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Bono, Occupy and the Challenge of Following the Jesus of the Oppressed

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I was sitting in Rwandan coffee shop Bourbon in New York, when Kristi York Wooten and Joshua Case's post entitled "Bono, Facebook and the Challenge of Following the Jesus of the Poor" appeared in my e-mail. I am always up for some insight on people's efforts to reconcile the radical words of Jesus with our modern way of living. Unfortunately, the article read like a bespoke piece written from PR talking points: Bono is rich; Bono does good work in the world through ONE and RED; Bono is a good Christian. Thanks. For good measure, we are informed, "When you have a conversation with Bono, he holds your hand and looks you straight in the eye."

I am proud to say I have worked in partnership and directly with ONE on several occasions and fully support their mission to fight extreme poverty and preventable disease. I've even met Bono a few times, though he never held my hands and his eyes were obscured by sunglasses. Still, he seemed like a nice chap. My intention is not to condemn the U2 frontman, but point out that the question initially posed in the post demands serious inquiry, not platitudes. All who care about ending poverty must wrestle with the question of how to stand for justice while living within an inherently inequitable system, whether one believes in Jesus or not.

Two Occupy activists sat down next to me as I continued reading. Eavesdropping I surmised they had both been arrested and recently released. One displayed painful cuts and bruises along his right arm. As I read about Bono's generosity with the riches with which he's been "Blessed," my ears perked when the young man said, "It's a privilege to be an activist." He continued, "You don't make any money, so you need to be in a position where you will survive without a wage ... most people aren't in that position. I'm privileged." It was eloquent and offhand.

In their glowing article, York Wooten and Case tell us about Bono who speaks alongside Obama at a food and agriculture symposium, appears on MSNBC saying "Hunger is a ridiculous thing," and gets fabulously wealthy, "All in a days work." Their article about having wealth and following Jesus does not quote Jesus or the Gospels. Yet the authors assure us that though scholars may have a hard time defining how Jesus would feel about Bono's level of wealth (they call it, "Influence"), they all agree: "Bono's principle commitment to fight for those on the margins of society is something that the Christian Bible holds as principle to its message."

In other words, he's rich, but he does a lot of good with his money so it is A-OK with the Big Guy. They do not name or quote a single such scholar. If they did, they might find someone like Tony Campolo who insists upon what we rarely hear in contemporary sermons. Jesus absolutely meant it when he said, "It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven" (emphasis God's).

Does this mean Bono is doomed? Absolutely not. Reductionist Evangelicals have pared our understanding of living faith down to an obsession with personal salvation. It is lazy, and wrong.

The Gospel writer, Matthew was writing to a good Jewish audience who would not abide God being named. Thus, we have countless references to "Heaven" in place of "God." A bit of basic exegesis makes clear that Jesus is referring not to Heaven and the abstract ideal of salvation, but to the Kingdom of God. The more concise writings of Mark render the quote as "Kingdom of God," lest we need more convincing that this is what Jesus meant.

A bit of basic theology teaches us that the Kingdom of God is where God reigns -- the sphere of God's influence and power. It is simply where God's will happens. It is hard for a rich person to exist in that Kingdom, or bring about the Kingdom, because the attainment of wealth often requires taking advantage of others. At the very least it requires participating in a system that does so. Capitalism is based on the premise of winners and losers, as is the stock market.

So where does that leave us with our Bono and Jesus question? Confused. We should commend his service and giving for social good just as we might the activist -- one, "Blessed"; the other, "Privileged." But none of this should shadow the reality that poverty and injustice exist because of an unjust system that favors victors with spoils and curses the less fortunate with misery. As much as we would like to, we cannot have our Walmart goods at cut-rate prices without billions at the bottom of the pyramid working for almost nothing. We are the 1 Percenters on the global scale. The 1 percent within the western world cannot have their exorbitant riches without siphoning off fat profits as goods move along the chain, and through their dangerous market speculation.

Modest efforts are made to rectify this reality through charity and policy like the push for a global transaction tax on banks, calls for government transparency and the end of tax havens. Ultimately, balancing these paradoxical realities leads to the unasked questions by Bono's fawning disciples: Can you be incredibly wealthy, philanthropic, but avoid taxes by hiding your money in off-shore accounts, yet still exemplify the principles of the Christian Bible? Can you play and win big at the capitalist game while serving and following the liberator who said unequivocally, "Give all you have to the poor and follow me"?

That's an article I'd like to read (emphasis mine).