Excerpts from Below:
Am I saying that the Church should become a criminal motorcycle club? A gun running, murderous, debauched Jesus cohort of societal misfits? Obviously not. And, I’m not trying to hijack the story of the Sons to teach some sort of cheesy “relevant” Jesus lesson to the uninitiated either.
The offensive Gospel, I believe, calls us to a less offensive, more creative, more empathetic, more organic public body than the contemporary Church as a whole has lived into in the midst of the world thus far.
Recently, we’ve been flying through seasons of the FX show Sons of Anarchy. I find the writing to be deep, the story to be compelling, and the characters to be real in all their moments of victory and brokenness. For those who haven’t seen it (without giving any spoilers), Sons of Anarchy is a show that follows the lives and story of an outlaw motorcycle club, SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original) and the effect that their criminal shenanigans has on their own personal and family lives and their beloved hometown of Charming, California.
SAMCRO, despite being deeply committed to the club, to each other, and secondarily (although not always based on pure intentions, but often for their own gain) to the community of Charming, is continually assaulted and ruined by inner club chaos, betrayal, racism, murder, drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity and infidelity, rival gang violence, fear, and just about every other vice you could imagine. I don’t mention this as one who is judging them, or “above” the characters in the show, but as a fallible, fallen person myself. The reason that the show is so compelling is not just that I am appalled and shocked by the actions of SAMCRO, but because I, the viewer, find myself actually rooting for them. The bad guys are the good guys, and the good guys are often perceived as the bad guys, if you let yourself see the world from the perspective of the SAMCRO members. In so doing, you are able to experience objectively the real human fallen desires toward power, money, and sex which reside in us all, by seeing the world through their eyes and story. Desires, which ultimately, if left unchecked and given free reign, govern our actions and being as Powers, and ultimately destroy life and community. What one experiences through entering into this narrative through the fictional characters, is the surfacing of true humanity which is anything but fiction, but rather stunningly real, and gut-wrenchingly honest and often broken, yet with shades of glory, beauty, and hope.
So what then? Am I saying that the Church should become a criminal motorcycle club? A gun running, murderous, debauched Jesus cohort of societal misfits? Obviously not. And, I’m not trying to hijack the story of the Sons to teach some sort of cheesy “relevant” Jesus lesson to the uninitiated either.
Here’s what I’m after. Whenever I watch this show, I’m really drawn to the members commitment to SAMCRO, even after it wrecks their lives, ruins their relationships, and gets family members killed. They are joined to the club to the point of their own death, literally. There is this sense that if the group unit goes, everything will fall apart. There is also the sense (more in the earlier seasons) that the club exists in some way for the sake of the larger town, to protect it, to keep it “pure,” ironically, often from the deeds of the club itself. This commitment to a brotherhood, a unity, a community-family, even though severely messed up by their own evil, pride, and desire for power, is so compelling to me. I’ve read about it and theologized about it, but I’ve never truly experienced it. I find myself drawn to it.
What we often find, though, in the Church (and I’m talking about all denominations), is not a diehard commitment to an authentic community, a larger family, but instead a corporate gathering of like-minded free agents who opt in via contract to temporary religious scenarios, betterment programs, spiritual activities and groups, a governing ideology and metanarrative, and an idiosyncratic “Christian”™ subculture. There seems to be a general lack of an authentic sense of total abandon of the self for the sake of the other. And, when there is, it really often comes off feeling like a programmatic homogenous shopping experience at COSTCO, not the totally unpredictable, blood-soaked, gut-wrenching, unrelenting brotherhood of SAMCRO. I am talking here of the desire and extent of commitment to the group in SAMCRO, and not the content or corruption of the club, which ultimately makes their longing for this (good!) unity impossible. It is this innate desire of SAMCRO’s need, this desperate need for the survival of the group, that I find to be compelling, and a corrective to my own erroneous individualism, and also to the modus operandi of modern Christianity, not SAMCRO’s obviously deadly worldview and ethos.
