Finally, after a great deal of introduction in the previous two posts (here and here), we will begin to dig into the main body of the book, covering, in this review, chapter two, “The Way of Weakness” and in the next installment, chapter three, “The Way of Renunciation” (don’t worry, that installment will be a lot shorter than this one). In both of these, Jones has some hard words for contemporary American churches, hard words that recall us to crucial Biblical themes that we like to ignore. My worry, though, comes with the question that must come next, after this realization: “How can I live my life differently so as to be a faithful disciple?” I’m not sure we’re given enough in these chapters to start answering this question very clearly. This is not because Jones fails to spell out all the specific concrete applications—indeed, to do so would prematurely stifle Christian liberty and in any case, be of little use because of the immense variety of circumstances in which Christians would be called upon to apply these principles. Rather, my concern is that Jones does not give sufficient coherence to the concept of “weakness” and “renunciation” to enable earnest believers to determine with any confidence how to apply them.
For in these chapters, Jones challenges two of the great gods of our age, military power and wealth, both points on which conscientious Christians will find themselves challenged by myriad practical ethical questions: when and what is an appropriate use of force, if there exists such a thing? How can I be a good steward of material wealth, or should I even think in those terms? Of course, his points in these chapters are broader than that, and he has somewhat more focused discussions of each of these issues in chapters six and five, respectively, as well as returning to critique common Christian views of wealth in chapters 15 and 16 and “American Mars” in chapter 17. Nonetheless, many of the fundamental ambiguities created in these two chapters will remain unresolved in those later discussions.
So, while very helpful in undermining pathologies of the American Right, these chapters are not particularly useful in providing guidance for the Christian asking, “How shall I then live?” This is particularly the case with the first, “The Way of Weakness.” “Weakness,” after all, is a relative term. “Weak” in relation to what? One person’s “weak” looks awfully strong to another. This ambiguity surfaces at the outset of the chapter, where Jones identifies weakness as an essential mark of Jesus’s kingdom, and, rather than coming into greater clarity as the chapter progresses and Jones provides an extended walk through the theme of “weakness” in Scripture, the ambiguities just loom larger.
Jones begins the chapter with rather damning, if typical quotations from Seneca and Walter Russel Mead on the importance, glory, and power of the Roman and American empires, respectively. “Jesus,” he says, “instituted a vastly different kind of kingdom. He called for a kingdom of weakness in contrast to the way of power and domination” (17). One might, at this point, cry foul from the perspective of Protestant two-kingdoms thought, in which Jesus’s kingdom, properly speaking, is supernatural in its object, and not necessarily in rivalry with the concerns of politics. We may have occasion to expound this line of objection in later installments, but it is not really helpful or necessary here. For it is true that Jesus calls his followers to exercise humility and peaceableness, and renounce domination and aggression, in all their dealings, whether spiritual, personal, or political. Jones is right, in fact, when he goes on to quote 1 Cor. 1:26-29, about how “God has chosen weak things for his kingdom” and criticizes us for “turn[ing] it into a claim about Christian ideas and how Christian ideas might seem foolish in a secular culture.” “Paul,” he says, “talked about actual people in Christ’s kingdom . . . they were drawn primarily from the underclass” (17). Historically, this is a broadly accurate statement, and the large point that Paul draws from it—“God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty” is one that we should not be afraid to read in a very concrete sense.
Indeed, I think it is a point that many of us as Christians instinctively grasp and internalize—this is why stories like those of Lewis and Tolkien resonate so deeply so deeply with us; as Elrond says, “Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” The great genius of the plot of The Lord of the Rings, as a number of critics have discussed, lies in how it juxtaposes the small, humble, weak actions of the hobbits against the great, grand, and powerful actions of the high and noble, and how at every point it is the former, not the latter, that are turning the wheels of history. Likewise, in The Chronicles of Narnia, in every story it is mere children who are the protagonists and heroes, upsetting the seemingly better-laid plans of those who are much older, stronger, and smarter. We love these stories because we realize that this is the way the world works, because this is the way that God works. But, using examples such as these should alert us of the danger of a simple appeal to the superiority of “weakness.”
