Archive for Tim Suttle


Christian Political Life

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(This post concludes the live blogging of Tim Suttle’s book Public Jesus. You can read the other posts here.)

Tim Suttle doesn’t like to simplify the complex. While both of his books are relatively short, he navigates gracefully through a few tricky areas, avoiding many of the pitfalls of such a task. One would think that with a title like Public Jesus, his chapter on political life would end up looking more progressive than conservative or libertarian. Yet Suttle treats the issue of political life by looking at the nature of baptism and Christian citizenship.

Our heavenly citizenship began, says Suttle, ever since we renounced our citizenship in the kingdoms of this world by being baptized. Being raised with Christ is a new identity, an advanced citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven.

But here’s the rub for Americans: being a citizen of an earthly country “makes many demands upon our lives that we rarely think about.” Suttle laments that American Christians all too easily conflate the Christian “we” with the American “we.” He then warns us of the dangers of political engagement because “our primary concern is not the advancement of a country, but the advancement of the Kingdom of God.” Then he uses a phrase that I find tremendously helpful if we but stop to reflect on their meaning. He says, “Participating in the organization of society is a sacred calling, part of our original vocation to have dominion, to fill the earth, subdue it, till it, keep it, and cause it to bear fruit. The call to organize our common life so we image God to all creation involves polity and organization” (italics mine). That phrase, “the organization of society,” was used deliberately. Suttle wants us to know that organizing society is sacred work, but he’s also careful to not say that the state or governments are in and of themselves sacred.

If this weren’t enough to make the libertarian in me smile, it gets even better: “Politicians and parties on both the right and the left operate upon the very same underlying assumption. They each believe that they should be running the world.” The question I wrote in the margin was, “What about a movement or party whose goal is to stop acting like it can run the world?”

Ultimately, Suttle argues, the Christian has to stop trying to fit on a political continuum of left-right or fundamentalism-secularism, but to begin identifying with Jesus. Because we are resident aliens whose citizenship is the Kingdom of God, identifying with Jesus will make us permanent outsiders to the world, for better or for worse. To identify with Jesus means to take up a mission to serve the world, and “we have to accomplish our mission without government-sanctioned power.”

While governments promise the security of freedom, justice, and peace with no way to deliver them, the way of Jesus will bring us all three through the mission of the church embodying the cross in community for the good of the world. That’s why we say that in the Kingdom of God, up is down and down is up.

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Citizenship and Allegiance

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pledge-of-allegianceGrowing up I was taught to value the greatness and splendor that is The United States of America. For a variety of reasons, The United States was the greatest and best country ever in the whole world and anybody who disagrees was suspect of treason (or hellfire and brimstone). Even in church we learned that we are citizens of God’s Kingdom while at the same time were citizens of a really awesome country (even now, we have to admit there are a lot of awesome things about living in the United States). At vacation Bible school we pledged allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible (none of which are actually in the Bible itself!).

For a long time I reconciled dual allegiance by seeing my Kingdom citizenship as superior to my earthly citizenship. So long as my allegiance to my country didn’t dominate my allegiance to King Jesus, it was okay to pledge allegiance to my country. Unless my country asked me to disown or disobey my True King, I was free to be an active or supportive participant in my country’s agenda.

I can understand the appeal to a “dual citizenship,” and in many aspects there is no conflict of interests to claim citizenship to both. Some country on earth claims us as its citizen. So what? For many, renouncing their citizenship is not an option, and sometimes there are many benefits to citizenship in a particular country (I’m sure many world-traveling Canadians are proud they aren’t Americans!). Even the Apostle Paul leveraged his Roman citizenship when necessary to advance the Kingdom of God.

Allegiance, on the other hand, is a wholly different matter altogether. Allegiance is far more involved than merely acknowledging the claimant of our earthly home. Allegiance is announcing by our acting and living day to day in the real world. According to New Testament scholar and historian of the first-century N.T. Wright, living as Christians in the world is not merely living lives where fewer sins are committed than those who don’t claim Christ as Lord. Rather, living Christianly is walking and proclaiming with all we are that Jesus is Lord—and if we are to take seriously the first century context in which the gospels were written, that means that we are implicitly agreeing that Caesar is not Lord! That is, we do not claim allegiance to Caesar but to Jesus the Anointed One.

The trick to understanding our citizenship on earth and citizenship in the Kingdom of God is to be wary of our allegiances to another king. If Jesus, through his life, death, and especially the resurrection, has announced and demonstrated that God’s new world is breaking through into our world, then our allegiance is to anything and everything that displays that in-breaking of God’s reign. Where God reigns, the kingdoms of this world do not.

