Generosity as Resistance

By Brian Zahnd| Article from 3 DECEMBER 2015

“Don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age.”
–Romans 12:2

The Apostle Paul used this provocative language to urge the followers of Jesus who were living in the capital of the Roman Empire to resist enforced conformity — and I’m quite certain Paul would use similar vocabulary were he to write to Christians living in America today. Like the Roman Christians in the 1st century, American Christians are under pressure to conform to the dominant culture of our age. America is the Rome of our times, so we must never forget that Christianity is a resistance movement. We who confess that Jesus is Lord are to defy being molded into the image dictated by the age and empire in which we happen to be living. Christians are to conform to the values derived from the Sermon on the Mount, not the values espoused from Capitol Hill or Wall Street.

To heed the apostolic exhortation to resist being squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age, it may help to identify what kind of people the present age is trying to make us into. I can do it in one word: Consumers. If we are squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age, we will be conscripted into the legions of restless consumers. Ours is the age of consumption. We are a people shaped by the liturgies of advertising and taught to genuflect in the gilded temple of the mall. The creed is, “You are what you buy.” The philosophy is, “I shop, therefore I am.” This is what we must resist—the enforced conformity to consumption as a lifestyle. Consumerism is our greatest obstacle to Christ-likeness. Contemporary Christians in the Western world are those trying to enter the kingdom of God through the eye of the needle.

In this present danger it’s all too easy for us to fixate on faux threats so that we don’t have to face real ones. Capitulation to consumerism is the true enemy threatening our Christian witness. Despite the Islamophobic hysteria among many American Christians, the mall poses a greater threat to Christianity than the mosque. It’s not Sharia law that imperils us, but American consumerism. As a pastor I’m not worried about my congregation converting to Islam, but I fear that most of us are already converts to consumerism. This is why we must remind ourselves that we are a resistance movement.

Generosity as a Creative Act of Resistance

What does it look like to resist consumerism? Like contentment and generosity. The Apostle Paul says, “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” He then goes on to urge those who possess the wealth of this age “to be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:8, 18). In an age enslaved to consumerist acquisition, contentment and generosity are creative acts of resistance. To give regularly, joyfully, and generously to the church and the poor is an act of anti-consumerism that is integral to Christlikeness. Let me give you an example of generosity as resistance.

For many years our church has engaged in a practice called Project 58. We derive its name from the passage in Isaiah 58 where God says—

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the chains of injustice,
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry,
and to provide the homeless with shelter;
when you see the naked to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear.
(Isaiah 58:6–8)

Project 58 combines this text with the ancient church practice of the Friday fast. We encourage our congregation to do two things:

  1. To fast the noon meal on Friday as an act of devotion to the crucified Christ and as an act of resistance to the consumerist spirit of the age.
  2. To take the money that would have been spent on the noon meal and give it to Project 58, which helps to fund our social justice programs.

From the funds generated from Project 58 we assist the poor in our congregation and community. We pay rent and utility bills, provide food and clothing, and pay for repairs to cars and to homes for the less fortunate among us. I remember when Project 58 paid for new teeth for a new convert whose own had been ruined through meth addiction. His grateful smile was worth a million dollars!

Finding Authenticity by Giving

The priests of consumption with their advertising liturgies tell us a hundred times a day that happiness is a commodity and that human worth is measured by net worth. This is what we must resist. The church must not give us a “Christianized” version of consumerism, rather it must be a bold resistance movement to the dominant culture. Prayer and fasting, tithes and offerings are all part of our resistance program. When we fast we say No! to the pernicious lies of consumerism. When we give with generosity we are seeking to be formed in a way that does not leave us as restless consumers always chasing the carrot of consumption.

Jesus taught us that our true happiness will not be found in never-ending acquisition, but in self-sacrificing generosity. If we seek to keep our lives, we lose our souls. But if we lose our lives for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, we save our souls and find authentic lives worth living.

Generosity is resistance—resistance to that which would destroy us. Generosity is wisdom—wisdom leading to spiritual contentment and human fulfillment. Let us resist being conformed to the present age by embracing the wisdom of generosity.

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