Thinking Tikkun Olam in Istanbul


I’m sitting on a rooftop in Istanbul. I’m thinking. Thinking about the world. Thinking about Jesus. I’m thinking about Jesus as the savior of the world and the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (“to mend the world”).

The world is broken.
It needs mending.
Jesus is the answer.
Jesus is the savior.
Jesus is the savior of the world.

This is the confession of the gospel.
This is the witness of the apostles and prophets.
Consistently, repeatedly, scripturally, evangelistically, apostolically.
Jesus is the savior of the world!
Liberate it from cliché and dare to conceive it in a real and radical way.
Believe it in a fresh, invigorating, imaginative way.
This world!
(And not some other.)

OK, but what shall we do with this apostolic faith in Jesus as the savior of the world?

Once we understand that to believe and be baptized is not a private affair, but an individual confession that connects us with a community of faith—the ecclesia of Christ followers as God’s alternative society—we must come to terms with our relationship to this world, this kosmos, of which Jesus is the savior. If we misunderstand our place and vocation within this world so loved by God, we will at best be a clumsy misguided church and at worst a tragic impediment to God’s redemptive agenda.

So let me state it as simply as I can…

The church is not called to conquer the world.
The church is not called to escape the world.
The church is called to help Christ mend the world.

Conquest and abdication are the two ways the church has historically misunderstood its role in the world. Let’s think about it.

Christian Conquerors

When the church gets mixed up in the machinations of empire, we become intoxicated with power—the kind of power Jesus specifically critiqued and rejected. We should know better than to be seduced by political power. But when Caesar is a hometown boy and he offers us the role of chaplain along with a backstage pass to the corridors of power (all for the “innocent task” of christening his ambitions), we often find it too much to resist. That’s when sword and flag and cross and political allegiance all morph into a nationalized vision of “Christian conquest”—a vision ever popular from Constantine’s Milvian bridge hallucination onward.

And what’s wrong with conquest?
Conquest involves killing.
Ever and always.
And it cannot be done in the name of Jesus!
Talk of “necessary means” for “better ends”—
Is just faux lamb-speak from the mouth of the dragon.

The means are the end in the process of becoming.
If the means involve killing, the end is death.
If the means involve deceit, the end is a lie.

Jesus does not call us to conquer the world.
That is the third wilderness temptation—
A temptation that Christ rejected…
And a temptation the church must also reject.

If we don’t understand this we run the risk of distorting Immanuel into Gott mit uns.
The Hebrew Immanuel and the German Gott mit uns both mean the same thing—
God with us.
But they represent entirely different paradigms with polar opposite histories.
Immanuel was Isaiah’s poetic name for the Prince of Peace.
Gott mit uns was the slogan on Nazi belt-buckles.
Immanuel is the mystery of God’s solidarity with humanity for the purpose of salvation.
Gott mit uns is the assertion that God is on our side by being against our enemies—
Thus giving us a divine right to kill them.
This is the lie that goes all the way back to Cain.
And it’s a lie Jesus comes to save us from.

Christian Escapists

Christian conquest is out of the question.
It’s simply not what we are called to do in relation to the world.
But neither are we called to escape, flee, abandon or abdicate this world.
That is a kind of Gnosticism and no kind of Christianity.
The cure for Constantinianism is not Gnosticism.
Constantine wants to conquer the world (in the name of Jesus).
The Christian Gnostic wants to escape the world (to be with Jesus).
Both are mistaken and misguided.
Christianity is world-mending and world-affirming—
Not world conquering or world-denying.
Until we find a Christlike balance in this world—
We will careen from one extreme to the other like a staggering drunk.
First conquering (and killing), then escaping (and forsaking) God’s good world.

Harold Camping.
The most spectacularly failed prognosticator since Y2K and “the sky is falling” alarmists.
(But unlike them, Camping will not be able to slink off into the consolation of anonymity.)
Harold Camping is an exaggerated example of what can happen when you think the Bible is some sort of “secret code” to be cracked. It is not.

But there’s a lot more wrong with Harold Camping’s doomsday eschatology than just a failed prognostication. The whole paradigm is rotten.

Doom-oriented eschatology is unwittingly infected with the Gnostic contempt for God’s good creation (including not only nature, but human society), and wrongly assumes that God has condemned the world and the best we can hope for is to get our ticket on the space shuttle. It’s a pervasive idea among many Christians (especially in America)…and it’s all wrong.

Where to start (especially since I’m writing a blog and not a book)?

Heaven is not a distant place, it’s a different dimension.
Heaven is God’s space that tangentially intersects with our space.
To understand this it would help if we would stick more closely to the Biblical syntax of “the heavens” rather than the truncated “heaven.” (e.g. “our Father who is in the heavens” and “the kingdom of the heavens ”)

What we are awaiting is not transport to some distant place so that God can kick his creation into the garbage can, but the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ and the subsequent judgment—or setting to rights—of a world gone wrong. The blessed hope isn’t “we’re going,” but “he’s coming!” The blessed hope is what Jesus and the apostles called the parousia—the appearing. The parousia is the moment when the veil between the heavens and earth is suddenly pulled back allowing us to fully perceive the reality that Jesus is Lord. The parousia of Christ is the marriage of the heavens and earth (to borrow John the Revelator’s metaphor) and it results in a garden-like civilization (to borrow another of the Revelator’s metaphors).

Until that time, mankind following the city planning set forth by Cain will produce plenty of burning Gehennas, bloody Armageddons, and falling Babylons. These patterns are revealed and prophetically critiqued in Scripture, but none are inevitable. The way of peace always remains possible…if we will only believe in Jesus and his way of mending the world.

So let us have no more of this silly, pseudo-Gnostic talk about this world not being our home. Of course it is! It’s what Jesus came to save! (It’s time we learned the verse that comes after John 3:16!)

Christian Healers

Jesus is not asking us to conquer the world—that is contemptible.
Jesus is not asking us to escape the world—that is irresponsible.
Jesus is asking us to help him mend the world—and it is possible!

Picture a dilapidated house. It’s our home. The home built by God for humanity in the beginning. It has been damaged. Severely. Someone has posted a “condemned” sign on it. (I think it was the devil.) But the house is not condemned. The Father has sent his Son (the carpenter!) to salvage the home he built for humanity. And the Carpenter of Nazareth invites us to believe in him and believe in what he is doing. He invites the church to participate with him in the great restoration project of mending the world. So let’s get busy helping Jesus heal our home.

We’re not conquerors.
We’re not escapists.
We are healers.

It’s an essential change in paradigm.

We are not plotting with Caesar how to conquer the world.
We are not predicting with Camping the end of the world.
We are working with Christ to help mend the world.

Tikkun Olam!


(My friend Dmitri Poliakoff took the picture from the roof of our hotel.)