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Volume 18, Issue 3: Liturgia

When the Stones Start Flying

Peter Leithart

"Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you." So we've got our commission, how do we do it? We huddle together in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes. Then we begin learning from the apostles, eat and drink at common meals, share our goods as we get ourselves organized for a world-wide mission. When we've got it all worked out, we send out thoroughly-trained, well-funded teams of missionaries, first to Judea, then Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. Soon the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

It sounds easy enough. It's clean. It's neat. We can be comfortable, and need make no sacrifices. It can be done with no muss or fuss, above all with no blood.
Ay, there's the rub. Not without blood.
How could we ever think otherwise? How do Christians get seduced into the belief that we can bring the good news of a crucified and risen Lord without mingling our blood with His? Do we come to think that superior organization, massive funding, and cross-cultural analysis will enable us to carry out a mission that escapes every demand for death? How can we be true witnesses (Gr. martyr) without martyrdom?
Ultimately, the answer is obvious: We get seduced as Peter got seduced, by Satanic assurances that the world can be saved through some other method than the death and resurrection of the Messiah, and the church's death and resurrection in and with Him. But that's not how things work: What brings down Babylon is not the blood of the Lamb; the Lamb destroys Babylon after the great city is filled to overflowing with the blood of saints.
The disciples have no sooner begun their ministry in Jerusalem when Stephen, a "reincarnation" of Jesus, preaches the Jews into a froth of murderous rage (Acts 6-7). Stephen lies dead under a heap of rocks, and the newborn church is scattered (Acts 8:1ff.), and some end up in Antioch (Acts 11), from which the Gentile mission begins. God extends His church by detonating a bomb that destroys the church in Jerusalem, and forces unfunded, unequipped, and comparatively untrained men and women out into the world as the first Christian missionaries.
This is not how we'd organize a world conquest, but God's wisdom always looks more than a little like foolishness.
Who does the persecuting? Not the Romans—not for a generation at least. The first persecutors of the church are Jews, the people of the old covenant enraged by the upstart church with her arrogant claim to be the firstfruits of a new covenant. That's always how things go: It's always conservatives who resist the Lord's work, who refuse to accept the way God has remodeled the universe. The Bible is littered with the corpses of conservatives: Korah, who wants to maintain the old system in which every man is a priest, or at least every tribe has a priest; the followers of Saul who can't reconcile themselves to a new dynastic family; Joab and Abiathar and Shimei who for various reasons resist Solomon's coronation; the Judaizers who want to keep a foot firmly planted in the old world while claiming membership in the new.
Conversely, the great heroes of the Bible are Spirit-inspired innovators: Abraham never worships at a tabernacle nor approaches the altar through a priest; that's an innovation from the time of Moses. Prior to David, there is no dynastic kingship in Israel. No prophet before Elijah anoints a Gentile king (cf. 1 Kings 19), and Jeremiah preaches the end of the age of kings, telling Judah to prepare for the age of Gentiles.
The first persecutors are not only conservatives, but more often "insiders" than "outsiders." Or, they are liminal, standing on the threshold that separates inside and out. The earliest Christians were mainly Jewish, and their persecutors were also mainly Jewish. Peter and John don't get into trouble with the Romans, but with the chief priests and scribes. Jews from the Synagogue of the Freedman stone Stephen, and the suicide bombers that pursue Paul are members of his own race. Jesus divided brother from brother, father from son, mother from daughter. Rivalry is first of all sibling rivalry, the first homicide a fratricide.
Conservative Jews are the persecutors in the background in the epistle of James.1 The "diaspora" James mentions at the beginning of the book (1:1) is not the Jewish diaspora that took place beginning with the Babylonian exile, but the "dispersion" of Christians—the new "twelve tribes"—following Stephen's death (cf. Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19). The rich who "oppress you and personally drag you into court" (James 2:6) also "blaspheme the fair name which has been called upon you" (2:7). Dressed in their rich priestly garments and confident in the gold and silver of the temple (5:2-3; cf. Rev. 18), they "condemned and put to death the Righteous One" who did not resist (5:6). They confess their Shema, that God is one, but because this confession is not enlivened by works of charity, their faith is the faith of demons (2:19, 26).
Rich first-century Jews save up their treasures in the "last days" (5:3), when the "coming of the Lord" is at hand, the Judge right at the door (5:7-9). Their gold and silver is "rusted," their garments moth-eaten (5:2-3). They are have been fattened for slaughter (5:5), and they will "weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you" (5:1).
