to become “resident aliens” in our culture, to be called out of the values of our culture and “called into” the values, boundaries, and lifestyle defined by a King and not by ourselves.

So, Rachel, when you speak of being “ready for peace,” I fear you misunderstand the gospel, which is deeply political, which does at times draw significant lines, which does draw boundaries around behavior, which does bring significant expectations.

In the midst of a powerful song confessing his own shortcomings and sin, Derek Webb sings these two piercing lines that continue to challenge me years after first listen,

“I repent, I repent of trading truth for false unity,
I repent, I repent of confusing peace and idolatry.”

What Derek highlights so well is how quickly in pursuit of being “at peace,” we seek to smooth over or deny differences, avoid our conflicts, and call that “peace.” He rightly reminds us that when those commitments overshadow our central responsibility to be faithful to the expectations of our Creator, we are engaging in idolatry. We only have to look quickly at the wider context of Jesus’ ministry to see that “peace-making” in God’s kingdom sometimes looks like scandalous welcome and other times looks quite harsh, exclusive, and judgmental.

We have much to learn in evangelical culture about a deeper compassion. Some may even say we’ve lost the virtue of compassion and need to give up making strong statements or drawing boundaries in order to learn that virtue again. I am sensitive  to and drawn towards that suggestion on the surface. I would suggest we instead choose to be chastened and “count the cost” of making judgments and drawing boundaries and consider whether scandalous grace is included in our actions.

But if we are to follow the advice of persons like Rachel and a host of other younger Christian leaders, we are to let people make their own decisions and to “love them” in that place. We are to be so careful not to offend persons (especially on the issue of sexuality) in the interest of them feeling embraced and cared-for that we avoid drawing strong boundaries. And that’s all in the church, far before we engage in conversations about our values in the public square.

It seems, if I take the blunt message of the essay, Rachel is suggesting the public square should be off-limits for Christians.

In regards to the public square and to Christians involving themselves in politics, I am interested in how “laying down our arms” applies for Rachel on this issue. She mentioned in her post,

“As I watched my Facebook and Twitter feeds last night, the reaction among my friends fell into an imperfect but highly predictable pattern. Christians over 40 were celebrating. Christians under 40 were mourning. Reading through the comments, the same thought kept returning to my mind as occurred to me when I first saw that Billy Graham ad: You’re losing us.

I assume Rachel is more connected to other authors and speakers in the Christian publishing world than I am by virtue of her being an author and speaker. So in addition to a “normal” friends list, Rachel is able to see the thoughts of Christian culture-makers.  I happen to share eighteen mutual friends with Rachel (some of whom are authors and speakers), and while many were mourning on my friends list, by and large they weren’t mourning as those standing on the outside observing the cultural moment. No, many were mourning as those who had actively campaigned and leveraged whatever power they had AGAINST Amendment One.

So, is the main spark here for Rachel’s essay that the church is too political, or that the church is politically involved on the side of an issue that she disagrees with?

This question leads me to reach two possible conclusions based on Rachel’s thoughts:

1) Rachel and others like her genuinely want Christians to stop participating completely in the political realm (or if they do, to not tell anybody about or seek to influence others), no matter what their political or cultural persuasions

or

2) Rachel used this anti-conservative-political-action essay to set up that group as the enemy, with the answer being progressive-political-action dressed in anti-political clothing. “They’re theocratic and oppressive,” could be the battle cry, “and we’re open and progressive. Completely unlike them!”

Maybe I’m pigeonholing Rachel with those two options, but I’d guess she’s probably pretty firmly in 1) and shading pretty heavily over into 2). I’d guess that she described her Facebook survey the way that fit the message of what she wanted to write, and that many of those lamenting Amendment One weren’t lamenting it because “Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics.” No, most of them (like my friends list) were lamenting it because they’re actively working for the open acceptance of GLBTQ persons and goals into the church. This is what I’d guess. I could be wrong.

Having stated my critiques and observations, I do feel a responsibility to say something positive and generative. It’s always easier to criticize than it is to create.

I would simply state I believe Christians should seek to influence our culture. And if we seek to influence our culture, we must constantly be aware of our goals and our methods to make them subject to the way of the kingdom of God.  Our actions should include everything from praying for certain leaders locally and in our church families and all the way up to national campaigns to organize our society.