Churches rarely exhibit the SAMCRO commitment to a community, in which one feels like one would die without the community, and one would give his/her life for it, and for the sake of the other. There is instead a sense of Corporate Empire. Or, in New England, Roman Catholic Religious Institutionalism. Or, Evangelical ‘Cut and Paste Christianity.’ The mistaken adoption of a subculture, complete with its own music, clothing, jargon, instead of a community counterculture, which looks different in each place, and which is more chaotic, real, and compellingly Cruciform. It is this contextual cruciformity, this living of individual and communal life around self-giving love modeled after Christ’s giving of his life on the Cross, which coupled with the diehard commitment to the group, would make the modern Church look like a better, sanctified and redeemed SAMCRO, and less like an individualist’s shopping spree at COSTO. If people are offended by the Gospel, that is a good thing, for this encounter with the offensive evangel leads to transformation and life by participation. However, if people are offended by the Cut and Paste “Christian”™ subculture, this is really a shame, and a sham, and leads not to transformation but alienation.
The Gospel should be offensive. It is a call to die to the things which claim to be life but which are really false gods, which lead to death both physically and existentially, and offer no hope, themselves being the epitome of that which is empty. These vices, idols, false gods then, in some real way, existentially enslave us, forming our experiences according to their crooked playbook, and by the power we give them over our lives they begin to act and to be experienced by us as oppressive Powers which weigh down the soul, and as Persecutors and Prosecutors which afflict and accuse us. The Gospel is a call to death, to die to these fickle, false gods and empty promises of the world, but it is also a call to life. It is a call to life, through death, first existentially by faith in the way and person of Jesus, defeating the Powers, disarming the Persecutors, and vindicating us from the verdict of the Prosecutors through the Cross, through existential (and spiritual) death and rebirth, and ultimately physically, we believe through, physical death and physical resurrection and an entire physical New Creation. The Gospel, and the Gospel alone, is the message about Jesus as the one who through his life, death, and resurrection ushers in a new universal way of being human that isn’t marked by one’s gender, nationality, or any other distinctive but by Faith in him, expressed through self-giving Love modeled after his own self-giving sacrifice on the Cross, and the assured Hope that his fate (resurrection and New Life) is ours now existentially and eternally forever. The Gospel is offensive, and this encounter with the initially and even perpetually offensive and foolish Christ and his Cross is the very thing that sets us free. Free to New Creation. Free to New Life. Free to a New Way, the Way.
Why, then, does this Way, so often seem to offer freedom, not to familial/individual existential and physical salvation embodied in indigenous creative communities of a family of Cruciform love, but rather freedom to assimilate into a corporate expression of subcultural sameness and an idiosyncratic “Christian” inauthenticity. Why does this “model” feel nothing to me like the guts and brotherhood of SAMCRO and much more like the thoroughly predictable, safe, hygienic isles of COSTCO? Everything in its place, structured, and freakishly nice. Why does this feel like a rank and file, cut and paste Christianity that assumes that community is a corporate structure in which to be integrated rather than an organic and unpredictable body in which to grow together? Why does this feel like something invented by modern business executives as a strategy to “grow churches”? Why does this approach seem not at all indigenous to a particular locale, arising from a local situation and working itself out organically, but rather like a superimposed grid which pre-defines what true Christian community looks like and how it should be shaped and experienced?
We can do better. The offensive Gospel, I believe, calls us to a less offensive, more creative, more empathetic, more organic public body than the contemporary Church as a whole has lived into in the midst of the world thus far. The Church needs to be more like SAMCRO in this regard. Watching Sons of Anarchy (and I’m not trying to be profound or shocking here, its just my experience as a viewer and Christian for what its worth) has made me realize that paradoxically, biker gangs and other such entities better understand what American Christians do not, and that which those outside the Church looking in, perhaps, can’t pin point either from the comfortable cushions of the couches of their own private individual lives and homes, namely, the absolute necessity of community for the abundant and authentic life. But unlike SAMCRO, what we need is not community built on an ethos of the self-serving, destructive pursuit of pride and power, but a community constructed on the principle and practice of self-giving love, a love that pours itself out for the other and in doing so is mysteriously and paradoxically built up in power instead of exhausted of it and defeated by it. This is a community with Jesus Christ himself as the cornerstone, where the relentless pursuit of the good of the other leads one into unpredictable but ancient truth and experience, and where one finds their life by losing it.
The Church’s worst enemy is often herself, and her abiding crutch and stumbling stone is her own lack creativity and subcultural complacency. There is a better way beyond the packaged deal of popular Christian faddishness and cut and paste community programming. If you are asking: “Well. What does this place look then?” You’re asking the wrong question. It will, and does, look different in each place it has and will become manifest. It seems to me that if it could be a place marked by the heart, resolve, and guts of a biker club but governed by grace, truth, mercy, and the Cruciform love of Christ, that would be a compelling place indeed. A place worth living in and a community worth dying for.