Writing to a community pressured by persecution, James identifies a number of the temptations of the persecuted, and instructs Christians about the particular shape of faithfulness under stress. Some persecuted Christians are inclined to shrink back and find a safe place in the old world. If we're all going to end like Stephen, maybe we should negotiate a settlement with the Jews. Perhaps we can be Christians and still remain Jews. Fear makes conservatives of us all. Some show favor to the rich oppressors, hopeful they will be gentle (2:1-5). James denounces this kind of self-protective favoritism, urging his readers to attend to the poor in their midst rather than genuflect before the rich (2:1-9).
Still others will be inclined to militancy, eager to return fire for fire, and this is one of the main dangers that James addresses. When we're hit, wisdom dictates that we hit back, harder. Faced with Zealots, we're tempted to zealotry ourselves (3:14, 16). Jeff Meyers has suggested that the "murders and conflicts" in James 3-4 are not metaphorical but literal. Think about it: Jews were among the most irascible people of the ancient world, unwilling to endure insult without vengeance; no turning cheeks for ancient Jews. Suddenly, thousands of Jews have become Christians, and they are being persecuted. The obvious response for a Jew is to Be Like Judas and slaughter the apostate Jews at the altar (from the other side of the line, that's what Saul of Tarsus starts out doing). But this very traditional wisdom is not from Jesus who is in heaven but is infernal, demonic (3:15). Rather than responding in kind, James urges persecuted Christians to pursue the Solomon-like wisdom that comes from God to all who ask (1:5-6), a wisdom that is pure, peaceable, gentle, yielding, merciful, unwavering, transparent (3:17).
Still others are tempted to respond with verbal pyrotechnics, publishing angry denunciations for the internet and the editorial pages of the Jerusalem Gazette. It's fine to be slow to speak and slow to anger when things are going smoothly, but turn up the heat and invective seems a healthy release. Blessing another is easy when he blesses you, but blessing those who curse is another thing altogether. James insists that persecution does not excuse anger, for the anger of man does not bring in the righteousness of God (1:19-20). James repeats the command of Jesus to bless those who persecute (3:9-12).
Because of these different responses to persecution, divisions break out in the church. One party thinks the elders are being too easy, another that they are being too harsh. One faction thinks the church should hit back hard, another thinks the church has already made herself odious by hitting back at all. Add the constants of ambition and envy, and you've got the makings of a major church split (4:1-3). Divisiveness of this sort is adultery, the product of worldliness infiltrating the church (4:4). Worldly Christians are hostile to God, and have no assurance that their prayers will be heard (4:3-4). Faced with enemies breathing threats, the church is not to give in to whining or fear, but "count it all joy," eager for the purification the Lord will produce in the furnace of affliction (1:2).
Leaders of the church have a particular responsibility in the midst of persecution. Meyers argues that James is addressed primarily to the rulers of the "diaspora" church, and only secondarily to the members in general. James uses the word "brothers" in the way it's used in Revelation 22:9: "I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets." If that's the case, all the exhortations in James concerning the use of the tongue are directed first of all to church leaders, pastors and elders. Leaders of persecuted churches should be "quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger" (1:19). Their response is an example to their flocks.
Likewise, the "body" imagery of James 3:2-5 is the same as Paul's body imagery; it's the body of the church, which is also imagined here as a war-horse, a ship, and a forest. Like a horse, the body of the church, though made up of many members, is directed by one very small member—the tongue, specifically the tongue of the pastor, or the tongue that is the pastor. The pastor's tongue determines whether the horse will be guided effectively or allowed to go wild, whether the ship runs aground or reaches safety on the far side of the deluge, whether the church is engulfed in flames or escapes the burning city. Pastoral tongues can stoke up the fervor of zealots, defiling the whole body, and therefore pastors of persecuted churches must be especially diligent to teach by exhortation and example, as Jesus did, what it means to be slow to speak, what it means to bless and curse not.
Above all, a persecuted church is tempted to abandon true religion. Persecution becomes the church's focus, as energy shifts from ministry to persecutors. Persecution effectively becomes the religion of the church.
Defensive anger is not true religion; guerilla tactics are not true religion; returning to Egypt is not true religion. True religion involves bridling the tongue rather than letting it run loose (1:26). James tells us, "pure and undefiled religion" is "to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (1:27).
What is a persecuted church called to do? What every church does, only more so: take care of one another, particularly those whose lives have been upended by the persecutors. Sacrifice your Isaacs and show hospitality to strangers, as Abraham and Rahab did, and so fulfill the royal law. Fulfill your faith in good works. Bless. Do good to those who hate.
James gives us a ground-level view of the persecuted church, and she's a mess. Zealots over there, sniping at the cowards shrinking in the corner. Angry letters to the editor from one sector, while others sit by in embarrassed silence. The ranks of widows and orphans swelling, while the big tongues of the church chatter on about faith but don't lift a hand to help. Yet this is how Jesus extends His kingdom.
Did I mention foolishness?

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