After all, if “weakness” were simply better, then we would presumably conclude that the very weakest was the best, that God would rather work through a penniless invalid who lacked both education and native intelligence, than through any other instrument. And yet, this is rarely the case in Scripture. Such very weak people are of course not there to be trampled on; on the contrary, God calls us to care for them. Jesus frequently ministers to them.
And to be sure, in thus ministering to them, we ourselves are ministered to, as God uses them to teach us what love means, what humility means, and to remind us of our own weakness. But implicit in this call to care for them is the fact that God calls upon those who are not wholly weak to help those who are. So, to use the example of Tolkien, it is hobbits, yes, but particularly strong, hardy, courageous, and intelligent (each in their own way) hobbits that are the heroes of the story; their relative weakness is a recurrent theme, but so is their possession of a surprising strength. The same goes for Biblical examples. Perhaps the first to mind, when we think of God using the weak to shame the strong, is David vs. Goliath. And yet David was, we are given to understand, an extraordinarily gifted young man, possessed of not only a powerful intellect and courage but impressive physical prowess as well. He may not have fought in battle, but he had subdued lions and bears before single-handed. We are surprised less by his actual weakness, than by his remarkable strength where we might have expected to find weakness. Likewise, while he does not go against Goliath with shield and sword, he doesn’t go up against him with a feather, either. He uses a weapon, one in which he is singularly skilled.
Likewise, if “weakness” were simply better without qualification, then it would follow that the weak ought never to enlist the help of the strong, appeal to the strong, or seek to bring the strong on God’s side, to use their strength for his purposes. Instead, the weak should studiously avoid and ignore the strong, and seek to remain as weak as possible. Certainly, we have some examples like this in Scripture. But we also have many quite the contrary. One of the great Biblical tales of weakness triumphing over strength is Esther—a powerless woman who thwarted a great royal official and saved her nation. But how did she do it? By scheming (or rather, following her uncle Mordecai’s scheming) to position herself near power, and then boldly going to the greatest emperor on earth to ask him to intervene on behalf of her people. Here, as many times throughout Scripture, and in our daily experience, weakness triumphed by showing an uncanny ability to persuade power. In the New Testament, Paul himself could rejoice at how God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong, and yet in the book of Acts, he displays an obsession with getting to Rome, so that he can preach the gospel in the household of Caesar.
Related to this point, if “weakness” were simply better without qualification, it would follow that the weak ought never to want to become strong. Clearly this is not Biblical, as we are promised that the humble will be exalted, the weak will be made strong. Jones himself would be the first to insist that this is not merely an eschatological promise about some far future time, but a statement about what happens in history. But what then? If God lifts the weak up into positions of power, what are they to do then? Renounce that power, or use it? The story of Daniel suggests that the answer is, at least sometimes, the latter.
All of this could seem like mere nitpicking, but in fact, it is of the utmost importance, if we are to move from the point of nice-sounding exhortations—“Remember that God works through weakness, not through strength”—to practical discipleship. Should we flee or despise wealth, physical strength, political power, and influence altogether? Should we treat those who possess them as “second-class citizens in the kingdom” (29) as Jones puts it? Or should the Biblical theme of weakness serve rather to warn us against blind faith in power, reminding us to “put no confidence in princes,” since God moves in mysterious ways, working sometimes through established channels, but also raising up his heroes from unexpected places? The latter, I think, most good teachers of the faith would tell you (although they, and we, are certainly prone to forget it, and need to be reminded often). Jones seems to want to go further than that, but if it is the former he wants to say, he would seem to be going well beyond Scripture.
