Totalism: Part Three

In Tenacious Solidarity: Biblical Provocations on Race, Religion, Climate, and the Economy, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann offers this definition of totalism:

By “totalism” I mean a system of signs and symbols that make a claim of validity that is all-encompassing, that will allow no challenge or competition, and that will not countenance an act of imagination outside the control of that system of signs and symbols. Such a totalism characteristically has a monopoly on technology and control of the media, so that it sets limits on what can be imagined. It claims to contain all imaginable possibilities and rules all others out of court. Such a totalism, moreover, exercises an invisible authority, so that it is not recognized or acknowledged by those who adhere to it, and in any such case including our own, we are all to some extent subscribers to that totalism that commandeers our imagination and that is inimical to the “image of God” and its practices of holiness, forgiveness, love, peace, and thanks. (pp.210-211)

Walter Brueggemann also sees totalism showing in the church “in a passion to maintain a prosperous practice of faith that is in cahoots with the dominant system. When the church acts in an accommodating way, it remains focused on privatized individuals and echoes the practices of consumerism that are devoid of any critical perspective on the totalism or even any awareness of the acknowledgment of its existence or force. A gospel of happiness requires that the realities of our common life should remain concealed in a strategy of denial and obfuscation.” (p. 212 in Tenacious Solidarity)

Many years ago, I expressed a concern in a Sunday school class that churches seemed oblivious to the tragedy and shame of world hunger. Thousands of children were dying every day and many more thousands suffered from malnutrition. The wife of the president of the college where I was a professor responded to my concern with these words: “We do not come to church to hear such things. We come to church to be happy.” Those words are etched vividly in my memory because that was the day Susan and I ceased being members of a Baptist church and began our journey down a radically different path. The woman’s words confirmed something I had known for years, but for some reason, her comment was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” It was then that I realized that I was not an Evangelical and that I was weary of trying to make a difference in a denomination which was hell-bent on remaining committed to a very truncated gospel which had no place for justice and compassion. (I am aware that some Southern Baptists have become more sensitive to issues of justice and compassion and have grown beyond fundamentalism. However, most of these are still Evangelicals. I am not.)

But the problem I saw went deeper than the misguided devotion of so many in that church to a theology based on what they understood to be an infallible and inerrant Bible and a wretched doctrine of atonement. By focusing on these “fundamentals of the faith,” church members were able to ignore, discount, and devalue more important aspects of the Christian faith—things like the teachings and example of Jesus, justice, peace, compassion, inclusion, grace, and truly unconditional and indiscriminate love. If one was “once saved, always saved” and that salvation was based on a monosyllabic response to a question asked during the hymn of invitation when people were given their chance to escape the fires of hell and go to heaven (I’m being a little sarcastic here), then any other consideration is secondary at best. With such a mindset, one’s personal salvation is always more important than children dying of hunger, people of color suffering from oppression and discrimination, and the earth being exploited at an intolerable rate. 

When one speaks truth to power or unmasks injustice or reaches out in compassion to the oppressed and dispossessed, that person will eventually experience persecution, rejection, discrimination, and sometimes perhaps martyrdom.

This limited understanding of the gospel also allows for church members to become a part of the individualistic, materialistic, and ruthless form of capitalism that dominates our society. In fact, any financial success or any promotion at work is often seen as God’s blessings on those who are faithful to a convenient form of faith which demands practically nothing of consequence in this world. Such a faith revives an old and false assumption that those who are obedient to God will enjoy wealth, health, popularity, and a long life. Taken out of context, there are some passages in the Bible which seem to communicate such a message. But the overall biblical perspective is that those who are devoted to God, truth, justice, and compassion will pay a heavy price in this world for such commitment. “Take up your cross daily and follow me” assumes that those who are serious about their discipleship will suffer. Their suffering is the price they pay as they seek God’s will in a world that is hostile to that will. When one speaks truth to power or unmasks injustice or reaches out in compassion to the oppressed and dispossessed, that person will eventually experience persecution, rejection, discrimination, and sometimes perhaps martyrdom. That’s why those who are persecuted for doing what is right and contrary to the ways of a greedy, arrogant, and violent world are included in Jesus’ Beatitudes (Matthew 5:10-12). In Jesus’ mind, those committed to the ways of God are more likely to experience rejection and pain than financial success and praise. It’s too bad Jesus never heard of the cheap grace and easy discipleship promoted within so many churches. His life would have been so much easier. Thank God, he chose his own path of faithfulness. 