Here are some examples:

I’ve worked with a local faith and justice organization here in Cincinnati in the past. We didn’t pick typical conservative issues to work at. We started with opening up access to jobs for ex-convicts in our society so they weren’t given an unofficial life sentence. We lobbied Cincinnati City Council to change the city code for hiring to open up access.  We succeeded. Persons might call that a liberal political desire. We didn’t care. We believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

I’m connected with others in Cincinnati who have some questions about the downtown redevelopment of our city. We see lots of money being spent and city ordinances and zoning decisions being favorable towards the wealthy and powerful. We’ve started and signed petitions, written local councilmembers, and sat in on planning meetings to be more educated on the issue. Some may call these liberal political desires. We don’t care. We believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

In 2006, I voted in the affirmative for Virginia’s Marriage Amendment defining marriage as solely between one man and one woman. I would vote for it today. I don’t philosophically have a problem with North Carolina’s Amendment One.  It was poorly written and could have some unforeseen consequences as a result. I do find it strange that opponents called it frivolous and unnecessary to bring an amendment when state law already stated the same.  If the people of a state believe they should be organized in a certain way, they will want to strengthen their statement as much as possible.  Without an amendment, change is as simple as legislation signed by a governor.  With an amendment, it is significantly harder to override or change.  So you strengthen what you believe as a people.  Some may call such marriage amendments a conservative political desire. I don’t care. I believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

I’m connected to a number of war-tax resisters who oppose their taxes going to fund the United States military establishment. Many of these people engage in political action to advocate for this cause. Some hold back a certain percentage of their taxes and give that money to organizations working for peace. Others give away every cent of money they make over the poverty line so no taxes make it to the Pentagon. A lot of them are still working and advocating for a Peace Tax Fund for conscientious objectors. Some may call that a liberal political desire. They don’t care. They believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

I affirm the work of friends in the Consistent Life movement against war, abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia. Some may call this group a confused group of liberal and conservative political purposes. They don’t care. They believe their work to represent the values of the kingdom of God.

I’m a part of the work of Bread for the World, which advocates primarily in the federal budgeting process for programs for poor and malnourished people in our society. They work with all their guts to win a percentage of our budget to be given through various programs for the “least of these.” Public assistance, the SNAP program, children’s health insurance, and others are included. Some may call that a liberal political desire. We don’t care. We believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

I believe that we should follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who in reconciling us to God sometimes showed radical inclusion and other times revealed a harsh, boundary-making approach. Both of those tactics were meant to draw people out of rebellion and into the life of the kingdom of God.

We should always at every moment ask ourselves two questions to guide our work:
1) Is this issue important and valuable enough to pursue at this time with the resources we have? and
2) What will we build into the way we communicate and advocate in our campaign to make sure we speak honorably so that we may dignify our opponents with what they deserve as our brothers and sisters?

It’s about time for Christians to abandon the cowardice of hiding behind conservative or liberal American political commitments and courageously face issues of importance carrying the values of the kingdom of God. Our work is the work of casting down idols in whatever arena of our society they may exist, including inside ourselves.

What and Who we are For

I was given the opportunity to preach at the Cincinnati Church of the Brethren this morning.  I chose to use this opportunity to spend some time reflecting on Christian allegiance and how a commitment to Jesus makes us into “misfits” in our society.  Along the way, I touched on labels of liberal and conservative that are so powerful in our society, and our responsibility to transcend those labels as disciples of Jesus.  This does not lead to fence-sitting, or a mushy moderate approach, but rather to courageous faithful action that means we will sometimes be called liberal and sometimes conservative, but always won’t really care what we’re called.

Click on the link below to listen to the sermon:
What and Who we are For by Nathan Myers

An excerpt of the sermon is below:

We are on the eve of a High American holiday that takes place tomorrow, Independence Day. And wherever we may end up in our perspectives on the relationship between Christianity and the nation, High American holidays give an opportunity to slow down and to reflect on these themes of allegiance, commitment, and awareness of who we are.