So let’s turn with him to Scripture, and look at some of his Scriptural examples of “weakness” to see how clear of a picture emerges. Jones’s first major example is, surprisingly, Abraham. “Often, we too classify Abrahm as a rich man in modern terms, but he wouldn’t have stood out that way in his time?” (18) Um, really? What exactly is the biblical evidence for that? When we are first introduced to Abraham, we are told, “Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan” (Gen. 12:4-5). When God calls Abram, he is a man laden down with possessions and numerous slaves and servants. In the next chapter, we are told, “Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. . . . And Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them dwelling together, for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together” (13:2, 5-6). In the next chapter, Abram sets out to rescue Lot from the forces of five petty kings, and we learn that he has no less than three hundred and eighteen “trained men, born in his house.” Whoa. That’s a pretty substantial private army. For him to have had 318 trained fighters among the servants that had been born in his house, we can estimate that he had well over 1,000 servants in total, perhaps 2,000 or more. In other words, this isn’t just your typical wandering nomad in tents.
So what is Jones talking about? Well, he says, “To be rich in Abraham’s time, you needed to have the power of permanence, the wealth to stay in one place, preferably with a giant pyramid. The rich didn’t wander the Middle East like gypsies” (18). Jones provides no citation for this claim, and I would be curious to know its basis. While it is true that in the Fertile Crescent, the wealthy generally lived in established settlements, there were certainly parts of the Middle East in which the lifestyle of the very wealthy nomad was a standard feature of society. And the great powers of the region do not seem to have treated Abraham as a poor wandering gypsy; on the contrary, he is clearly highly enough esteemed as a man of high class that “when the princes of Pharaoh saw [his wife Sarai], they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels” (Gen. 12:15-16). In other words, the greatest ruler in the region treated Abraham as a classy foreign noble, from whom he could select a woman for himself, and offer in turn material gifts and favor. A similar scenario plays out with King Abimelech. In the end, all Jones can say about this is that Abraham was revealed as having “relative weakness” compared with powers like Pharaoh or the king of the Philistines. But this would be like pointing out that Mark Zuckerberg is relatively weak next to Barack Obama (or, perhaps, the other way around—but you get my point).
Of course, this is not to say that there is not a huge theme of weakness in Abraham’s life. Jones is quite right that there is. His lack of a stable inheritance, a land that will be his descendants’ own, is a lack he wants filled. More urgently, he lacks even an heir for much of the story, and in the weakness of old age, has to rely on God in hope that God will provide him an heir. Certainly, if you were to take stock of the leading men of the Middle East in 2000 BC to predict whose progeny would fill the earth and shape the course of history, Abraham would not have been on the short list. So the theme of weakness is definitely there. But the case of Abraham clearly highlights the question, “Weak in what respect? Weak in relation to what?” And if we are looking for practical guidance in today’s world, the case of Abraham would suggest that you can be “weak” for God’s purposes and still be, say, the CEO of a large company, or the governor of a state. If you take Abraham as your starting point, the lesson would seem to be, “Even those who are relatively wealthy and powerful must recognize their utter dependence upon God and follow him in humility” which seems to be exactly the sort of pietistic message that Jones is out to oppose.
Much the same goes for the other patriarchs—Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Each was weak in certain respects, and had moments when they were in profound weakness, wholly dependent upon God for deliverance. And yet each was also relatively powerful and wealthy; indeed, the last, Joseph, ascends to become arguably the most powerful man in the Near East. Now, to be sure, you could retort that he gained this position of power not by clawing his way to the top, but by resting in faith on God, even when powerless. But if this is all Jones is saying, then it’s hardly anything new or striking—Christianity has always taught this (even if Christians struggle to live up to it).
What about Moses, the next big hero of weakness that Jones brings up? Well yes, “His life began not in nobility but in a desperate bulrush basket.” But if weakness were always better than strength, then “the scheming of Moses’ mother and sister” to put him in Pharaoh’s household was a mark not of faith, but faithlessness. True, “the Lord changed Moses from a privileged Egyptian elite into a shamed exile” (21), and yet it seems clear that his upbringing among the nobility and his close relations with the royal family were part of what fitted Moses for the task of confronting Pharaoh and leading the Israelites. Again, we see God using a curious, unpredictable mixture of strength and weakness to accomplish his ends.
