In the early to mid-sixties, the media had taken to calling Bob Dylan the voice of his generation, and more—they began calling him a poet.
At one press conference in December of 1965 a reporter asked him if he thought of himself more as a singer or a poet… Bob Dylan smiled his crooked smile and shook his shaggy head and said, “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance-man.” 1
A few months later, Bob Dylan told Nat Hentoff, “Art, if there is such a thing, is in the bathrooms; everybody knows that. To go to an art gallery thing where you get free milk and doughnuts and where there is a rock-‘n’-roll band playing: That's just a status affair. I’m not putting it down, mind you; but I spend a lot of time in the bathroom. I think museums are vulgar.” 2
In other words, Bob was less interested in art for refined elites in galleries and museums, than he was in art that exists where everyone spends at least some time.
Shane Claiborne is one of the founders of the Simple Way, a New Monastic intentional Christian community in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. The choice of that neighborhood wasn’t an accident. Part of their calling as New Monastics is to inhabit the abandoned places of Empire. They have lived there for just about twenty years.
There they have begun to build not just their own intentional community, but to grow into relationship with a whole neighborhood. And they have found ways to hear and raise up the voices of the poor who live in that neighborhood and in that city. Maybe most notoriously they are known for going to jail and to court for feeding the homeless in a park near their community.
In his book, Jesus for President, Claiborne, writes
People sometimes ask if we are scared of the inner city. We say that we are more scared of the suburbs. Our Jesus warns that we can fear those things which can hurt our bodies or those things which destroy our souls, but we should be far more fearful of the latter. Those are the subtle demons of suburbia. As [my] mother says, “Perhaps there is no more dangerous place for a Christian to be than in safety and comfort, detached from the suffering of others.” We’re scared of apathy and complacency, of detaching ourselves from the suffering. 3
He also regularly quotes the classic line: “Our politics are shaped by what’s outside our window.” And said that that’s just as true about our theology.
Amaziah, the priest of Bethel and holy man of the northern Kingdom in one of its wealthiest and most corrupt times, was close to it’s King Jeroboam II. And King Jeroboam was one of the most politically, militarily, and economically successful Kings in the history of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. So Amaziah was close to the center of power and privilege in that kingdom. And from that place near the center of power and privilege Amaziah said to Amos, “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
But Amos—a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees, living amongst the working poor, sharing their work, their life, their suffering, far from the centers of power and its comforts as the world measures it—replies, “the Lord said to me, ‘Go. Prophecy to my people, Israel.’” And he did prophesy. He prophesied about the end of Jeroboam’s life and reign and about Israel’s exile.
John the Baptist, too, was a prophet at the edges of society, gathering a community of disciples—a community that, precisely by their waiting and looking for the true king (the Messiah) to come, delegitimized King Herod’s reign. So John’s community found it safer to live out in the desert rather than in Jerusalem near the Herod.
This John the Baptist, living among his alternative community, in the hope of an alternative Kingdom, was commanded by God to speak his Word, and he did out of that place at the edges of Empire, but into the heart of Empire, and it cost him his head.
In both cases Amos and John, like so many in throughout scripture, spoke the word God gave them to speak far from the center of worldly power. Maybe they were able to faithfully hear and speak the Word of God in part because of that distance from the center of worldly power and because of their nearness to those who live away from it.
The earliest Church, like Amos and John the Baptist, also lived away from the centers of power. The earliest Church, as a tiny, insignificant movement in the greatest Empire the world has ever known, like Amos and John the Baptist, lacked worldly power. They, too, were threatened, often with hostility and sometimes even persecution.
But they, too, were given a Word from God: God’s Word made flesh (and that incarnation itself happened away from the centers of power!). It was a Word that was not meant for them alone, but meant for the whole world; a Word that they were commanded by God to speak, to share, no less than Amos or John the Baptist were; a Word that wasn’t just another version of the words of Empire—just another version of the words of those who determined what was right or what was possible—just another version of the words approved by those at the center of power, but a Word with a different kind of power; a Word of a new King with a new reign and a new way of living; a Word of liberation from all other powers, from oppression, from poverty, from hunger, even from death. A Word of life.
And so, for the first few centuries or so the Church’s whole life was oriented toward and organized for hearing and being shaped by and then speaking, sharing, in words and in their life, that Word:
• getting clear about the Word they were given, learning it well, and becoming disciples in order to disciple others;
• showing in their life together how Christ, the Word made flesh, through the Holy Spirit, sanctified and transformed their life together and the lives of those they touched with God’s own power and might;
• bearing in their life together the suffering imposed on them by the centers of power and even in that way, speaking more clearly the Word they were given.
Their whole life together was organized, oriented for mission. Their whole life was proclaiming, by word and deed and transformed and transforming lives, the gospel (the good news) of that Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
That changed in 313. The Edict of Milan legalized Christianity. Eventually Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Church moved from the margins of power to its center. And for centuries the Church enjoyed its proximity to the powers that protected her and gave her privileges. We liked full churches and Sunday schools, and secular schedules cleared on Sunday mornings. We’d still like it if we could have it.
But the Church near the centers of power has a really different perspective from the Church that lived at the edges of power in the first centuries. The Word it’s given becomes more accommodated to worldly power, and maybe the motivation and urgency to share it, or to say it clearly, lessens. The world looks different from where Amaziah and Jeroboam and Herod live than where Amos and John live.
But it’s up to us where we—the Church—live. Maybe we can’t all move into a neighborhood away from the centers of power (but it might help!), but we can decide who we listen to, who we pay attention to, who we stand with. It’s up to us to decide from where we see God’s world. It’s up to us which windows we look out. It’s up to us whether we spend more time where elites gather, like museums, or where everyone spends time.
And, if Amos and John and the other true prophets of scripture tell us anything, the faithfulness of the Word hear and the Word we speak will depend in part on our distance from the center of worldly power and our nearness to those who live away from it.
1From the Martin Scorcese film, "No Direction Home."
2Bob Dylan, The Essential Interview, 102-103
3Shane Claiborne and Christ Haw, Jesus for President, 292