You see, we don’t have the luxury like other American citizens of the specific kind of patriotism that tomorrow often brings. There’s a certain simplicity to always going with the crowd and obediently following what others do, but becoming Christian means entering into a more complex relationship with our society. Around days like tomorrow, words like patriotism, allegiance, commitment, and freedom often come up. And these are words that happen to be deeply essential for Christians too. In a number of ways, however, an assumption is made by many that there is no conflict between allegiance to Jesus and allegiance to America. My hope this morning is to spend some time stepping back and reflecting on our relationship to our society as Christians.

A link to the full text of the sermon is below:
Full text of “Who and What we are For”

Baby don’t let ’em put a name on you

I read this article about Senator Scott Brown today that reinforced some educated hunches I have about him.

Evidently the “Tea Party Express” tour stopped in Boston, MA today and Brown, who the Tea Party supporters go out of their way to say they elected, was conspicuously not there.  In Boston no less, the home of the “original” tea party, which persons would say presents every opportunity for Sen. Brown to enjoy the adulation of the crowd and prove his conservative commitment….yet he didn’t show.

Official release from a spokesperson,

“While he is unable to attend Wednesday’s event, the senator appreciates the strong grassroots support he received from a wide range of individuals, including those who are part of the tea party movement. He hopes they have a successful event,” spokesman Colin Reed said in a statement.

Translation: “We don’t want to fully identify with these people because we find them polarizing and Senator Brown is not arch-conservative like them, even though they cast him in that light during the campaign for the seat.”

Brown’s senatorial victory on January 19th was hailed across the country as a referendum on Pres. Obama’s policy initiatives, with persons variously saying “The people have spoken,” and “Obama better watch out!”  But I had a sneaking sense throughout Brown’s campaign against Martha Coakley to replace Ted Kennedy that his momentum and eventual victory had very little to do with Barack  Obama and very much to do with Martha Coakley and Scott Brown.

First of all, Coakley campaigned as if she “knew” the election was a rubber-stamp for her obvious accession to the Seat.  Coakley famously said in response to challenges she was being to passive in her campaign, “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?” That ridiculous comment (You’re in Boston, Martha, not Miami), together with commenting that Curt Schilling was a Yankee fan (again, he of the famous bloody sock forever enthroned in Red Sox lore), combined with long stretches of non-campaigning, to show a woman out of touch with the people she was claiming to represent.

Her opponent, Scott Brown instead worked his butt to the bone to win Massachusetts voters.  He did shake hands at Fenway Park in the cold, he did drive his personal truck all over the state, he did shake hands, kiss babies, make speeches, and get his agenda and his aspirations out there, Coakley didn’t, and he beat her.  The combination of Coakley’s blahness and Brown’s commitment was striking, and I think Massachusetts voters saw that.

What is another reason I find the election to be less about Obama and more about Brown? Brown’s proven political positions.  As conservative commentator Kathleen Parker commented in the Washington Post,

In any case, Brown’s more compelling package concerns issues, his positions on which are not so easily categorized along party lines. He supports a woman’s right to choose, for instance, though he opposes partial-birth abortion and federal funding for abortion and believes in strong parental notification laws. He opposes same-sex marriage but believes the decision should be left to states. He would not vote to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act but does not favor a federal constitutional amendment declaring marriage as between a man and a woman.

On fiscal matters, he favors tax cuts, opposes the current government expansion and would oppose a second stimulus bill. He has praised President Obama for both his decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan as well as taking his time arriving at that decision. He criticized the president for being “too slow” in responding to the panty-bomber and thinks we should treat terrorists as war criminals, trying them in military courts.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall conservatives panting from their screams that Obama’s “agenda was rejected” ever mentioning that Brown was pro-choice by their absolute standards. I don’t recall them discussing that Brown isn’t hell-bent on constitutional amendments against homosexual marriage. And those are the two massive issues that most arch-conservatives can’t get past to see the rest of someone’s politics.

Brown since has gone out of his way to praise Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator John Kerry in their work with him on the jobs bill that he supported with a slew of Democrats.  Someone seeking to self-identify with the tea partiers would know that ANY positive comment about Harry Reid would earn them a tarring and feathering by tea partiers.  And in response to comments by some that he was either a liberal, conservative, or moderate Republican, he responded, “I’m a Scott Brown Republican.”

