Thursday, September 8, 2016

Finding Christ in World Trade

In Hangzhou, China, Xi Jinping hosted the member nations of the G20, along with eight heads of state, on September 4-5, 2016. The purpose of the G20 is to provide a forum for twenty major economies to discuss trade and issues related to trade. The Hangzhou summit is the eleventh meeting and focuses on pollution in China, climate change, and several economic statements. To bring back the old acronym emblazoned on many bracelets, WWJD? Or, what would Jesus do?

To put it slightly differently, how would Jesus respond to world trade conferences? The New Testament does not give sufficient evidence of Jesus’ engagement with world affairs to warrant a thoughtful biblical response to some contemporary issues. In other words, the gospel milieu is directly not transferable. Jesus was concerned, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith once wrote, with God and humanity, not Christianity as an organized religion. Thus, applying Jesus’ principles directly to the G20 might be a stretch.

First, the G20, along with many such international trade meetings, does not focus on church matters. There are no gospel readings, nor do the members join in singing hymns or reciting prayers. In fact, host Xi Jinping reminded his fellow Chinese senior party officials at a conference in April to be “unyielding Marxist atheists.” The meeting is a secular affair, so the question becomes: does Christ have a role in secular affairs, like meetings about world trade? 

Rereading gospel texts, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’ because Jesus, as Smith noted, cares about God and humanity. The G20 considers trade matters. Trade affects humanity. Therefore, Jesus would care about trade matters. If logic allows one further step, the question becomes ‘how?’ What is Jesus’ concern with trade matters? 

One of the fundamental issues in G20 meetings is human rights. The U.S. accuses China (and others) of human rights violations. Russia and the U.S. break off talks because of mutual distrust. Laos has experienced the most per capita bombing in the history of the world, and President Obama takes a side trip to offer a commitment to future justice. The entire scene if fraught with human rights issues. And, if Jesus cares more about God and humanity than the institution of church, then surely Jesus cares about the human rights associated with trade. 

What are the issues? Fair wages. Decent working conditions. Health care. Potable water and sustainable food. Battling climate change on behalf of the disenfranchised, and not just on behalf of the wealthiest people. And, reasonable work hours, allowing space for family, recreation, and leisure. 

Taking each issue in turn, first, fair wages is a human issue, not some leftist, socialist agenda. A fair wage is, as defined by the Australian judge H. B. Higgins, “a wage sufficient to ensure the workman food, shelter, clothing, frugal comfort, provision for evil days etc. as regard for the skill of an artisan, if he is one.” A fair wage is something more than a minimum wage. It is the difference between surviving and living. Humans have survived in the most abysmal situations in the history of the world, from life rafts to Antarctic plateaus. However, the goal of life is not survival, but living. Trade meetings are about trade agreements leading to life.

Fighting for decent working conditions seem to be something out of a Dickens novel. Any discussion of decent working conditions should begin, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” However, for many people, working conditions are still horrid. They set up nets alongside the Apple factory in China to prevent people from committing suicide due to the horrible working conditions. Just as the Father Barry proclaimed in Along the Waterfront (1954, Dir. Elia Kazan), “Every morning when the hiring boss blows his whistle, Jesus stands alongside you in the shape-up… You want to know what's wrong with our waterfront? It's the love of a lousy buck. It's making the love of the lousy buck - the cushy job - more important than the love of man!” 

Health care, potable water, edible food, climate change, and reasonable work hours are the same. Jesus cares about people. Again and again, he wants people to have the care they need. He wants them to be able to eat and drink. The Bible is clear about God’s care for the world. And, reasonable work hours are part of having fulfillment in God’s world. To continue the movie metaphors, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” (The Shining, 1980, Dir. Stanley Kubrick). 

Jesus is present in the G20 meetings. God continues to speak in the world. Whether or not we listen is up to us.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Serving Others is Christ-like

