December 3, 2012 by jmar198013
These thoughts find me deeply indebted and grateful to the following:
William Cavanaugh, for his article “A world without enemies: The Eucharist and the work of peace,” and his two-part video series on Consumerism and Christianity.
Jason Godesky’s essay, “The Subversive Spirit of Christmas.”
Russell Rathburn’s article “Debt Crisis.”
Owe nothing to anyone, other than the ever outstanding debt of love for one another. For whoever loves his fellow humans has fulfilled the obligations of the law. The commandments, “You will not commit adultery”; “you will not take life”; “you will not covet”—all these and the rest are fulfilled in the single command, “You will love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore, love fulfills the obligations of the law. You know what time it is, so live accordingly. Wake from your slumber! Our deliverance is nearer now than it was when we first began to trust. Night time is almost over; the day is about to dawn. So take off the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live virtuously, as people do in the daytime. That means an end to extravagant partying and drinking binges, to the sexual revolution and wasteful excess, to polarizing debates and class warfare. Instead, wear the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ like a snug garment. Then you will cease looking for ways to fulfill your selfish wants. (Romans 13.8-14)
Paul’s words in Rom. 13.8-14 constitute a call to the church, a renewed invitation out of the world and its empires, into a home in God’s kingdom, God’s time. Fundamentally, Paul’s instruction to “owe nothing to anyone” is a word about allegiance. The church’s loyalty is to God’s kingdom, where love is the only debt. Paul wanted his readers to wake up, to open their eyes to their coming deliverance, and to live in the light of that new day.
But what does all this mean to us, particularly and now? Does this passage have anything to say to present-day American Christians?
More to the point, does this passage have anything to say to us American Christians as we enter this season of Advent? To we who are called by this season to live in anticipation of Christ’s coming?
Even more to the point: What does this passage tell us American Christians as we gather at Christ’s table, anticipating his coming?
I would suggest that one way we could live faithful to Paul’s words is to re-think our Christmas gifting routine. I wonder how our approach to gift-giving might change if we truly lived under the motto, “Owe nothing to anyone, other than the outstanding debt of love for one another.” Karl Barth wrote that, “love of one another ought to be undertaken as the protest against the course of this world.” The course of the world we know is a driven consumerism that has commercialized culture, sex, and governance. The culture of consumerism promises freedom and fulfillment but delivers alienation and restlessness. And now even Christmas has been taken captive by it, and if you think I am being alarmist about the alienation and restlessness, I say just look at holiday shoppers. Jesus said you judge a tree by its fruits. I present to you a Wal-Mart employee crushed to death by a stampeding hoard on Black Friday a few years back. I present to you the pepper spray antics of a Los Angeles Black Friday shopper last year. And of course, a litany maxed-out credit cards during an ongoing recession. There is a world of difference between a people that views gift-giving as an economic exchange and people who know that we live by gifts.
So I propose that we make this Advent season a time to give gifts in accord with Paul’s word: “Owe nothing to anyone, other than the ever outstanding debt of love for one another.” This is a sharp contrast with what gift-giving has become in our consumer culture. In our consumer culture, gift-giving has become a sort of balance-sheet, a quid pro quo affair. Extravagant gifts make us uncomfortable, because we feel pressured to reciprocate in kind. Re-gifting has become taboo. Homemade gifts are vanishingly rare. These are all consequences of a consumer culture. A single lavish gift of high quality; a gift re-given; a gift made by hand and given to a family member or friend—well, an heirloom passed along doesn’t create more consumption. The problem, of course, with this setup is that eventually gifts cease to be gifts. They become transactions. This is precisely what creates the alienation and restlessness I pointed out earlier. So what would it mean, by contrast, to “Owe nothing to anyone, except the outstanding debt of love?” It means first that we give and receive without a balance being kept, with no expectation of immediate return. It means that our gifts are always given with the highest good for our particular neighbor in mind. The end result is that after a while, extremely strong bonds of both indebtedness and gratitude are formed. Everyone in the family, in the church, in the community soon recognizes that we are in so much debt to each other that there’s no need keeping score. We all owe one another anything we have to share. Strangely enough, however, we shall also find that what we owe to each other is not a burden—it’s not at all like paying a tax or a bill. It’s just the ever outstanding debt of love for one another. You become consumed into the community, consumed by love itself.
In practical terms, I’m suggesting that being Advent people means that we might use Christmas gifts as a “protest against the course of this world.” Crochet, cobble, or cook a Christmas gift. Babysit for Christmas. Pass along a treasured heirloom for Christmas, and be sure to tell its story, so that its value increases with each re-gifting. Invite a lonely person to your home for Christmas. Listen to someone for Christmas. Take your children to perform some service to the elderly or infirm for Christmas. If you’re feeling real adventurous, finance a micro-loan or buy up someone’s debt through the Rolling Jubilee for Christmas. We can anticipate Christ’s arrival by making Christ present. In a community consumed by making Christ present through an ethic of no debt but love, Paul’s claim that, “Our deliverance is nearer now than it was when we first began to trust,” becomes quite tangible.
As we make Christ present in our love for others, we become enveloped in Christ’s presence. Paul tells us to “wear the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ like a snug garment.” John Calvin wrote of this passage: “To put on Christ is to possess Christ, to have him in us, and us in him.” When we live in such a way that the word, “owe no one anything except the ever outstanding debt of love,” becomes flesh, we are practicing the presence of Christ. And when we translate that into something as tangible as the gifts we bestow during this season, our gifting is transformed. We are no longer captive consumers. We are consumed with Christ’s presence, consumed into his body, consumed by love itself.
Consumed with Christ’s presence. Consumed into his body. Consumed by love itself. That points us back to the meaning of this table, especially during this season of Advent, where we celebrate Christ’s coming and anticipate his return. At this table, we consume the bread and the cup which are the body and blood of Christ. And yet we do not consume Jesus; Jesus consumes us. The Eucharist teaches us how to live, for it is our participation in Jesus’ giving of himself to heal the brokenness of our world. Likewise, our homemade Christmas gifts, our re-gifted Christmas gifts, our Christmas gifts of space and attentive ears—these are also ways of sharing in Christ’s self-giving. They are practices shaped by Paul’s invitation to, “Owe nothing to anyone, other than the ever outstanding debt of love for one another,” a way of living that makes sense only if the story this table tells is true.
Prayer: Father, as we share in Christ’s body, broken for us, and his blood, shed for us, may we be moved to also share ourselves for the sake of each other, of the church, and of this world. May we be no longer restless consumers, but those who are consumed into Christ’s body, where we find rest. Father, make us a people among whom Paul’s word, no debt but love, is made flesh. Make this church your gift. Amen.