Losing is tough. I hate it.
When George W. Bush won the White House, Democrats talked about moving north to Canada. And when Barack Obama replaced him, Republicans made similar grumblings.
When Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks threw away a chance to win Super Bowl XLIX, fans had to seek grief counseling.
But there has been no bigger fall in recent history than the fall of the Western church from the heights of influence in the era known as Christendom to its growing marginalization in the past few decades. Although vast numbers of people worldwide claim the name of Jesus as Lord, our role in the world is much diminished.
It feels like we’re losing. And we hate it.
Scattered throughout the book of Psalms, there are a number of psalms which were written during the period of Hebrew history which is called the Exile, the time when the southern kingdom of Judah was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the temple was destroyed, the walls of Jerusalem were pulled down so it could never rebel, the Davidic kingly line seemed to have been snuffed out, and the best and brightest were hauled off into exile to serve the Babylonian empire. It was the utmost of disasters. National identity was in shambles. All of the icons that held this people together was in ashes.
This was a huge loss and anger was high.
It’s into this context that Psalm 137 was written. Its anonymous writer begins by grieving: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (v. 1). Hearts were broken. Loved ones had been killed. The future was bleak. Every happy memory was now a source of sadness.
It’s in this moment of deep grief that Babylonian captors tormented the Jewish exiles, requesting Zion songs (vs. 2-3), rubbing the failure of their culture and faith in their faces. The psalmist writes, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (v. 4) He then makes a vow: I will never forget Jerusalem. And then he turns to God and says, “Don’t you forget, either! Don’t you forget the ones who have done this to us. Repay them!”
And then Psalm 137 ends with the scandalously angry verse 9: “Happy are those who seize your [Babylonian] infants and dash them against the rocks.”
It’s a horrific prayer. (And God doesn’t answer it with a Yes.) But it’s an understandable prayer. “We’ve lost everything precious to us and we want them to lose what’s most precious to them, their babies.”
It’s not uncommon for losers to lash out, especially when taunted by the winners. And the Church in the Western world has been on a long losing streak, and the culture we live in keeps taunting us about it. It’s no wonder so many Christians are both sad and mad.
But Psalm 137 is not a definitive psalm. It’s an essential psalm, expressing deep-seated feelings during a pivotal time. But other psalms and other expressions of faith take over from there as God’s people move from devastating loss and into a new reality.
Here’s the new reality: We are no longer in power. Instead, we live in occupied territory. Regaining lost position and power is not an option.
Coming up with a renewed identity, with new ways of thinking, new practices, and new objectives is essential. What we need is what I call Guerrilla Faith.
Guerrilla Faith embraces our new minority status and takes on an insurgent identity.
- It rejects the current tyranny as it waits in hope for the return of the King.
- It accepts hardship, suffering, and even death, expecting resurrection.
- It moves from being a meek majority in the spotlight to being a dangerous community of the unknown and unseen.
- It moves from limp evangelism to recruiting converts to the uprising.
- It abandons big buildings and big programs for diffused but tightly knit communities that spring up in unexpected places, doing the unexpected.
- It stops being an institution and starts to become a movement again.
- It risks upsetting others by upsetting the status quo.
- It sets aside its anger over its loss and replaces it with pity for the lost.
- It is subtle and non-violent in a culture of Michael Bay bombs and bombast.
- It goes the way of the mustard seed — small and insignificant seeming and yet invasive, resilient, and able to take over whole fields.
Holding on to position, to privilege, to property, to power — none of these are options for a guerrilla faith. We must embrace the margins not just as our new reality, but as the best place from which to seek the kingdom of God.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring each of the points above, seeking to articulate a truly Christian spirituality that comes from this guerrilla faith perspective and its practices.