Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is the Radical Jesus of Michael Moore and David Platt the Real Jesus?

David Platt is an admired, up and coming young Southern Baptist pastor and theologian. His new book Radical retails for $14.95 in Christian bookstores and has quickly become a bestseller. One reviewer praises the book by writing: "Pastors, if your people read and are not stirred, they are lost. If you read it, and are not convicted, you should be fired! If you choose not to read it, you will miss a blessing and are unqualified to lead anyone in anything involving the Kingdom."

The essence of Platt's Christian philosophy is found in this YouTube video. He argues that:

(1). The mantra of the American Dream is to advance yourself through hard work, ingenuity, and innovation, in order to "have it all."

(2). The frightening reality of the gospel is that "Jesus calls us to give up everything we have."

(3). If we form Jesus to look like us and be who we want him to be, then even when we gather together to sing our praises and lift our hands the reality is we are not worshiping the Jesus of the Bible, we are worshiping ourselves.

(4). We have a Master who demands radical obedience.

(5). The radical obedience demanded by Jesus for His followers is to sell everything we have to feed and clothe the poor people of this world and to proclaim Christ to the nations through missions and evangelism.

I disagree with David Platt's general premise, believing it to be unsupported by both the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures. To be clear, I admire David Platt and believe he is living his life and guiding his church along the path the Spirit of God would have them go. David Platt's general premise, though, is that Jesus would have every Christian, every disciple, every follower radically obey Him by selling all of his or her possessions, giving the money to the poor or to missions, and then living a simple, frugal life on earth. This is where Platt errs. Jesus does not demand obedience to a call of radical wealth deinvestment from everyone because He doesn't issue that specific call to everyone.

Jesus Sometimes Calls His Followers to Radical Wealth

Michael Moore argues in his film Capitalism: A Love Story that "capitalism is the opposite of everything Jesus taught." When Michael Moore and leading evangelicals begin to say the same thing about what Jesus "taught," it is probably worth a look to see whether or not somebody is misreading Jesus.

Jesus clearly teaches that private ownership of property, capital and wealth is good (Matthew 25:14-30).  In the parable of the talents the businessman "entrusted to them his wealth"  so that his employees could cause his wealth to increase. Notice, the wealth was his, and the man's employees were instructed to increase it.  The man did not sell his wealth for the good of the community at large. He kept his wealth and sought to increase it. The capital used in this economic exchange came from his private, personal wealth. In addition, the businessman distributed his wealth "to each according to his ability." The notion that wealth should be dispensed "from each according to his ability" is completely contradicted by Jesus who said that wealth should be given "to each according to his ability." Prepositions do matter in the Bible.

Nowhere does Jesus ever teach that His followers are to reward or subsidize irresponsibility. The argument that poverty can be eradicated by Christian generosity contradicts Jesus statement that "the poor will always be among us" (Mark 14:7). Granted, there are times and occasions that God calls specific followers to the radical obedience of "selling everything" and giving to the poor, but those are rare times. Very rare.

The problem with the American dream is the love of wealth, not the abundance of wealth.  A radical Christian can be a multi-millionaire, fly in private jets, invest in the stock market, create new capital through innovation, hard work, and ingenuity and live in a nice home and possess nice things. Christ may never call this follower to sell it all. Christ asks His disciples to live in light of the following:

(1). The power to create wealth is a "gift" from God (Deuteronomy 8:18).
(2). There is no power on earth that has not been granted by God (John 19:11).
(3). God expects those given wealth to use it to create more wealth (Matthew 25:21).
(4). The follower of Christ is to love God more than the wealth he's been given (I Timothy 6:10).
(5). Christians should do with wealth what the Master says, and sometimes He calls for it to be sold and given away (Luke 18:18-23).
(6). God always calls us to be generous, but He always commends His people for the creation of new wealth through ingenuity, initiative, hard work (I Thessalonians 4:11-12).
(7). It is the love of money that leads to evil, and poor people are as susceptible to this sin as rich people.