This continues as we move on through the invasion of Canaan and the deeds of the Judges. Yes, the Israelites were, we are told, weaker than the nations they subdued, and the Judges often won great victories with inferior forces (Gideon being the preeminent example). Indeed, we learn that, when they did not depend on God and obey him, numerical strength was useless (e.g., with Achan and Ai). However, it did not follow that they were simply to sit passively by and use no strength at all; in every case, God called on them to use the military power at their disposal, and trust him to bless it with victory.
When we come to the history of the kings, Jones has almost nothing good to say about them. Indeed, he bases his whole assessment of Old Testament kingship on a one-sided reading of 1 Samuel 8, that leads him to discount everything positive that the Scriptures say about the kings, describing “the abject failure of the experiment with the kings.” To be sure, the days of the kings were filled with injustice and idolatry, but they were better than the days of the Judges, during which we hear the lament, “In those days, there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Indeed, although Jones quotes numerous prophets who rebuked the kings for not pursuing justice, this simply highlights the point that they were called to execute justice. Jeremiah does not rebuke the king for existing, and for wielding power, but for failing to use the power in service of the office of justice to which God had called him. Accordingly, those kings who did execute justice receive warm praises from God in Scripture. Several of the psalms glorify the institution of kingship and rejoice in the favor God bestows on the king (eg. Pss. 20, 21, 45, 72). Of course, we can point out that even the best kings fell short of the described ideal, and so ultimately these psalms point to Christ, but the same can be said of all the fallible OT heroes who are types of Christ.
So, what about Jesus? In him, surely, we see the culmination of the way of weakness. “Thou who was rich beyond all splendor, all for love’s sake becamest poor.” Jones’s main focus in this section of his chapter, however, is less about how Jesus epitomizes weakness, and more about his attitude toward the weak and non-weak. Here he elaborates his description of the wealthy, mentioned above, as “second-class citizens in the kingdom” (29). This raises the stakes somewhat. The question confronted here is “Who does Jesus care about?” And the answer Jones seems to flirt with giving is, “If you aren’t poor and weak, in quite a literal sense, Jesus doesn’t care much about you.” To be sure, Jones in this section is reacting to a real problem, our instinctive preference for courting the well-to-do in our churches. He describes it:
In most of our middle-class denominations, when we want to plant a church, we generally find a nice, suburban place with enough middle-class families to support a full-time pastor. In other words, we go directly contrary to Jesus’s pattern. He went to the unhealthy first. We ignore the weak. (29)
But Jones does not want to correct this one-sidedness by merely insisting that we actively seek out the poor and make them a central part of our communities. Rather, he almost seems to want to shove the rich out of the door of the church onto the streets.
Jesus began his ministry with offensive claims. He said he didn’t bring a universal message for everyone. His kingdom wasn’t going to focus on those who were ‘first’ in the eyes of the world. He didn’t come to serve the so-called healthy and righteous. Jesus came to focus on the weak. (27)
Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak in terms of class differences
or to side with the weak and powerless. (28)
He intentionally avoided trying to minister to the wealthy and powerful. They didn’t enter his interests much at all. And when they did, he urged them to become second-class citizens in the kingdom, and let the weak and outcast fill the center (29).
(It’s important to note that Jones goes on to make clear that by “the rich,” which for Jesus clearly meant the upper classes, he includes “decent ‘middle-class’ folks” (29). It is not until chapter 5 that he really seeks to justify this equation, by arguing that since the modern American middle-class is extremely well-off in historical and global terms, we can safely apply any Biblical statements about “the rich” to this class. I will offer some comments about this move when we come to ch. 5.)
