catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 3 :: 2009.01.30 — 2009.02.13


Something that won’t compute

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.

Wendell Berry
from “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

My husband Rob and I just finished teaching a course for first-year college students called “Pop Culture in the Empire.”  Our modest goal was to begin to expose the lies of global consumerism within and through the lens of film, music, food, fashion, advertising and other aspects of the popular experience in the U.S. and Canada today.

It was a big topic.  With big problems.  How do you lovingly encourage nineteen-year-olds to see something that they’ve been enculturated to ignore?  And once you’ve convinced them of the pervasiveness of advertising, the detriments of high fructose corn syrup and the idolatry of unswerving patriotism, how do you help them see their seeing as integrally related to their Christian faith and empower them to embody their knowledge in practice?  We did our best and, by the grace of God, some of them may have gotten it in a way that will make a difference beyond what was required to get the grade.

One of the themes that kept popping up throughout the class was that of the upside down Kingdom.   We began the course reading with a chapter from the Mennonite classic, appropriately titled The Upside Down Kingdom.  Donald Kraybill writes,

The gospels suggest that the kingdom of God is inverted or upside down when compared with the conventionally accepted values, norms, and relationships of ancient Palestinian society and of modern culture today….  Kingdom ways of living do not mesh smoothly with dominant society.  In fact they may sometimes appear foolish.

I read Kraybill and I’m right on board.  Makes sense right?  Of course Jesus shows us the righteousness of rebellion, following that path to the extreme of death.  And yet I find myself, along with our students, quite comfortable living in dominant society.  Even though Rob and I attempt to live out certain Kingdom-oriented commitments in our daily lives, I still fear that we are shape shifters who can move in and out of social situations according to necessity.  I compare myself to people like Shane Claiborne or more historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day and feel like I’m not doing enough.  There’s no blending in for these kinds of folks.

And yet, subversion takes on many forms, a fact which we tried to impress upon our students.  A few weeks ago, a friend told me the story of her journey from attempted activism to contemplation.  More than twenty years after abandoning a chaotic, ineffective march in Washington D.C., she’s claimed an identity as a contemplative, or someone who is called to change culture through prayer.

I have to admit that until recently, changing culture through prayer seemed like an easy out to me.  Too often, I’ve seen prayer used as prop for disembodied faith, an excuse not to change anything in one’s life.  But I’ve been coming to understand more deeply that prayer itself is not the problem.  For some personalities like my type A oldest inner child, confessing limitations and doing less is the most subversive practice imaginable.

Our primary text for the class, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, explores the nature of the upside down Kingdom in the context of the empire of global consumerism.  One concept that sticks with me is that of downward mobility.  Referencing the Mad Farmer himself, they write: 

The proper place for an educated person in our society is “up.”  Wendell Berry has some comments on this metaphor.  Observing that “education is the way up” and that the popular aim of education is to put everyone “on top,” Berry wryly notes, “Well, I think that I hardly need to document the consequent pushing and tramping and kicking in the face” involved in getting to the top and staying there.  He muses that perhaps “up” is “the wrong direction.”  We would add that “up” is the wrong metaphor and misshapes the imagination of our young.  Rather than instilling in them a desire to get to the top, to move up, we want to encourage our children to develop a sense of calling and service, including an awareness that this may require a process of downward mobility, a decision not to strive for the top but to care for those who are on the bottom.

Certainly some of us are called to extraordinary work in high places, but most of us are called to reject the frantic grasping for the next rung of the social ladder-and even the appearance of doing so-in order to practice ordinary, all of life faithfulness as we raise kind children, learn to love our next door neighbors and even pray that God will heal the wounds that are far beyond our power to address.  We’re probably even called to live below our means in neighborhoods many would not choose if they had other options, and to sacrifice our own false sense of security by doing things that may seem dangerous and foolish, like riding our bikes on busy city streets.

One of our students wrote in his critique of Sports Illustrated,

…People consume these magazines and dream of being as successful, beautiful, rich, or famous as the people in it. Thankfully there is hope. The Kingdom accepts all people; in fact the people that the empire may see as lesser the Kingdom sees as greater…. So next time the empire tells you that you are a second class citizen just remember that makes you a first class citizen of the Kingdom; and that is what really matters.

What really matters?  We claim to know, and yet there’s so often a disconnect between our heads and our hands.  Open hands that ought to sting with the collective pain of being pierced on a cross are closed in fists of aggression and gestures of taking. 

I don’t know what the secret is to flipping the mental switch from an imperial way of being to a Kingdom way of being.  The best I can figure is that it’s some combination of longing, confrontation, humility, experience and example. And perhaps, after we’ve been convinced that perfection on either end of the spectrum is not attainable no matter how hard we try, the spirit of downward mobility asks us to try softer.  For the coming of God’s Kingdom is bad news for those whose imperial houses of cards are built on the backs of others; those very slaves will be whisked out of an illegitimate foundation to places of exaltation.  And it’s good news for those who have rejected their prodigal striving to come home and rest in the father’s grace.

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