Those in the know understand that the financial collapse in October 2007 was as much the result of the poor desiring to appear wealthy without hard work as it was Wall Street hedge fund managers desiring huge bonuses through bundling mortgage bonds. The poor obtained money through interest only loans, loans which the poor were able to refinance every two years because of rising home prices, homes which the poor should never have qualified to be able to purchase in the first place because of the basic economic principle that a borrower should always pay back loans not just the interest.  For example, it is documented that a Hispanic strawberry picker in Bakersfield, California, earning $14,000 annually was given every penny of a $724,000 home loan on which he only had to pay interest the first two years, and if the value of the house he purchased appreciated, then he would refinance with equity in the home. Taxpayers are now paying on that defaulted mortgage through TARP and the bailout of the banks deemed "too big to fail." Whose at fault? Wall Street? Sure. But what about the poor man's love of wealth? Can we not say that the poor struggle with greed as much, if not more, than the rich?

The poor's love of men has led many to a sense of entitlement. They bear as much guilt as Wall Street brokers. The problem is not the abundance of wealth or the absence of wealth. Neither is a sign of spiritual maturity. The problem is the love of wealth and the belief that everyone should be able to drive the same cars, live in the same kind of houses, enjoy the same kind of luxuries as everyone else. God didn't create the world this way. There will always be the poor, and there will always be the wealthy. We are called as Christians to be content with what we have been given, and through ingenuity and work hard to obtain more wealth, but to always have Christ preeminent in our lives. Nowhere do we find Jesus calling us to all live the same kind of life. Some Jesus calls to radically sell all and give to the poor, but not all. This is where David Platt's book radically errs.

I applaud Platt for writing on CNN's blog that his church gave away their financial surplus to poor churches in India, trimmed 1.5 million dollars from the church budget to drill water wells, and is adopting foster kids in the community. Our church has done some very similar things. We built a $250,000 water well drilling rig, shipped it to Niger, and are sending multiple teams to Niger to train the West Africans how to drill for water. We have also just helped build a hospital, school and mission training center in Niger to house the volunteer teams who come assist the people of Niger in learning how to farm and drill. We have helped build a 1,000 student Christian school in India and support an orphange in India that houses 300 street orphans, an orphanage run by our church members. We have begun an adoption program for foster kids in our community and are heavily invested in assisting the poor in our community through job training and financial assistance. We are working on church starts among Muslims in New York City, hispanics in Guatamala, and other regions of the world. In other words, our church is heavily invested in missions.

But the oil men in our church should continue to fly in their planes, invest in their companies, and make money through hard work and capitalistic ingenuity, unless Jesus specifically and personally calls them to sell out and give their assets and wealth away.  The Christian businessmen and businesswomen in our church should be wise as serpents and gentle as doves as they move among the wealthy in our state and nation, building relationships and companies to create more wealth to be used as God leads.  The wealthy in our church should not sell their large homes, or even their vacation homes, nor feel guilty for having them, but should be hospitable to the people God places around them. The abundance of wealth in the form of capital and assets is not inherently evil. Likewise, those with less wealth in our communities and our churches should not be envious of those with greater wealth, and should live within their means, realizing that God does not have the same financial destiny for everyone. The lack of wealth is neither evil nor a sign of spirituality, just as the abundance of wealth is neither evil nor a sign of spirituality.

In other words, what is radical about being a follower of Jesus Christ is the belief that God is the owner of everything we have in this life, and we will do with the wealth He's given us precisely as He leads us. However, His leading is not always the same for His people. Sometimes He calls His people to lifestyles of radical wealth in order to create more wealth so that His kingdom work can be financed.

One should admire the people who finance the ministries of the David Platt's of this world as much as the David Platt's of this world. They are both being used by God. Though it would be radically consistent for the publisher Ennis Pepper and author David Platt to give Radical away rather than charging $14.95, I applaud them both for ministering with the foresight and wisdom necessary to earn capital so that future ministry can occur through the wonderful writing skills of David Platt as they bring others into the kingdom of God.