Electing to Follow Jesus: How to Be a Loser
Disillusioned and losing sleep over the election? Randy Harris has some thoughts that may help you sleep, but also wake up. This post is part 3 in a series that will help us stay sane leading up to and following the election. Stay tuned for more posts each week, and find the rest of the series here.
This series is about postures Christians ought to take during an election year, or any year.
Last week I wrote about the Gospel of Peter vs. the Gospel of Jesus. Today I’m focusing on an intentionally provocative word: loser.
I once taught an ethics class that turned into a brawl because it was populated with debate students who thought the goal was bloodsport against those holding opposing views! Losing an argument wasn’t an option for them.
I’m not suggesting that we lose arguments or argue badly. I’m after what Hans-Georg Gadamer, in Truth and Method, calls a third thing we get when two parties don’t press their point as much as they seek a third thing: the truth. I want to take this approach to truth, so that those to right and left of the political spectrum can find a new third thing. So I’ll begin with Heb 13:11-14:
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the most holy place as sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. Jesus also suffered outside the city gate, to make the people holy by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore, for here we do not have an enduring city but we are looking for the city that is to come.
It sounds like the Hebrew writer is calling Christians to follow Jesus outside the camp, and there's something about this that brings with it disgrace. This group of people are losers because they do not have security. One theory is that Hebrews is written to Jewish Christians who are thinking about relapsing into Judaism.
If we follow this theory, the writer seems to say, “You can’t go back to the security of Judaism. Instead, you have to go to this other place, this very insecure place, this place outside the camp, bearing the disgrace Jesus bore. It is one of the signs that we are basically without security.
One of the prevailing sins of American churches is that we claim God can give security in this life, though we have no right to offer such security. Our call is instead to follow Jesus outside of the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. How secure does that sound to you? Our children also die. Our houses get blown down by tornadoes. We lose our jobs too. You won't find that kind of security in this life, but some churches still teach as if we can find it here.
A second text I want to draw from is 1 Cor 1:26-31.
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were influential, not many were noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world, and the despised things, and the things that are not to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus who has become for us wisdom from God that is our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.
The Apostle Paul wasn’t just giving a nice devotional thought about humility. Paul speaks of a Christian leader named Apollos. I can’t prove this, but I think Apollos was a better preacher than Paul. He was better in philosophy and rhetoric, better at what we might call wisdom. Something about his talent may have had an unintended consequence of creating followers for Apollos who lost confidence in Paul. But not everybody did, and so now there's a Paul party and an Apollos party.
If this explanation is right, it would explain a lot about what happened in Corinth, and it would explain a lot about what happens in churches and organizations today! Here’s a warning to those who preach: eloquence, rhetoric, and being extraordinarily good with philosophy and speaking carries its own peril. Some are more committed to these glittering skills than to the gospel of Christ, his death, burial, and resurrection.
So here are new Christians with a Roman and pagan worldview, trying to figure out this new code of Christian ethics, namely the ethic of losing which Paul promotes in 1 Cor 1:26-31.
Paul describes success as losing. He’s calling the ones who do not measure up to the cultural standards of success. God is calling the losers, not the smart, talented, elite. So today God calls the losers, not the smart, talented, elite.
Christianity is most at home on the margins, not in the center of the culture. We basically participate in the losing side, because we follow a crucified Messiah. Who constitutes the losers may vary from culture to culture, but when Christianity is behaving as it ought to, it consistently finds itself on the losing side. Even when our side starts winning we switch to the losing side, so we're always with the losers.
I want you to imagine a situation in which in 21st century American Christianity recovers total cultural dominance where the elite, culture-forming people are almost entirely Christian. All Hollywood movies are now as wholesome as Karate Kid. The Christian elite are vigilant to remove unwholesome words and ideas, replacing them with ideas that reflect a Christian morality. You may have just lost some of your favorite movies!
Now imagine that the cultural elite in government become resolutely Christian and, in a highly successful way, manage to marginalize or eliminate all those who do not share their Christian values. Would that be a good thing?
It is not the Christian obligation to dominate government or culture. Dominance historically has led to persecution. The worst outcome for Christianity is not to become a persecuted people, it's to become persecutors. That's the worst outcome because it puts us on the side of empire rather than crucified Messiah. The Roman emperor Constantine’s move to make Christianity a state religion put Christianity on the side of the winners. Who then would call into question the pretensions and injustices of this new dominant force of Roman Christianity?
It’s times like these that Christians intentionally take the position of losers, because we don't have a lasting city here. No, we are looking for the city that is to come. That's why we are always interested in calling out injustice, in addressing poverty, and in those fearful places where we try to find security, because the primary way we find security is by asserting power, and that is not the way of the crucified Lord. We go to him outside the city gates, bearing the disgrace he bore.
One of my great “frenemies,” my adversary and favorite philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, would say I am occupying this position of losing precisely because I'm one of the losers. He would say something like, “You Christians are mostly losers, so you create a whole theology of spiteful loserism. What you try to do is get control of the great and mighty by making them guilty of everything and proclaiming the gospel of the losers, and by doing that you pull the whole society down.”
That's the gospel according to Nietzsche. In his gospel, the powerful do what they will and the weak suffer what they must, and that is the way of the world, and the sooner we get back to that the better off we'll all be. In fact, he says the powerful will take over, the weak will be done away with, and then even more powerful people will arise out of that, followed by even more powerful people, and then we'll actually finally get to something that hardly looks human at all. It's this new thing which he calls Ubermensch, which is unfortunately translated in English as "the super man." This has nothing to do with capes!
As a Christian, I am trying to prevent Nietzsche’s vision, in the name of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is always one to line up on the side of the abused, the poor, the oppressed, the discriminated against, and the beaten-up on, because that's the group he's a member of. That's what it means to follow a crucified Messiah.
Our biggest task in an election year is to be a faithful witness to this gospel which is represented by none of the major political parties. You can pick a party, but they preach the gospel of fear and power. We’re following this crucified Messiah, bearing witness that his gospel is not about cultural terms of success or money or the way that you get security. It's about following Jesus outside the city gates, bearing the disgrace he bore.
It's like we are on the city gates protecting the city, or having those who run for office telling us that they'll protect us, when we shouldn't have been on the city walls in the first place. We shouldn't even have been in the city. It's not even our city. Perhaps the most pressing question for us is not, “Would you be willing to die for the gospel,” but, “Would you be willing to not kill for it?” Would you be willing to not kill for your security?
Where we should have been is outside the city gates, bearing the disgrace he bore. The point here is not to conquer and kill for the city; the point is to bear faithful witness that we're looking for the city that is to come.
So that’s the gospel of the losers. It verges on the impossible, to occupy this losing place. When we follow Jesus to the cross, we find a crucified Messiah there. He is the Great Loser for our sakes. Let us go to him outside the camp of our culture of winning, success, and triumphalism. Christ becomes King not by power but by relentless, self-giving love. That's our story, and that’s how to be a loser.
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