Unusual Politics: With or Without the Church?

I recently met up with the Jesus Center director, Bill Such, for a cup of joe and to chat about some of my favorite subjects. This is the second coffee conversation he and I have had since we were connected via our mutual friend Ryann earlier this year. After only a few conversations, I must confess, I like Bill very much–in no small part because of his ability to inspire some holy un-rest among Chico, California’s sedated middle-class.

At the tail-end of our conversation (which took place on election day, no less), I asked him why we (the established churches in Chico) don’t support more, both financially and with our lives, the kinds of programs he has started and will continue to bring to fruition. I mean, how can we spend so much energy and time and money on elections, for example, and then have nothing left to give when it comes to poverty and homelessness in Chico? He rightly told me that individual Christians actually do form a large base of the donations they receive, but that business folks and secular organizations/individuals also pick up a significant share. (Aside: one of the youth I used to work with really loved going to serve with me at the Jesus Center. He saved up his money for weeks and then gave more than what was required for him to participate. The fact that he was not a Christian (at all!) did not matter much for his motivation. His reasoning was much more concrete than that: after having been homeless, he wanted to give back to the community!) Perhaps the “secular” community actually keeps alive the work they do at the Jesus Center more than we think.

Bill made the point that the Jesus Center isn’t simply a place for folks who are hungry to eat food, but also a place where the community is engaged and, ultimately, is imagined differently. Rather than offering a specialized definition of what it is they do, Bill has attempted to assert a more holistic and radically-shaped mission: hospitality in the name of Jesus. The whole of the community, to make it plain, is involved in that, not simply the homeless. As Shane Claiborne has said, the way of Jesus offers liberation from the ghettos of wealth as well as the ghettos of poverty. It takes place through friendship and community, and, most obviously, through service to one another.

One of the most exciting new ideas Bill mentioned during our conversation had to do with employment and housing partnerships among community members. He dreamed that one day the folks who need a hand (but don’t have all the necessary paperwork or history or addresses) will be able to get connected with local apartment owners and employers/apprenticeships (all vouched for and subsidized through Jesus Center staff). I was literally stunned when he said that. For starters, what a completely revolutionary and subversive idea. How unlike the ordinary political and, dare I say, governmental approaches. I know there are similar programs available for, at the very least, our area’s youth (funded through our county governments) and those folks do a great job. An awesome job! But in order for that to happen, an enormous amount of red tape and rigmarole must take place. With Bill’s plan the local community funds the endeavor and, even better, gets to participate.

Sadly, however, it did occur to me that, given the fiscal budget of each Christian community in Chico, we could have easily funded this project already. This is the Big Elephant shitting on the carpet, my friends. I found myself asking, Why hasn’t this happened yet? Why haven’t we even thought of supporting this kind of economy (versus our blind allegiance to the consumer economy)? I think it has to do with imagination. Right now, our imaginations are captivated by youtube, NBC, and national voting. Never before in history has there been a culture so defined by mass media and the cult of imperial consumerism. If we weren’t given the options (on our voting day’s ballot) we apparently wouldn’t know how to embody the peculiar politics of Jesus. Kind of sad, don’t you think?

The more I think about it, Bill’s approach represents a completely different way to do church. Moreover, like I imply above, it’s a different way to go about politics. It is a body politic so to speak and it centers itself on the enemy-loving, self-sacrificing way of Jesus. This won’t go over well with folks who want America–”the Christian nation”–to be great. But the world and every kind of household within it seems to be urgently waiting for a response from Christians who seek the Gospel of the Kingdom–the true gospel of “hope,” “change,” “reform,” and “security”!

Like was already said, as a nation, we just got through spending an obscene amount of time, money, and energy both loving and hating national politics and its politicians. Frankly, it’s disgusting how little of those efforts will find their way into our local communities, not to mention into our debts or toward loving our enemies. And how shameful is it that our distinctive Christian imagination has lost its radical nature in the allure of totalizing politics, economics, and faith? I suspect the only way to get back our captivated imaginations is to re-member the peculiar Way of Jesus as local members in communities and places of faith. Perhaps then we won’t look for a savior on Capital Hill, but instead will look, with the folks at the Jesus Center, to the least among us. Perhaps, instead of wanting to elect a candidate, we’ll have an encounter with the difficult-to-elect God of grace, becoming rooted and secured and at home with our Commander-In-Chief and His peaceful Way.

Update: This post was republished over at Jesus Manifesto.