Minimalism and the Sermon on the Mount

Minimalism and the Sermon on the Mount

“You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.”

That was the line that zinged me from the documentary entitled Minimalism (available on Netflix).

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For those not familiar:

Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.

(“The Minimalists,” Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus – see here)

The documentary introduces a wide variety of people, who, despite great “success” in the corporate world, grew dissatisfied with their lives of compulsive consumption.

“We’ve been told that more stuff will make us happy,” they all say, “but that wasn’t the case for me.”

The solution was to shrink their human footprint (often radically), in order to find more time, more money, more freedom, and more meaning.

It worked, allegedly, and each one proudly preached the gospel of minimalism with the zeal of a hemp-shoed televangelist.

JUST ANOTHER FORM OF EXCESS?

From my perspective, there’s much to love about the movement.

Yet I was also struck (occasionally) with the sense that, for some, “minimalism” seemed like just another species of excess and one-upsmanship.

Instead of merely downsizing the McMansion, “true believers” were shown luxuriating in their Derek Zoolander-inspired center-for-ants-sized “tiny homes” (which often retail for more than my last actual house), and gushing about how their lives are so much better now that they have one pair of pants.

“I woke up really SAD one day… And then I realized, it was that second pair of slacks.” ~Fake quote.

This is, of course, an exaggeration—and Joshua and Ryan (“The Minimalists”) are quite keen on tempering such impressions.  Minimalism will mean different things to different people. And as they say, it’s not about what you get rid of, it’s about “Everything that Remains” (see here).

Perhaps, then, the extremes are just more interesting to us.

After all, no one watches an A&E show called “Not really a Hoarder, but still kind-of lazy with regard to housework.” No. We want the hardcore stashers—boring mole-like mineshafts through discarded USA Todays.

And so too with the minimalist who makes toothpaste pull triple duty as hair product and underarm deodorant.

Minty fresh, from nave to chops.

We like extremes.

So whether it’s the meta comparison of “Who’s got the bigger boat?” or the micro one-upsmanship of “I live in a van down by the river (for the planet!)”—both poles can represent the same pathology.

JESUS-STYLE MINIMALISM

But having said all this….

Much of the minimalist mojo fits quite well with Jesus, and especially with his Sermon on the Mount.

“Watch out!” Christ said: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Lk. 12.15). In fact:

23 life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.

24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!

27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Lk. 12).

CONCLUSION 

So while I will be keeping that second pair of pants, and forgoing the $400 per-square-foot tiny house, I do recommend the documentary for those of us trying to whittle down our excess in service of the Kingdom, and in pursuit of peace.

I needed it.

After all, as Jesus taught the woman at the well (Jn. 4):

You can never get enough of what won’t really satisfy you.

Black and Blue: Race and Violence in the wake of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas Massacre

Black and Blue: Race and Violence in the wake of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas Massacre

How do you say something without adding to the noise?

Is it possible?

Over the past week, I’ve wanted to offer something redemptive in the wake of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the massacre in Dallas.

“Don’t be silent,” many said. Yet my fear is to be like those who have nothing to say, but say it anyway.

Noise pervades.

And nuance is another casualty of violence. It seems to die alongside the victims.

Here, though, are a few half-formed thoughts:

  1. I need to listen. 

As a rural white kid, I know little of what it means to be black in America. That very obvious admission is an important step. Nor do I have experience in law enforcement. Given that, it would be wise for me to do some careful listening. We need to do that. While social media is a great place for “sounding off,” I wonder how much listening happens there. And as a white guy, I especially need to listen to the black community.

So here’s my most important point: While I am on vacation now, when I do return I’d like to sit down for lunch with some of my black friends and acquaintances. I need to listen—face to face—and I am ashamed to say I haven’t done that more. I’d also like to do that with some cops I know. It’s clear that we have a problem in this country, and my sense is that no solution will come until we actually hear each other, beyond the comment boxes.

Yet listening is not synonymous with silence, so here are a few more thoughts:

  1. It should not be difficult to decry BOTH senseless violence by police and senseless violence against cops.

A few weeks ago, I happened to see (again) the video of the Rodney King beating. It remains shocking. Here was a guy lying facedown (not resisting) while being clubbed almost to death after a traffic stop. It goes on and on.

Perhaps most shocking is then the remembrance that the officers were in fact acquitted of all wrongdoing. Go back and watch the video if that doesn’t shock you.

To be blunt, that’s why members of the black community find it difficult to “trust the investigation” after these events. They’ve seen that movie already. Literally.

So here’s my question: Why is it difficult to condemn THAT (what happened to King and certain other recent incidents) while also saying that most cops are decent people doing a difficult, dangerous, and thankless job?

Surely we can do both.

To prosecute bad cops is not to impugn police as a whole. It is not to say, monolithically, that cops are bad.

In the same way, to affirm that “black lives matter” and to admit that there is still a racial disparity in our justice system need not be “anti-police.” It may actually be pro-police, because for every Rodney King or Philando Castile, life gets more dangerous for the good and decent cops I know. And I don’t want that.

This is important: To decry police misconduct is itself a step toward protecting good cops, like those in Dallas who shielded protesters from bullets. It is actually part of what it means to be pro-cop.

  1. If you have a problem with the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” don’t read the Sermon on the Mount.

Some of my white friends have joined the ranks of those decrying the BLM slogan with the response that “All lives matter.” This is true. But it is also an adventure in missing the point. As Lecrae pointed out recently, it’s like angrily telling someone with lung cancer that “hey man, breast cancer matters too!” (see here.)

And for Christians especially, it is important to note that Christ’s most famous sermon does not say: “Blessed is everybody.”

Instead, Jesus goes out of his way to single out a marginalized minority from within a broader whole. Does God love everyone? Yes. Does everyone matter? Yes again. But Jesus still says, “Blessed are the poor … Blessed are the persecuted … Blessed are the meek.”

Christ exclusively and intentionally focuses upon smaller subsets of disenfranchised individuals inside a larger (blessed) populace.

I wonder how the ALM respondents would respond to Jesus’ sermon.

Would they tweet the following?

Actually Jesus, the rich and safe are blessed as well. Read Deuteronomy.

#AllLivesBlessed  #DivisiveRabbi 

One need not affirm every statement of the BLM organization in order to affirm that “Black Lives Matter.” (All organizations are mixed bags, including the police.) And to rigidly insist on “all lives matter,” in response to “black lives matter” is to display either ignorance or antipathy toward Jesus’ very way of preaching. 

  1. Violence is a feedback loop; only love can stop it.

Retributive violence is a feedback loop; it always grows and spreads.

Violence begets violence, begets violence, begets violence.

After the terrible massacre in Dallas, it became more difficult to deal with the lingering racial disparity in our criminal justice system. That retributive act (by a lone gunman) didn’t right the injustices done to Castile or Sterling. What it did was make the black community, and all of us, less safe. (My black friends know that.)

Because retributive violence almost always does this.

Thus again, the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt. 5.9).

CONCLUSIONS

In the end, there is no tidy solution to the racial divide within this country.

Reconciliation takes time and face to face relationships: barbecues, prayer meetings, hugs and handshakes.

And without question, the solution will come over dinner tables more than in the pixeled battlefield of cyberspace where all are bold and brilliant.

Remember that if you comment on this post. I’ll do likewise.