Of course, these last lines show that the wealthy are not excluded altogether, but what does it mean to say they are “second-class” or not at the center? He says other things of this sort: “The rich and powerful might come along, too, though it would be very difficult for them to be happy in his kingdom on earth (Matt. 19:23)” (27). But what does this mean? What does it mean when he complains that “We insist that the gospel should go to everyone indiscriminately” (29)? Does he really want us not to evangelize any but the poor? Or does he really want to have different classes of membership within the church? On the contrary, the testimony of the whole New Testament points to the idea that the community within the church was to be characterized by equality—none were to consider themselves higher than others within the body of Christ. This seems to be what James means when he says “Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but the rich in his humiliation” (Jas. 1:9, 10): the poor have been lifted up, the rich brought down, so that all are now at the same level. And yet when Jones quotes this passage, he seems to want it to mean that the two have now switched places, so that the poor are on top and the rich below.
Jones makes many appeals to the sayings of Jesus as well, but the clearest way of reading these seems to be, first, to take somewhat at face value sayings such as “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Lk. 5:31); the poor are the focus of Jesus’s ministry above all because they are in much greater need of his ministry. Beyond this, it is true that the rich come in for special criticism and are less likely to be followers of Jesus, but this is not because the gospel is not for them too, but because they are too proud to recognize their need for it. Those who do recognize their need, such as Zacchaeus or the centurion, are warmly welcomed by Jesus. (Jones’s rendition of Jesus’s encounter with the centurion is something of a travesty: “He was kind once to a powerful centurion, loving an enemy, but the centurion didn’t afterwards follow Jesus around Palestine like the poor and sick did” (28). Matthew’s description of that occasion poses quite a contrast: “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him,’Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven’” (Mt. 8:10-11).)
We might sum up Jesus’s attitude to the rich well with his words to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:17-18:
For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.
The problem is thus that wealth easily produces pride, which feels no need for the grace of God, not that the grace of God has nothing for the wealthy. Perhaps Jones will say that this is all he meant to say, but if so, he could have said so much more clearly, without all the talk of “second-class citizens.” Now of course, none of this is yet to address the question of what God demands of the rich who do come into his kingdom—this will be touched on a bit more in the chapter that follows, “The Way of Renunciation,” and a bit later in ch. 5, “The Way of Sharing.”
To bring to bear some of the points from the first part of this post, and to bring it all to a close, it’s worth again making the point about relative weakness. It is simply not the case that Jesus’s ministry leads us to valorize the weakest only, and marginalize all the rest. In fact, although it pains me to say anything positive about John Schneider’s book The Good of Affluence, he makes some fairly compelling arguments to the effect that Jesus occupied something like the middle-class of his day. Yes, he was very poor from our standpoint, but as a self-employed carpenter, he hailed from the artisan classes, which were a sizeable step above the true poor of Palestine, the day laborers with nothing but their sweat to sell, who appear in the parable of the laborers. The same is true of many of the disciples: James, John, Peter, and Andrew were fishermen who owned their own boats, more than could be said for many; Matthew had been a tax collector. And, although Jesus said, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” we know that he spoke somewhat hyperbolically, as we frequently find him and his disciples enjoying the hospitality of reasonably well-off friends, relatives, and followers. I don’t think any of this means that we can comfortably brush aside everything he says against wealth and the wealthy, as Schneider tends to do, but it highlights the point that despite the centrality of weakness in Scripture, neither Jesus nor the other biblical writers seem to want God’s people, ordinarily, to reduce themselves to a state of material powerlessness.
Nor, I think, is that what Jones wants in the end. Maybe all he is saying that we need to think a lot more about the importance of the poor and weak in the kingdom, and stop putting so much trust in power and riches. If so, I have no doubt that this is a message that, obvious though it may be, many American Christians urgently need to hear. Perhaps Jones is just trying to emphatically drive home an old and familiar point that we have too often forgotten. But if, then I can’t help but feel that that could have been said rather more clearly, with rather fewer stumbling blocks, and rather less fanfare.