I’m more and more convinced Scott Brown is a better, more wiser politician than pundits would like to paint him as.  He doesn’t fit the labels perfectly, he thinks for himself, he is willing to break party lines early in his term instead of being McConnell’s yes man lapdog.  Don’t reduce Brown to a “referendum on Barack Obama.”  Let Brown speak for himself.

Kudos to Brown for holding Tea Partiers at arm’s length.  He doesn’t need their extremism to identify himself, and doesn’t need to smile and wave with their hero, Sarah Palin, on his side for a good photo op and conservative check-in-the-box.  You go, Scott Brown.

John Mackey, health care, Friedman, and wisdom…

The problem with the free market is that the profit motive trumps all other concerns, which leads to monopolization of societies by powerful corporations. – Me

I’ve been pretty hands-off with the whole health-care debate in more public settings.  I don’t shy away from talking about it around the dinner table at our community house, I talk about it with friends on the phone, and I listen to wise people like Tom Ashbrook and Howard Dean and Bill Frist talk about it on the radio.  I watch interviews on major news outlets.  I watched President Obama’s major speech before both houses of Congress and spent time reflecting on it with friends.  I’ve even read some of the legislative language of bills being considered.  But I haven’t taken a strong stance on the issue for several reasons.

1.  I just know health care reform needs to happen, but I don’t know specifics.

2.  Bethany and I have opted out of insurance to some degree by joining a Christian healthcare sharing co-op, so this isn’t a terribly “present” thing for us (to be more specific, we joined one Christian healthcare sharing group, but were unsettled by newsletter after newsletter warning us of “socialism” and “big government” and all sorts of Obama conspiracies.  I thought I was reading Fox News rather than reading Christians with wise, reasonable perspectives.  So we switched to a group much more even-handed and wise in their approach to the issue of reform).

3.  And this is the big one.  I’ve just been too involved in trying to stay afloat in the series of challenges that have followed moving to Cincinnati to spend a whole lot of time reflecting on larger issues.  It’s been hard enough to be intentional thinking about larger issues, let alone processing those issues outwardly in blog form.  After several years of being out of whack (reflecting much more often than acting), I’ve slid to the opposite extreme here in the short-term (acting not reflecting).  This post, however, will be an attempt at thinking more deeply.

The real instigator for choosing to write is this intriguing op-ed Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote in the Wall Street Journal.  When I heard that a whole lot of mess was going down around this op-ed, I read it with the eager expectation that the CEO of a company committed in some ways to a more sustainable, more just economy would have something substantive to say, something to draw us deeper as a society.  And a couple things he said do make sense, but they struck me as isolated and disconnected from the larger problem; like driftwood aimlessly floating on the ocean’s surface.

My heart fell when Mackey started with a nifty context-setting quote from Margaret Thatcher, that “the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”  “Seriously?” I thought.  “He’s going to perpetuate that either/or stuff further?”  The amount of leaders in our country willing to abandon the “we’re drifting toward totalitarian communism!” every time something is discussed with the role of government involved is extremely, extremely low.  I could go through a list of them, but the most compelling quote in recent memory for me calling us beyond the either/or extremes of total socialism or total free market was Obama’s in the health-care speech.  Wherever we fall on the political spectrum, this statement deserves serious reflection;

“You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem.  They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom.  But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited.

And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter — that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges.  We lose something essential about ourselves.”

“There are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom.”
“The danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited.”

These words are the kind of political leadership we desperately need when we have such big issues to grapple with as the American public. To shape the conversation in wise ways. To be a constant voice for wisdom and good conversations where we hear one another well even as we disagree and try to find commonality. It is because of a desire for that kind of leadership that my heart fell with the Thatcher quote coming first in Mackey’s op-ed. I read further with a heavy heart, expecting it to be one of “those articles,” the ones that could’ve been written just as easily in the 60’s in the heart of the Cold War. It was.

While we clearly need health-care reform, the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system. Instead, we should be trying to achieve reforms by moving in the opposite direction—toward less government control and more individual empowerment.

