I want to explore what it could look like to be immersed in a narrative of subversion. To state it in another way, how do we re-socialize ourselves into a kingdom rhythm that is defined by God and not the dominant capitalistic narrative?
We’ve been programmed to define life in terms of affluence, quantity, status and efficiency (this is not an exhaustive list). Capitalism and marketing have joined forces, producing a continuous carousel going around ad infinitum. The motion of the carousel mesmerizes with its humming of new wants. The success of the system lays in the fact that needs becomes wants in a matter of weeks, months or years.
Following Jesus starts the lifelong journey of eroding the mechanisms of the carousel. Following Jesus allows a virus into the operating system of this well-oiled machine. It leads one into a lifelong journey of developing new reflexes that habitually re-socializes one into a new dance; the dance of God the Father, God the Spirit and God the Son.
I’m more convinced than ever that Jesus was right that we cannot serve God and Mammon. Also that it is as hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Thankfully Jesus said that this impossibility can become possible with the help of God. But I digress. What are some of these alternative reflexes?
The first one has to do with attention.
What are we giving our attention to? Or who?
I offer a parable of a Johannesburg businessman who invited his school friend to come and visit him in the city. After school the two friends went on radically different paths. The one became a super successful investor (this category will have to be subverted later), his friend decided to become a farmer. Year after year he would invite his friend to come and visit in the city, and every time the friend declined.
One year the farmer decided to accept.
For a week he lived the hustle-and-bustle in Sandton with his friend. He was perplexed by the rush, the efficiency, and the externals. But also saddened, he experienced almost no friendliness. The people he observed were in some kind of zombie-like state. Relationships were reduced to functions.
On the last day of his visit the businessman and his friend walked through the mall. Suddenly the farmer stopped his friend and asked him, ‘do you hear that?’ ‘What?’ asked the business man. Pointing upwards, to the roof, he showed his friend where the dove sat. As the business man looked up he saw the dove, and also located the beautiful sound of the animal’s cooing.
A few minutes later the farmer dropped twenty Rand of coins on the ground. At least fifteen people stopped and paid attention (isn’t that an interesting way of phrasing it?)
People of the kingdom retrain themselves to give attention instead of paying attention. They are impressed by the unimpressive. The poor, the ugly, the discarded, the ones whose names are not worthy to be dropped in conversations – obviously the rich, beautiful, celebrities and the ones who’ve made it are also worthy of attention. But they’re worthy of attention because they’re human beings not because of their achievements in a capitalistic culture.
I think this is the challenge that James gave his congregation. They were to not give more attention to the rich and successful – for that would be a defining rhythm, not of faith but of someone’s life without Jesus.
Acknowledging this deeply ingrained narrative of capitalism will be the starting point of retraining the attention reflex. And by doing it, it will open up the possibility of living into the story of a giving God.