This infographic has been making its way around Facebook lately. Honestly, I have no idea if even one of these stats is correct. The numbers didn’t catch my attention; instead, it was some accompanying thoughts from my friend Jarell. Why? He didn’t simply lash out against it (“We deserve these tax breaks!”) or agree with it (“Useless leaching churches!”). Jarrell included a little bit of what Walter Brueggemann calls “prophetic imagination.” Jarell’s post wondered what could happen if churches set aside the money we save in tax exemptions, using it for relief of hunger and homelessness.
In that moment I saw a fleeting glimpse of this reckless love in action, and it was breathtaking. Believers, on a national scale, humbly choosing unconditional love and connection over expectation, privilege, comfort, or safety. An increasingly diverse culture seeing God, without fear, on the move among them.
But that wasn’t the first time I’d caught such a glimpse. Emperor Julian, the last avowed non-Christian Roman emperor provides us with one through a letter he wrote to Arsacius, a regional high priest. “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.” Julian goes on to instruct the high priest to teach the faithful that they should engage in public service. Elsewhere he relates that the Roman government will be providing food to be distributed by the temples in order to show that those of his faith care about society.
Just dwell on that. The early church was so involved in caring for society that one of the most powerful people in the world felt that it shamed his religion. He therefore planned to start a proto-welfare program in order to improve public relations, hoping to beat us at our own game. Our spiritual ancestors instigated all this in a wildly diverse and divergent culture, not unlike what we in the West are experiencing today.
So why did Jarell’s musing grab my attention when so many churches already do such a beautiful job of embodying Jesus’ calls to serve? There is always more that could be done, but maybe I’m not hoping for a strictly monetary change as much as I’m hoping for a theological and ideological change. I hope for a church that gives up the fears and limits that keep us from prophetically imagining and realizing the coming Kingdom. If we do that, any needed monetary changes will follow.
Today is the beginning of Lent, a time of somber reflection and fasting leading up to Easter. The name for this season originally simply meant “spring.” For even longer than “lent” has been used to describe the forty days before Easter, Christianity has enjoyed a privileged seat at the table of Western culture. This comes with all manner of trappings, including but not limited to political office, influence over the arts, and tax exemptions. Whenever that perch is threatened, there is a great roar from large swathes of the church, arguing that our privilege allows us to do more for the Kingdom. Maybe, in order to free us to imagine and cultivate more first fruits of the coming Kingdom, it is time to give up for Lent any expectations of privilege. Not just for the forty days of Lent, but give them up for and toward lent, spring, as part of the coming spring of God’s Kingdom. When we give up our cultural power, we will look more like the Christ who gave up His glory in order to serve us. And if His example tells us anything, the end result will confound the Julians of our day. May we be a church so enamored of building the Kingdom that we make the powers and social safety net programs of this world jealous of our service and love to all.