In these initial remarks, Mackey established for me that he doesn’t understand the health care issue very well. By casting the issue as fundamentally about government takeover vs. individual empowerment, Mackey showed himself either to be dangerously naive or immorally pretending to ignore the elephant in the room. John Mackey should know just as well as any other educated citizen that the heart of the issue is not government vs. individual. The heart of the issue is, first, that health care is a for-profit business in our society. And second, in a much deeper sense, that business (in general) is defined almost purely by financial profit at the expense of any other factor. I’ll deal with these one after another.

1. Health care is a for-profit business in our society.

What this literally means, in strict business understanding (and the raw numbers and incentives of health-care corporations will bear this out) is that human beings are considered no different than, say, coffee mugs. They are a cost-bearing object in a system that seeks to minimize cost and maximize profit for the good of the company. Shouldn’t that strike persons with any moral sensibility as deeply wrong? And shouldn’t that change the national conversation about “rationing care” (usually cast in terms that “the government will ration whether you receive treatment”) so people understand that health care companies ration care every day in our society in order to maximize profit?

Pure free-market advocates proclaim that a purely free-market system would minimize cost and inefficiencies, streamline the process, and provide the best quality service for whatever issue they’re speaking of. Mackey is one of them, and says here

Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges.”

That all sounds well and good in theory, but when we get down to the nitty-gritty, we are forced to confess a simple foundational fact.  The human being’s actual health care is the cost to be minimized in order for the health care company to be successful and profitable.  So the business that is founded on care seeks to minimize care. The fact that this isn’t a bigger, more obvious issue to us is utterly absurd.  Utterly, utterly absurd.  And even more absurd is our lack of awareness that free-market advocates (like Milton Friedman himself) believe the “invisible hand” has no moral responsibility. It is not the business of business to decide what is moral or not.

But health care is a different kind of business, when human lives are directly at stake. And when humans are in fact a cost to be minimized rather than people to be dignified and served, we have lost our way.

2.  Business (in general) is defined almost purely by financial profit at the expense of any other factor

I’ve stated above that health care should not be thought of like any other business, but I believe in a larger sense that business itself, in a virtuous society, should not be defined by financial profit alone.  Milton Friedman’s basic commitment to a completely free market and his interpretation of Adam Smith has led to the state of the American economic system today, and Friedman himself states that his economy runs on self-interest and greed as virtues. Committed Christians, if they’re Biblically rigorous, realize this sort of thinking is insane.

Friedman explicitly stated this perspective in his now-famous 1970 article “ The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits,” in the New York Times where he stated,

When I hear businessmen speak eloquently about the “social responsibilities of business in a free-enterprise system,” I am reminded of the wonderful line about the Frenchman who discovered at the age of 70 that he had been speaking prose all his life. The businessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they declaim that business is not concerned “merely” with profit but also with promoting desirable “social” ends; that business has a “social conscience” and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoid ing pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers. In fact they are–or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously–preaching pure and unadulterated socialism. Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.

It is precisely on this point that I find Mackey’s op-ed so disappointing and deflating.  Why?  Because he sounds exactly like Friedman.  Why is that a problem?  Because what’s been lost in all the hullabaloo following the op-ed (with liberals boycotting Whole Foods and conservatives backslapping and thinking Mackey is one of them) is that Mackey is deeply different than Friedman and the average conservative.  In fact, Mackey believes this, that

The most successful businesses put the customer first, ahead of the investors. In the profit-centered business, customer happiness is merely a means to an end: maximizing profits. In the customer-centered business, customer happiness is an end in itself, and will be pursued with greater interest, passion, and empathy than the profit-centered business is capable of.

But the average reader of Mackey’s op-ed didn’t get that, because he wasn’t intentional enough in the words he used to lead them in that direction.  In short, Mackey wasted a prime opportunity to speak truth to the system, and given that he was writing for the influential Wall Street Journal, he is either incredibly dense or has spent so much time in his Whole Foods and sustainable food ivory tower that he didn’t consider the effects of such an article.  I think the answer is clearly the latter.  He was and is naive about how much the average citizen doesn’t “get it,” so he shoots off a few words and thinks he’s contributed well.

