The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
a fast day that I, God, would like?
So fundamentalism is no different than any other ‘-ism’ really. It’s just more. And in the moralism game, the one who dies with the most rules wins! There are no people on the planet more disciplined than those in fundamentalism. It’s like the Marines of religions — stunning but dated uniforms, terrific defense and offense, and the cultivated knee-jerk response to comply without hesitation.
In fundamentalism you’ve got the haves and the have-nots — with the currency being not property, of course, but rules. As with any system, this bifurcation morphs into a spectrum. There are two poles–rules vs. no rules or law vs. license–and everybody actually lives somewhere in the middle. So conversations about a particular rule develop like this: “Pants on women are WRONG! Haven’t you read your Bible?” “Well, I actually like wearing skirts. It makes me feel more feminine.” “Well, I wear modest pants and never shorts.” “Huh? Pants are wrong? Says who?” Bring up any lifestyle rule among fundamentalists, and a similar spectrum will develop from the it’s-clearly-biblical position to the rules?-what-rules? position.
The stock resolution in these conflicts is always the same: balance. It’s not that you should not have any rules or that you should have too many. Instead you need to find that delicate, subjective balance between neo- and anti-nomianism.
The problem with the metaphor of balance is that it completely ignores the real problem. The problem is with the human scale that’s doing the weighing. It isn’t just. It isn’t sufficient. It’s flawed. We all have our fingers on the scale making sure that our side comes out ahead. “Well,” we think, “I don’t have as many rules as so-n-so. But at least I have more rules than they do! And I have a good reason for my rules!” And for those who wield more cultural power than another, judging and punishing those in our care is easier if we don’t communicate our standard of “balance” too explicitly. That way, those whom we serve can maintain themselves in fear a la Foucault.
On the same day that my oldest and I played War and “Little People,” I discovered another little gem from my childhood–If Jesus Came to My House. He was captivated by the little sing-songy text, and so was Mommy by the end:
I know the little Jesus
can never call on me
in the way that I’ve imagined
like coming in to tea.
But though He may not occupy
my cozy rocking chair,
a lot of other people
would be happy sitting there.
And I can make Him welcome
as He Himself has said,
by doing all I would for Him
for other folk instead.
That’s it. That’s the Rule. God’s Rule. Not keeping a clean house per se or finishing a knitting project. And it’s the Extreme Golden Rule. It’s showing kindness to others because you are showing kindness to Christ when you do so. Since Luther would say, God is masked in our neighbors.
And it’s not a reserved, throw-a-couple-of-bucks-in-the-offering-plate kind of giving. It’s not as simple or as reactive as not chewing gum in church or wearing a skirt to class. It’s way, way more than that. It’s a feast. It’s anything but balanced! Lavish, a little too-too. Like buying the best perfume and washing Another’s feet with your hair. Or serving cailles en sarcophages to elderly rustics.
Martin Luther calls this serving our “vocation.” We all have vocations, and their purpose is not serving God as much as serving others. “God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does” Gustaf Wingren concludes. Gene Veith says it like this:
The person who has been justified by faith, who realizes the forgiveness of Christ and who is thereby changed by the Holy Spirit, is motivated by love, not by the rules and regulations and threats of the Law. The good works which follow, however, are not done, as is often piously said, “for God,” but for other people. Strictly speaking, we do not “serve God”–rather, He is always the one serving us; instead we serve our neighbors.
I always have to read that several times. Go ahead–read Veith’s article a few times too just to see how different it is from your fundamentalist background. Fundamentalism taught me to do everything for God. And if I wasn’t doing everything and I wasn’t doing everything for God, then I was guilty of sin and God didn’t want any part of it. That leads to an independent (cum solipsistic) kind of living as the most holy. Luther wouldn’t recognize this as Christian piety at all:
If you find yourself in a work by which you accomplish something good for God, or the holy, or yourself, but not for your neighbor alone, then you should know that that work is not a good work. For each one ought to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die in love and service for another, even for one’s enemies, a husband for his wife and children, a wife for her husband, children for their parents, servants for their masters, masters for their servants, rulers for their subjects and subjects for their rulers, so that one’s hand, mouth, eye, foot, heart and desire is for others; these are Christian works, good in nature.
Babette lived that. She served generously–so extravagantly that the pious she served didn’t even recognize her feast as a gift from God. They assumed it was nothing but carnality–sin. And it took a doubting General–a man not at all versed in their peculiar living–to point out the beauty they were missing.
Then there’s Tim Keller’s sermon on breaking the yoke of injustice. I’ve listened to that sermon three times now, and what Keller describes is the exact opposite of the fundamentalist ethic. Honestly, it’s one of the best antidotes to my own life as a Pharisee. I haven’t even digested it all. He talks about Shalom which is not just complying with authority, but a well-running, interdependent, healthy web of life that mirrors Luther on vocation. He describes the wicked not as simply sexual deviants, but as those who use their resources selfishly for only themselves (think Judas!) rather than for others (think Mary Magdalene!). Just hearing the introductory Scripture reading from Isaiah 58 alone has me scraping my jaw off the floor.
Babette demonstrates Keller’s ideal as well as Luther’s. Even when the far-from-peaceful pious are determined not to enjoy her gift, they can’t help themselves! That’s how well Babette serves. Her gracious dinner breaks down their walls. By the fruit course, they start to relish their meal, and over coffee they begin to forgive.
God calls us to a generous kindness. Doing good, loving mercy, and walking humbly. Shalom. As I face the very sentimentally heavy month of July, I’m praying that my part in this righteous Shalom will become obvious. May the chains of injustice be finally broken.
This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’