The Radical Middle: Finding Balance in the Christian Faith.

Today I want to put forward a concept for us all to consider: the radical middle*. It’s a concept (like many of my beliefs) that starts with Jesus. Throughout his time here on Earth, Jesus did a remarkable job of not falling into extremes, despite being under remarkable pressures about who he was and what he should be doing. For example, the religious extremists expected Jesus to start a rebellion against the Romans, to stand against the injustices the Jewish people were suffering under Roman rule. Instead of this, Jesus told people to respect the authorities whilst at the same time obeying God. Jesus had multiple opportunities to overthrow the established order, but he didn’t – he advocated a different way. He showed us a new way to be human (thanks, Switchfoot). He showed us how to be radical without falling to extremes.

The word radical is normally associated with pushing boundaries, moving far away from established norms, and into a realm of extremism. I’m a firm believer that there’s a time for radical actions, ideas and responses, but the real challenge in life is often resisting the urge to fall to one particular side of an argument, getting pulled more and more in a particular direction. Often we end up falling into dogmatic radicalism about an issue we passionately believe in, refusing to consider even for a moment the other side of a debate – that’s the kind of loveless, heartless attitude that we need to avoid.

Going to extremes certainly seems to go against the grain of what Christ showed us. Jesus accepted and mingled with people whose views and practices often were in direct conflict with his character (thieves, prostitutes, corrupt tax collectors) – and that’s a challenging thing to consider, as we often don’t spend a lot of time with people who disagree with us. Yet in his way of living, Jesus found a way to be radical – to resist berating those he disagreed with (mostly religious leaders), and to stay away from the isolation of extremism in all its forms. Just like Jesus, we need to find a way to live that stays true to a vibrant faith, challenges injustice and inequality, but also refuses to intentionally isolate those we disagree with, even in our faith communities.

I’ve spent my adult life following Jesus, finding my way in a church culture that’s riddled with power struggles, an obsession with wealth, and a cycle of chasing the latest hot-button attitude that’s offended our moral senses. I believe Christ loves the church, warts and all, and I’m determined to do the same. But it’s time for us to depart from extreme thinking and step into the example of Jesus, who showed a radical way to live that fights against the pattern of extremes we see around the world.

That’s the radical middle.

*Credit here to Ps. David Dishroon of Changepoint Church in Tauranga, who first put this concept forward.

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4 thoughts on “The Radical Middle: Finding Balance in the Christian Faith.

  1. I have to say I disagree. Moderation is a Greek virtue, not a Christian one; and it’s a fallacy to assume that the truth is necessarily half-way between what the two main ‘sides’ in a given situation say (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_to_moderation).

    I think Jesus’ version of the kingdom of God was actually far more extreme and revolutionary than the nationalist armed revolt the people expected. That would have just continued the cycle of imperial domination, unsuccessful revolts, successful revolt, rule by local elites which isn’t necessarily any better than imperial domination, taken over by the empire again or the next big empire. Jesus’ political programme when fully enacted will spell the end of all empires and all domination by local or global elites. This is a truly “out of this world” politics (John 18:36) that is far more extreme and radical than any worldly politics.

    We might actually be saying the same thing, of course, but with different words… if you’re saying that the ‘radical middle’ is a third way that is actually more radical than either of the ‘extremes’ of worldly politics which may seem extreme but aren’t actually radical (Are you saying that?). I don’t really like the word ‘middle’ for this though, because the third way isn’t half-way between the existing ways … it goes off in a new, quite different direction (hence why it’s radical).

    There’s also another reading of Matthew 22:15-22 which says he wasn’t actually telling people to respect the authorities, but was pointing out that there are inevitable costs of compromise with the idolatrous empire (you’ll have to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s) and that it’s better not to compromise so we can give everything to God. That he was making a genius response that was technically advocating obedience (thus avoiding the trap and avoiding being crucified before his time) while strongly hinting that God should be our authority instead of Rome.

    There are at least six things that this reading takes into account (and the ‘he was telling people to respect authorities’ reading doesn’t):
    – The fact that Jesus doesn’t have a Roman coin and has to ask for one.
    – The fact that he draws attention to Caesar’s face engraved on the coin, and according to the Law all graven images were idolatry.
    – The fact that 1st-century world did not have our modern separation of religion and politics, whereby it makes sense to say “obey the government in political matters, and God in religious matters.” This would have been nonsensical to anyone in Jesus’ context. If you asked any Jew what Jesus meant by “what is God’s” they would have had to say EVERYTHING! Not just “religious” things, leaving all this-worldly things to belong to Caesar. Jesus is literally telling us to give everything back to God, while also telling us to give Caesar’s idolatrous coin back to Caesar.
    – The strong current throughout the Old Testament that says God is Israel’s true king (even after he reluctantly let them have human kings to be like the other nations). There was none of this “the current imperial overlord is our king, God is our God” business. Either the emperor was god and king, or Yahweh was god and king.
    – The strong current throughout the New Testament that says Jesus is our true king and god, not Caesar. Many of the NT’s most famous descriptions for Jesus (son of God, Lord, Saviour, great high priest) were lifted from Roman imperial propaganda about Caesar. The suggestion is not that Jesus is god and king of “religious” matters and Caesar is god and king of “political” matters (this would not have been possible before the modern separation of religion and politics). The suggestion is that Jesus is our king, instead of Caesar.
    – The fact that it says the questioners were amazed by his response. This suggests it was an ingenious creative response that avoided the trap of either showing himself to be an apologist for the Romans (the first way) or “saying something for which he could be arrested” (the second way). The ‘respect the authorities’ interpretation suggests he actually chose the first way, which would be more disappointing that amazing.

    Well – that was longer than I thought it’d be.

    • Hi Caleb! Thanks for your reply – no problems about the length!

      We are thinking along same lines. I should make it clear that I’m talking about the radical middle way that Jesus demonstrated – which goes about our way of thinking and into the way Christ lived. It’s more challenging than any of our traditional humanist ways of thinking about life, and is never quite as simple as I think many Christians want it to be. Matthew 22: 15-22 demonstrates some of that.

      I think your interpretation is interesting, and has plenty of merit. I find a lot of our theology can get influenced by American cultural values (as the loudest voices in Christian media are generally American) – which means the values of separation of church & state, patriotism, etc get read into the Bible at times. (Quick note: I am in no way suggesting all American culture is “bad” etc) and this can happen with things like this. “Render unto Caesar” becomes “Support the Government without question of dissent”.

      The Bible is clear about obeying authority in places like Romans 13:1, but this is juxtaposed with Acts 5:29 when Peter is clearly disobeying authorities in regards to talking about Jesus. I think Jesus is clearly telling us in Matthew to put God first, in reality we owe it all to Him, but in practice here on earth, we shouldn’t be d-bags avoiding paying our taxes.

  2. Ahhh, but there are other interpretations of Romans 13 too 😛 http://calebmorgan.wordpress.com/2010/12/23/paul-and-politics-2-essays/

    I don’t think he would have necessarily considered it d-baggery to avoid paying taxes to an illegitimate idolatrous empire that had conquered them, blasphemed against their God directly and indirectly, killed many of them, and would kill him and many of his disciples soon enough. I just think he had a more creative, comprehensive, long-term and radical plan to overthrow that empire and everything it stands for than simple tax revolt.

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