Somebody once asked me if I care about the United States remaining a nation. I replied, “I don’t really care what we call it or how big it is or how long it lasts. I simply want people to be free!” As a Christian, there’s certainly more to my desire than for people to be just free. My desire is that everyone will discover their place in God’s movement in the world. But that movement can take form in whatever manner God sees fit, from whomever from whatever country in any place on earth.

(The thoughts above were inspired by my reading of Tim Suttle’s last chapter in Public Jesus. In my next article I’ll wrap up my live blog of each chapter in the book, including a discussion on what it means to be politically-involved followers of Jesus.)

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Speak Up!

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(This is part six of a series liveblogging Tim Suttle’s book, Public Jesus. You can read the introduction to the series here, my post on the first chapter here, and a discussion on Suttle’s Introduction here. Each chapter will be liveblogged.)

Have you ever read a novel so captivating that you find yourself lost in another world? Watched a film so enthralling you were literally on the edge of your seat? Heard a sermon or lecture that challenges your way of thinking, not in a confrontational way, but in a way so refreshing you find yourself not caring that it just questioned everything you’ve previously believed? If you’ve tasted of this kind of “languaging”, you will have a sense of the Christian vocation.

Artisans of written word and the craftsmen of stories know intimately the power of language. Language can be a weapon or an instrument of peace. It can tear down or build up. It can unite and divide. It can reject and accept. We are communicators swimming in the ocean of language, yet many of us often fail to recognize how poorly we use our language in ways that honor God.

While we certainly have the power to shape our language, it is also true that language shapes us as well. Without getting too philosophical about it, a simple example will do. Libertarians often stop an argument between a conservative and a progressive by saying, “You both are framing the argument in the wrong way.” The key here is framing. (By the way, I’m not claiming libertarians don’t poorly frame arguments.) In the same way our simple debates are shaped by the words we use, language itself is so deeply rooted that it affects our world view.

As citizens of the Kingdom of God, followers of Christ ought to be willing and able to do what Jesus did: use the power of language to describe a different vision of reality. When we do, Tim Suttle believes that “God just appears and happens in the moment and leaves us forever changed.” Most of us tend to ignore nuance and look at the world in binary: conservative/progressive, rich/poor, black/white, attractive/unattractive, and so on. But think about what Jesus did; he sided with the unclean, the outcasts, earning himself the title “friend of sinners.” Somehow, Jesus was able and eager to say “yes” to those on the “wrong” side. In doing so, he was able to communicate a vision more radical than a mere elimination of “them” (the bad ones). He came into the world to redeem it, to rescue it, to bring it new life.

Suttle’s chapter on “languaging” God could be condensed into this: “The Christian’s most sacred vocation when relating to another human being is to try to become the conduit through which that person comes into contact with the risen Savior. As we relate to one another, God can ‘happen’ to us over and over.” The whole point of the incarnation is that “God can happen to anyone, anytime, anyplace…” When we pay attention, we can be a part of that. But that’s the hard part, this paying attention business. Without being hostile, we often treat those unlike ourselves indifferently, being inattentive in an equally dehumanizing way. The first step to languaging God is to refuse to ignore the world around us.

There are two things we’re supposedly not to talk about in polite company: religion and politics. Why? It’s divisive, almost inherently so. Good dialogue about such topics takes time. Discussing controversial topics thoughtfully is an art, and takes patience. It takes little time to rouse the passions of the opinionated. It takes gracefulness and humility to dialogue meaningfully. This is why how we speak and how we listen is so important.

Instead of using our words to divide, we ought to use them to embrace. Do we frame discussions in such a way that tilts the conversation our way? Or do we use grace and humility to hear out the other person? When we look into helping those in need, are our words and actions showing them pity or love?

When we become artisans of a new way of speaking, we language God to our world in a way that honors God and respects our neighbor. In this way we bring peace while we preach peace, something both libertarians and Christians are passionately committed.

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Becoming the Body of Christ

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(This is part five of a series liveblogging Tim Suttle’s book, Public Jesus. You can read the introduction to the series here, my post on the first chapter here, and a discussion on Suttle’s Introduction here. Each chapter will be liveblogged.)

Truth be told, Tim Suttle’s chapter on the Eucharistic life is hard to swallow. Not because he misses the mark or made theological errors. It was challenging because I can’t imagine anybody wanting to hear what he says.

Christians like to talk about and enjoy the benefits of the the body and blood of Christ. Why wouldn’t we? It’s important to recognize those benefits. The difficulty comes when we need to be willing, really willing, to let the body and blood of Christ make demands on us. We love to share in Christ’s resurrection, but who wants to die to self?

The theological battlefield surrounding the meaning of the Eucharist/Communion/ Lord’s Supper has as many participants as any other theological issue. How to apply the meaning is twice as varied. I’ve personally struggled over the past decade to make sense of both its meaning and application. Yet despite the journey of learning more and more, every time our church serves the bread and wine, I continue to be confused as to the place this practice has in my life and in God’s community.