Hebrews 13 presents readers with two problems. First, there’s the change in tone. It differs from chapters 1-12. Without chapter 13, Hebrews looks less and less like an epistle. But, we have chapter 13, so it is an epistle. Second, within the chapter, there is a minor literary problem, with an exposition before the final benediction and greetings. These latter parts come after our reading ends.[1]
The point in bringing up these two problems is to help make sense of these verses. It also highlights the limitations of our experience with God’s proclaimed word each week. We see a slice of a wider picture. Hebrews is all about Christ—he is greater than the prophets; he is greater than our ability to imagine him; he is the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus, we hold on to him. Hebrews does not catalog rules for existence, but leads us into mutual love.
Although our reading seems prepackaged for our consumption, we should not misinterpret the exhortations and admonitions as transferrable directly from its original context to today. What does, “Let mutual love continue,” mean today? (A) There must have been some “mutual love” already, in order for it to continue. (B) Can we define “mutual love”? We might think we can, but does our definition match God’s definition?
“Mutual love” is not unique to Hebrews. We find it throughout the New Testament (Romans 12:9-10, 1 Thessalonians 4:9, 1 Peter 1:22, and 2 Peter 1:7). In each case, we are called to love and care for God’s family. Here, our theology distinguishes from secular humanism because the call is for Christ-followers to love and seek the best for other Christ-followers.[2] “Mutual love” reflects the understanding that Christians live in relation to others.
Faith informs existence. In Hebrews, our expression of faith goes back to our view of Christ. If we see him as the true son of God and our savior, our lifestyles should reflect Christ. Our faith in Christ develops and articulates the way we live.
So, how do we live? “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…” In our day, we have heated debates about international strangers, and people of dubious motivation politicize what should be Christian compassion. People respond to unknowns with fear and by trying to take matters into their own hands. I was walking the other day and had a conversation with a man who said, “If someone attacks me, I’ll shoot him.” I asked if he had a gun with him; he said, “No. It’s at home in the safe.”
When did we become so frightened? When did we decide that God was no longer capable of protecting us? In Hebrews, our every breath is trust in Christ. It says, “Remember those who are in prison.” But, that’s not enough! “Remember those who are in prison as if you were in prison with them. Remember those who are being tortured, as though you were being tortured with them.”
The exhortations go on, including relational and financial integrity, not as a list of dos and don’ts, but as a method of following Christ, putting him first in our lives, and never forgetting that we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”—which is a direct quote of Psalm 118:6 and an allusion to Deuteronomy 31:6 and Joshua 1:5.
Faith in God is part of the entire story of scripture. Our human tendency is to try and codify faith. E.g. Here’s how you do it… Even one of the commentaries of this passage was frustratingly organized into key points, when the author is presenting an argument: Christ-followers are to serve in mutual love, with several exhortations as examples of what mutual love might look like. The list in this passage is, by no means, exhaustive.
In the gospels, Jesus repeatedly pointed to hospitality toward strangers as an essential characteristic of being a disciple. In these verses, we see service includes fidelity in our relationships and fidelity with our financial resources. It states plainly, “Keep your lives free from the love of money. Be content with what you have.” In the world of Hebrews, Fred Craddock writes, “both sex and money were avenues to and expression of power and position and, in many eyes, honor.”[3] However, not everyone struggles with relationship and financial integrity.
The answer in placing Christ at the center of our lives is not more rules, but the ability to apply the principles of following Christ to each and every situation. We are called to a life of service, but service requires improvisation. We react to the situation we encounter. Unlike the man I met who let fear rule his life, we are to have faith in Christ, trust God, and apply what we know every day.
In many ways, our faith is like improvisation in jazz. Herbie Hancock tells a story about an experience he had while playing with the Miles Davis Quintet in the 1963. He said,
This night was magical…We were communicating almost telepathically, playing 'So What.' Wayne [Shorter] had taken his solo. Miles was playing and building and building, and then I played the wrong chord. It was so, so wrong. In an instant, time stood still and I felt totally shattered. Miles took a breath. And then he played this phrase that made my chord right. It didn't seem possible. I still don't know how he did it. But Miles hadn't heard it as a wrong chord—he took it as an unexpected chord. He didn't judge what I played. To use a Buddhist turn of phrase, he turned poison into medicine.[4]
We can turn poison into medicine. Unexpected guests become lifelong friends. Keeping our integrity with money and relationships provide a testimony, a witness to the world around us. And, we can live in faith, saying with confidence, those immortal words of Psalm 118:6 (and Hebrews 13:6),
The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?

[1] Fred B. Craddock, "Hebrews," in New Interpreter's Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 161.
[2] At issue is distinguishing between ousia of the Holy Trinity and the hypostasis of each person. Tillich writes, “Hypostasis in this context means the power of standing upon itself, the independence of being which makes mutual love possible.” Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume 3: Life and the Spirit, History and the Kingdom of God  (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963), 289.
[3] Craddock, "Hebrews," 170.
[4] Stuart Isacoff, "The Genius of Miles," Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2014.