1. A Peculiar People.
Time and time again in the scriptures we are confronted with the fact that the pilgrim people of God are called to be a different sort of people. We are a people that are not of this world (Jn. 17:14, 16). Peter even refers to the people of God as aliens in a strange land, therefore, as aliens we ought to conduct ourselves in a very different manner (1Pe. 2:11; 2Pe. 1:4). In fact, Paul writes “that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom but according to God’s grace,” (2Cor. 1:12). Truly, Paul was an example of someone who lived in the world but was not of this world. His conduct in the world was holy and sincere and did not make much sense according to the wisdom of the world. How then is it that Paul ended up in prison under the watchful eye of the Romans (and later killed at their hands)? Perhaps he truly did live a life that was ‘set-apart.’
The Christian tradition which I grew up in (I would argue that the same thing applies for most of North American, especially evangelical, Christianity) tended to spiritualize holiness. What was holiness? Well to be holy was to do your devotions, pray, go to church, and to avoid any sort of “bad” behaviour (i.e. swearing, drinking, smoking, bad movies, secular music etc). The problem is that all of these things tend to relate to ones private spirituality. Generally, as a teen I was free to live life like your average North American teen provided I followed a couple of extra rules. This is precisely the problem. The church is all too often guilty of not actually living as aliens. Our material lives and desires are more often shaped by cultural values and norms than by scriptural ones. Our private spirituality often fails to inform and shape our public life together.
In this paper I would like to examine how Christians, as followers of Jesus, ought to inhabit and enact a wholly alternate way of life which is itself rooted in an alternate narrative of the world and its inhabitants. Paul writes to the believers in Ephesus that the mystery of God’s will in Christ has been made known to us and it is this, that he will “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ,” (Eph. 1:10). This is revealing for a few reasons. First, to suggest the idea here of God’s reign Paul uses the word oikonomia which is about ordering and managing ones household. There is a particular order to life as God intends it to be, namely, abundantly fruitful for all. Secondly, Paul says that “all things” will be brought together under Christ. Jesus Christ is Lord of all and this means that the ordering of his household extends to all of creation. To paraphrase Abraham Kuyper, “there is no sphere of life over which Christ Jesus does not cry ‘mine.’”1 The church then, is called to embody and be the first fruits of a plan of reconciliation which extends to all of creation for “the whole world is mine,” proclaims the Lord (Ex. 19:5; Ps. 50:12). Hopefully we can begin to see how this de-privatizes our faith and thrusts it into the public square via the vehicle that is our daily life together. The believer then is called to be an oikonomos, a steward within the household of God, who extends the reign of God by making the love and presence of Christ incarnate in the world.
1.1 An economic space marked by the body of Christ.
It is impossible to avoid talking about economics at this point since the very word ‘economy’ is derived from the Greek oikonomia. Given then that our faith has dramatic implications for our daily lives together perhaps this is no where more evident than in our attitude towards our money and our stuff. Consequently, perhaps our failure to embody our faith is no where more evident than in our attitude towards these things. However, for many North American Christians (myself included in this mess) there is a massive disconnect between our faith and how we practice our economics. All too often we look to Bay St. for wisdom and guidance in financial matters when we need look no further than the crucified, risen, exalted and returning Messiah. The way of Bay St. is not the same as the way of the cross and if the church is to be faithful to her calling to be a “city on a hill”, an embodied witness of the good news for all of creation, then we need to allow the cross, and not Bay St., to shape our economic life together.
As has been hinted at already I would argue that the church is a community that enters and embodies an alternate way of life, a more abundant way of life, in order that we may be a witness in the midst of a world that is watching. In fact, to be a witness entails an alternate way, for “witness constitutes communities of praise, eucharistic communities, groups opposed to imperial accounts of what it means to be human.”2 I would also argue that if the church is to “order our house” differently then, fundamentally, this means practicing an economic life together that finds its roots in the cross and resurrection rather than Bay St. Namely, it is in the celebration and remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection in the Eucharist that Christians are taught how to consume rightly, by being consumed into the Body in order that we may become food for others. This proves to be a difficult endeavor for many Christians, however, since the narrative of the Eucharist finds itself in the midst of a plethora of other narratives about the world and our stuff. Perhaps the most powerful of these competing narratives is that of consumerism. Consumerism is a narrative of our relation to production, producers and products that is counter to the Judeo-Christian narrative of creation. It becomes problematic then when as North American Christians we allow our consumptive habits to be shaped and formed more by consumerism than by Christian practices such as the Eucharist.
Faith is not merely a private endeavor, what we do with our money and our stuff matters and should be directly informed by our relation to God. Dutch political-economist Bob Goudzwaard does a fantastic job of demonstrating much of what is wrong within the over-developed world and tries to point us in a new direction, towards an economy that flourishes for all. In addition, William Cavanaugh has much insight to offer in terms of economics and desire and how the Eucharist serves to shape both of these. In short then, Christians can no longer take current economic realities as givens and then seek out what a “Christian” stance might look like. Rather, we must recognize that “Christians themselves are called to create concrete alternative practices that open up a different kind of economic space – the space marked by the body of Christ,”3 and that the church is called to foster such spaces in the world. In other words, the church is called to practice an economics of the Eucharist in which the narrative of consumerism is challenged and made a spectacle of on the cross. This will be nothing less than a challenge to the imperial economic and political practice of the Empire. Perhaps then we can begin to live the sort of holiness that imprisoned Paul.
1. A Peculiar People.