If you’re looking for answers to the mystery of Eucharist, Suttle doesn’t spell everything out in this chapter. He jumps to the crux of the matter: Eucharist isn’t just some emblematic ritual; rather, it is a practice that makes us come undone. Christ gave his life, all he was, to redeem humanity. If the church is the body of Christ (Romans 12:4–5), the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 1:22–23), with many members representing different parts (1 Corinthians 12:18–20), then in some way, being part of the body of Christ makes us as individuals whole. It will take more than one member of a body in order to image Jesus in the world.

I was taught growing up that Communion was no more than for us to remember what Jesus did on our behalf. I’ve come to believe that it has to be much more than just a reminder. It seems as though one of the two most important practices of the church (alongside water baptism) is probably much more than a mere reminder. But while it’s much more than a reminder, it’s also nothing less than one. Suttle tells us that the Eucharist does indeed remind us of something, but not of Christ’s work on our behalf (although that is also true), but of our work on behalf of the world as Christ’s body. It reminds us of who we are: cruciform images of God for the benefit of the world.

Suttle writes, “Somehow our participation in the Lord’s Supper is part of how we all come to participate in the body of Christ. Because we share in this feast, we share a common life that is defined by Jesus Christ.” He goes on: “We are the body of Christ. We are the hands and feet of Jesus. We are the means by which Christ is present to the world. And, what the world needs more than anything is the presence of Christ.”

Suttle goes on to explain that a cruciform life, a life shaped by having the mind of Christ, is living as Jesus lived and dying as Jesus died. He concludes, “the self-emptying God came into the world is a self-emptying man. The world’s true Lord, the ruler of all creation, poured his life out to make away back to God. And so God will put people back together this way—through cruciform lives. And God will put the world back together this way—through cruciform church.”

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Give It a Rest, Already!

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(This is part four of a series liveblogging Tim Suttle’s book, Public Jesus. You can read the introduction to the series here, my post on the first chapter here, and a discussion on Suttle’s Introduction here. Each chapter will be liveblogged.)

Forgive me while I pull out my inner control freak, but I’d like to be anti-libertarian for just a moment. I would love to impose on everybody a law that forbids commerce on Sundays. A Sabbath for all, on the same day.

Imagine with me for a moment: everyone stops, together, to rest, one day a week. We look back at our week and declare it “good.” Not because it’s over, but because the image of God was reflected in what we did. Most of us know what a “day off” is like, and during those times when a day off work is “well-spent,” we are not only resting, we are refreshed.

Tim Suttle and I both seem to have a tremendous affinity for Sabbath rest. His chapter in Public Jesus on Sabbath reminds us of the of the importance of imaging God to the rest of creation by pointing us to Sabbath rest. While most of us think of Sabbath as a cessation of work, Suttle views it as a cessation of restlessness: “it’s the one day a week where we stop generating our life and we start receiving life,” “…the day when we delight in creation, when we delight in the moment—because the moment is holy.”

Sabbath confronts a busy world. Those who practice Sabbath rest often get pushback from others. It’s not culturally acceptable to cease working. While we attempt to connect with the love and goodness of God in Sabbath rest, the world asks us to stay busy.

Many of us get suckered into what could be called a false sense of rest. We choose an activity that feels or looks like genuine rest, but it’s merely a diversion from the real thing. As a culture we’ve learned to keep our brains active in one way while turning it off through another. Suttle’s main example is television. One half of our brain shuts down, but we are not truly at rest. We are experiencing a fake rest, believing it’s authentic. It isn’t.

In a sense Sabbath rest is a component of stewardship. Society has made time a commodity. We seek ways to save time or invest our time. We buy it through faster pizza delivery, reverse aging services, and we assess time in economic terms. Yet correcting the rest deficit requires more than mere stewardship; it requires rethinking our values. The sad reality is that many of us say, “I don’t have time,” when we are really saying, “I haven’t considered my time long enough to make meaningful priorities.”

Now, I don’t really believe the State should impose Sabbath rest on everyone. In fact, quite the opposite is necessary to change culture over the long run. We don’t need laws to practice Sabbath. In this area, the State is irrelevant. We can do it through demonstration and witness. But as Suttle says, it’s a bold counter-cultural move. It says, You are missing the magic of time and God’s creation. It’s all around you, but you can’t see it because you are too busy. You are trying to save time. You are fighting it like it’s your enemy. You can go on chasing your tail, grasping for more, working on Saturday, working on Sunday, working, working, working… But not us! We we are going to sit here…and drink in the presence of God… [and] the delight of every single moment!

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