The most obvious example today of totalism with its economic focus showing up in the church is the idolatrous and blasphemous Prosperity Gospel. I won’t waste time critiquing such a travesty. I despair of any Christian who cannot see the selfish and hedonistic motivations behind such an approach to the faith. How can anyone who claims to follow Jesus who said, “Those who would save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake and the gospel’s will find them” embrace a Prosperity Gospel?

My concern is with the rest of us who perceive the obvious error in the Prosperity Gospel but cannot see how we too can be seduced into the totalism of our society which has such a strong economic focus. Let me mention just a few areas where we mainline Christians may want to reassess our own discipleship and complicity in a greedy and individualistic culture:

  1. According to Genesis 1-2 the primary vocation of every man and woman on this planet is to serve and care for the earth. Regardless of our job (the way we make money), our vocation/calling is to care for the earth and to seek the welfare of our neighbors. How aware are we of our God-given vocation in our obsession to “make a living”?
  2. What kind of examples are we setting for our children and youth when the major focus of our lives is on making money, accumulating stuff, and evaluating ourselves and others in terms of “success” in business? Are we even aware that Jesus had more to say about money and greed than any other topic except the Kingdom of God? (And I would argue that much of his understanding of the Kingdom of God had an economic focus as he tried to establish communities which lived by the Kingdom values of sharing, justice, and compassion.) 
  3. How do we evaluate the “success” of our lives in this competitive and dog-eat-dog world? John Wesley is increasingly becoming one of my favorite saints in the history of the church. He said, “If I die and leave behind me ten pounds, you and all mankind will bear witness against me that I lived and died a thief.” He was so sensitive to the suffering and injustices around him that he practically gave all he had to make this world a better place. Why do we consistently admire people in our churches who are successful in their businesses but do almost nothing to make this world a better and more compassionate place? 
  4. What would happen if we “followed the money” as we critiqued and reevaluated our church financial budgets? For example, nothing is said in the New Testament about church buildings. I’m not opposed to churches having sanctuaries although I believe that the future of the church, provided it rediscovers its mission, may not need the kind of physical structures we so prize today. Could we find other ways of being “the Body of Christ” which are not as dependent on costly buildings? Or could we find ways to use those buildings to serve the community and especially those who are oppressed and discounted in our society? (I am often asked if I believe the church will survive in the future. My reply is, “I doubt if it will survive. But I firmly believe the Body of Christ will survive.” The church as an institution is not always synonymous with the Body of Christ. We must devote ourselves to new ways of being the Body of Christ and spend less time and resources on being the church in the convenient ways we have come to define it.) 
  5. How can we ever seek justice in this world without critiquing an economy based on greed, wealth inequality, exploitation, and unconscionable growth in a world facing environmental disaster and at the same time, live an alternative to that ruthless economic system? Do we even recognize the difference or the need to be that alternative? Once our current economic system implodes, people will need an alternative if we are to escape anarchy and violent and oppressive attempts to establish some other greedy system. If enough of us begin to live that alternative now, it will already be in place for others to embrace in the future. We could be sowing the seeds of a revolutionary economic alterative which is not capitalist, socialist, or communist. It could be a vital part of the “new creation” God seeks for this world. Surely those of us who claim to follow Jesus can find “a more excellent way.” 
  6. My Greek professor at seminary said that what bothered him the most about the church was that often he did not see any difference between Christians and the population at large when it came to matters of justice, compassion, equality, and peace. I suggest that perhaps the one area where we see the least difference today is in our approach to money, business, and economics. As a pastor, so many times I heard businesspeople defend questionable practices by saying, “But Ron, it’s business.” I fear we do the same when it comes to what we all have determined is our right and the way things must be in our society. We all feel the need to play the game. Jesus and his most devoted followers over the centuries chose not to play the game. They wasted no energy on trying to win at a game they could see was inherently dehumanizing and idolatrous. I don’t know what all this means for me, much less anyone else. But I do know that Jesus was correct when he said that “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” and “You cannot serve God and money.” I suggest our society has made every attempt to respond to Jesus by essentially saying, “You’re wrong. It’s all about the money we make and the possessions we amass.” The tragedy is that so many of us in the church are saying the same thing—perhaps not through our speech but through the ways we live. As Brueggemann says, “We are all to some extent subscribers to that totalism that commandeers our imagination and that is inimical to the ‘image of God’ and its practices of holiness, forgiveness, love, peace, and thanks.” I’m afraid he’s right. However, that realization gives me little comfort.
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