I felt like some in the congregation were stewing a bit as a delivered this one. So I am curious to find out if people find it fair or biased. There were a lot of parents with teens in church this morning, and I also am solicitous about whether they find the comments about athletics to be helpful or off the mark. I keep forgetting to remind and encourage people to comment via the blog!
Luke 13:1-9; Revl 18:2b ; 9-20
You perhaps saw that economics is our topic today. I’ve heard many sermons talking about wealth and the Bible; these sermons typically wrestle with whether repentance might mean “selling all that you have and giving to the poor,” as Jesus commended on some occasions. Perhaps you will be relieved to know that I’m not talking about that today. Recall that this series is thinking about sin beyond just a personal fault or condition and looking at sin within the structures of our world, what Paul last week called “rulers and authorities,” or in Ephesians, the “cosmic powers of this present darkness,” and the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Then we ask what it means during this season of Lent to repent of these sinful structures.
So we need to consider not our personal wealth, for those who are wealthy, but the economic structures in our world. The Bible has something to say about this, too; take for instance our reading from Revelation. The Book of Revelation is a series of overlapping and repetitive highly symbolic (and just weird) visions of God’s battle with and destruction of the demonic seat of evil on the earth, variously described as the woman and the dragon, the first beast and the second beast, and in our passage, the city of Babylon. Let’s put an end to the fanciful and frenetic speculation about Revelation by some of our Christian brothers and sisters: John, as the author of Revelation calls himself, despite all of this coded language, is clearly indicating ancient Rome to be the demonic power that God will judge. Much more so than the rest of the NT, John depicts the Rome of his day as the place where Satan rules. But notice in this passage—especially if you read it at length—that no individuals are being judged by God here, not even the emperor. It is the city itself, “Babylon,” as a structure of power, as a sinful way of ordering human life on a mass scale, personified in a perhaps sexist way as a whoring woman, that is being judged. As I argued last week, God is not going to abandon the idea of the city as a structure of power and organized way of life; two chapters later in Revelation, Jerusalem comes down from heaven and replaces Rome. But the city can go very wrong. Rome or Babylon is the anti-type of God’s kingdom, a structure of power that John sees as completely opposed to God. Many people colluded with Rome, and John here portrays how those how the kings, merchants, and sea-tradesmen who bound themselves to Rome’s way of life are now left desolate. But John isn’t interested in judging them for the personal sins. Indeed, he says a bit further down that “all nations were deceived by” the sorcery of Rome.
Now, I don’t think John’s judgments are entirely sound or helpful for us today. He seems to have thought that God would soon destroy Rome and with it, all evil on the earth; and while the empire eventually fell first to Christians and then barbarians, God didn’t destroy her as John predicted. But we today live under the dominion of an economy far more powerful and global than was Rome’s, though it is certainly very different. Most of us are all bound to this economy as were the lamenting merchants and sea-traders of Revelation 18. Could our glorious economy fit the figure of the demonic power structure that John evokes?
Harvey Cox and others have observed that our economy has taken on such an importance to us that is has become something like our national (and increasingly international) god. We treat the economy or “the market” as if it were some sentient being with a will and agency of its own. If we all appease the market, sometimes with sacrifices and budget cuts, it will reward us all with blessings. Supposedly, this faith in the market is something that can unite us across all our differences.
While it may well be our chief idol, our economy occupies a more morally ambivalent position than did Rome in John’s eyes. There is no question that our economy has succeeded mostly well on its own terms. There’s much we could celebrate there, although I don’t think our economy needs our endorsement. There are also many complicated concerns we could raise about our economy: how it shapes us, how fair it really is, how it seems to be very destructive for our environment. But I want to restrict myself to asking, where do the fundamental values of our economy conflict with the Christian view of life? And the key term I want to focus on is “competition.”
Competition is perhaps the key value to our economy. Businesses compete to offer good and services at the best value. Citizens compete for jobs, for admission to prestigious colleges, charter schools, and even in some cases, preschools. Often in our economy, other people and organizations are dehumanized as “the competition.” In all of this, I don’t think we realize how silently but deeply this competitive spirit shapes us. So much of our life is directed to “making a name for ourselves,” establishing credentials and an impressive resume. This competitive spirit has transformed the arts: in previous eras artists didn’t feel the need to sign their work. And it has certainly marked education. Like many, I found grad school competitive, and I mostly thrived in it. But during my first semester at Chicago where I studied for the Ph.D., the very first grade I received, on a midterm test for the great teacher Bernard McGinn, was a B-. You’re not supposed to get B minuses in grad school. My veneer of confidence was ripped off. Feeling crushed, I sat in my next class, a small seminar, and realized that what I normally did was listen to my fellow students and try to figure out what was wrong with what they were saying. I was trying to figure out their weakness and how I could best them if needed to. That’s very different from just hearing what someone has to say, as a human being worthy of love and respect. But it took an ego-shattering experience for me even to perceive that.
We don’t always compete so individually, as we often do in school, in the art world, and for jobs. Within organizations, we are realizing more and more the importance of working at teams and cooperating in order to achieve the goal. But even so these teams, at least in the private sector, always exist to compete: we have to work well together to beat “the competition.” The goal, for individuals or for teams, is always at least a little dehumanized: we must beat the competition, for someone has to win, and someone has to lose.