Does the average reader know that Mackey wrote a letter in 2006 to all of his staff announcing that he would reduce his own salary to $1 a year, donate his stock portfolio to charity and set up a $100,000 emergency fund for staff facing personal problems? Do they know that while CEO of Whole Foods Market in 2008, he earned a total compensation of just $33,831, which included a base salary of $1, and a cash bonus of $33,830?  Do they know he’s instituted caps on executive pay at the company?  No, they don’t.  And won’t now, because Mackey didn’t encourage more reasonable thought on health care.

And, in a wider sense, Mackey’s writing is simply naive to the fact that America’s economy isn’t run the way he envisions it. Ours is not “enlightened capitalism” (at least not in the direction of the policy of the last 25 years), but financial profit-centered capitalism.

And what free-market purists overlook often to the neglect of the public they are shaping is that in the free-market system, several companies (and eventually one) will emerge from the dog-eat-dog world of competition because they streamline costs better, are more “efficient” at what they provide, and we will have entered the situation of monopoly. When companies get so big, and they can leverage economies of scale in buying mass amounts of raw products for their service, competition cannot survive. And not only will competition be eliminated through economies of scale (a dispassionate cost-analysis), it will be eliminated through the massive company purchasing all competitors that would challenge their rule and absorbing them into their corporate structure.

In case any reader would think this could never happen, this is a reality in a great majority of American society. Banks, computer companies (Microsoft), news companies (Time Warner, News Corp), pharmaceutical companies (Bristol Myers Squibb, Merck, Pfizer), financial service companies (Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo) and health care companies (Aetna, Cigna) have centralized control of the marketplace, limiting competition while intensively lobbying government for legislation that benefits them at the expense of all others.

When these monopolistic companies with big pockets supply the money for expensive political campaigns, legislators and presidents are beholden to them to at least throw MASSIVE bones in their direction from time to time (President Obama is not exempt from this, by the way, with his biggest campaign contributor being Goldman Sachs). In a supremely ironic twist, the beneficiaries of free market success manipulate governance to ensure keeping their place. They institute with their political minions a corporate welfare system that dwarfs the poverty-targeted government welfare system.  Pure capitalism creates a sort of socialism where the distribution of wealth is continually sucked upwards to the elites, both through corporate profit and governmental payouts.

The reality is that there is very little real competition in the American marketplace, and that most “competition” we observe is not real competition, but different brands of the same company that use different messages to bring business to different brands, while all the profit goes into the same coffers.

So the average consumer is naive to how monopolized their world is.

Which makes John Mackey that much more naive when he is a “captain of industry” and refuses to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Which makes me very, very sad.

Who’s Ralph talking about?

“So extreme is the President’s corporatism that he is finding more genuine conservative groups taking sharp issue with his policies.  In a little reported evolution that may change the future complexion of American politics, organizations that call themselves conservative populists are teaming up with their progressive counterparts to oppose corporate bailouts.  Last year this coalition defeated the breeder reactor boondoggle- a high _________  priority.  In _____, it nearly defeated the legislation regarding the Alaska gas pipeline that would coerce consumers into paying for the pipeline even if the project isn’t completed and consumers did not receive any natural gas.  The synfuel industry’s welfare project is under similar pressure, though its predicted mismanagement and awful economics appear to be self-dismantling.  This new coalition put up a strong fight against the _______-ite bailout of the big U.S. banks that made such imprudent loans at skyhigh interest rates to foreign countries.  ________, who spent years lecturing around the country from General Electric on the virtues of sink or swim free enterprise, has become the most prominent advocate of big business bailouts in American history.

If this all goes against his philosophic grain, it demonstrates the contrary power of giant business over his government.  His formerly strong belief in states’ rights is surrendered when companies want his backing for a weaker federal law replacing the adaptable common law in the fifty states that gives people injured by dangerous products rights to sue and recover compensation from manufacturers.  It is surrendered when the banks demand that his agencies preempt stronger state regulations designed to protect depositors and borrowers.  It is surrendered again when the nuclear industry wants him to strip state and local governments of their police power over the transportation of radioactive materials through their communities.  Corporatizing the ex-conservative _________  __________ is a routine matter these days, even when Wall Street’s economic and tax policy demands result in placing Main Street, with its small businesses, at a comparative disadvantage.”

Ralph Nader  “On the corporate state and the corporatizing of America”