It’s no accident that our economic language has so much in common with our world of competitive sports: competition, teams, goals, ‘level playing fields,’ strategy. Most of our sports were invented at the same time that our modern economy came into being. Our sports seem designed to cultivate the kind of competitive spirit that our economy thrives on. Here’s the goal, here’s your team, there’s the opposition, now work together, give it 110%, and get out there and win! Neither sports nor our economy are particularly interested in encouraging people to question whether the goal we’ve been told to achieve is really worth it. Why is it so important for me to get this ball through that hoop more than those very similar people over there do? Why is it important that our brand of sugary cereal wearing a thin disguise of healthiness should triumph over that very similar brand made across town? Does all this fuss about winning and losing really rest on anything meaningful? Such questions will be seen as pointless, or worse, traitorous.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy competing. In the modern world, where we no longer (assuming we ever did) share a common framework of values, of honor and shame, we inevitably need competition and individual reward to get people off their couch. And I’d rather have people win prestigious positions by fair competition than by inheritance, or because someone is the right gender and race for the position. Meritocracy, to whatever extent we really have achieved it, has its merits.
But it is dangerous to forget that not all of life is a competition. Family is not, nor is friendship—or when they are, they are ruined. Artists might compete with one another, but enjoying art is not a competition. Audience members don’t compete to see who can most enjoy the play. There’s nothing competitive about the wonder of a walk in the woods, or of a starry sky.
And the awkward fact for us to confront is that especially the Christian life has nothing to do with competition. Jesus has nothing to say about winning, getting ahead of others, achieving your goals—nothing like that. If anything, his message is the opposite: the last will come first, and the first, last. Jesus’ message about loving others obviously does not pertain to competing. But even the broader principle of meritocracy is largely undermined by the New Testament. In many of his letters, Paul seems to be fighting directly against the idea of earning God’s approval by demonstrating our worthiness. “Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” Christianity above all celebrates the gifts of God, not our own achievements.
The other side of the gift of God is seen in today’s perplexing gospel reading. Apparently, Jesus ran into some locals who were saying, “Did you hear what happened to those guys who got massacred by Pilate (the Roman ruler in Jerusalem)?” They seemed to exude a sense of superiority, as if those killed had it coming to them. Jesus refutes the idea that people who die because of a savage governor, or even in a freak tower accident, deserved their fate. Merit has nothing to do with it. He turns it back on the folks with the superiority complex and tells them that all you are sinners, so you no less than they have it coming to you.
Meritocracy likes to divide people into the worthy and unworthy. But Christian teachings about both grace and sin lump us all together: we are all unworthy, and yet God has deemed us all worthy. This is why despite real differences in how we sin or are sinned against, our Lenten repentance can and should apply to us all.
Meritocracy and competition infringe on the universal Christian story of sin and grace. So if we are competing with each other in church, there’s something wrong. Well, Paul urges the Romans to “outdo one another in showing honor;” right after he tells them to “love one another with mutual affection.” But if you are competing with your pew mate, or if deacons are competing with deacons, or trustees with trustees, or deacons with trustees, this can only be sin at work—perhaps the pressures from our economy working their way inside the church.
So what does it mean to repent of these morally ambiguous forces of competition? No less so than for the structures of self-interest that we talked about last week, the structures of competition are hardly escapable. Competition runs deep within God’s created world, although the Bible pretends as if it is absent from the world until Cain began a murderous competition with Abel over whose sacrifice was better. There is always a mixture of competition and cooperation, but it seems that our culture’s balance has long been shifting toward competition. Still, were it possible to suddenly uproot our structures of competition, much chaos and suffering would follow.
Let’s be honest that we will continue to engage in competitive realms—and they are, to reiterate, realms, powers and principalities—and these realms will strive to deeply form us. But at least the church must be our sabbath from this strife, and both the self-aggrandizing and the dehumanizing making of others into instruments of my success or failure that go with it. We don’t compete with one another, nor do we necessarily just cooperate with one another like a “team.” And we are not competing with other churches; there is only one church. We—Christians everywhere—are called to love one another while submitting together to God’s transcendent goodness, with repentance.
Beyond the clear case of the church, we need to think individually and together about how this kingdom of love should interact with the kingdom of competition. There’s no reason we should just settle for our own judgment and opinion about this; we should think together about these issues and consult with other wise minds in the church. The issues are manifold and complicated. How far can one run a business according to Christian principles, or must it always be only profit and competition? How much do we want our children and ourselves formed by the competitive spirit in athletics? It seems to me that some competitive athletics can be healthy and vitalizing. But when it becomes an all-dominating obsession that our children cannot begin too early, one which absorbs much of our time and psychic energy as well as money, crowding out other very important pursuits such as the arts, scholarship, and our pursuit of the common good—has sports become one of the chief powers, rulers, principalities?
And perhaps touching us most deeply, how much has my spirit been formed by the competitive spirit, and drive to success? Do I see myself above all as a Christian who loves others and celebrates a common grace, or as one striving to achieve and conquer? And how are our children being formed into that competitive, success-driven lifestyle long before they have any capacity to choose otherwise?
These are questions that will benefit from our deep Lenten introspection, but also from the rebirth of the church that we start to celebrate with the Resurrection of Easter. We are up against not just a personal decision but powers and authorities, and we need to allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s power in order to become a real alternative to a competition-crazed world. That begins with gestures like our One Great Hour of Sharing, where through well-run charity work we begin to share our wealth with those most in need. But it goes far beyond that, to questions of how we create and sustain an alternative culture. If the cross of Jesus is able to overcome our self-centeredness and isolation—something I’ll talk about next Sunday—then after the Easter miracle we will be ready to work together so we might live into God’s holy kingdom.