Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Second Zacchaeus Fellowship

Today's message was funded by a generous grant from the Church of the Orange Sky. Please consider a donation to the Church's authorized representative via his Paypal account or personal cheque.

I've spoken before about how North American Christianity seems subject to absurd fads, some of which stay for years, but most of which fade pretty quickly - small groups, Alpha, the Prayer of Jabez, the Purpose-Driven Life, Promise Keepers, Contagious Christians, The Passion of the Christ, and so on. In my dissent, it seems I have the agreement of the maniacs on the Christian far right, the ones who think the church hasn't kept up the tradition of strong, manly Christianity and that its feminine converts don't realize they're still going to hell. The last time I had this strange feeling in my stomach was when I realized the man next to me on a protest line, defying a police order to disperse, had come out to play largely because our right-wing provincial government wasn't jailing doctors who work at abortion clinics.

But complaining about evangelical foolishness only goes so far. I told a friend years ago that it was not worth complaining about a problem if you weren't willing to contribute to its solution. Today I've decided to make a half-step in that direction: I'm going to contribute to the problem and the solution, by coming up with a newer and better Christian fad. Usually, a new fad requires a megachurch for financial and PR support. I have the Church of the Orange Sky, which falls slightly short of the megachurch barrier, plus (hopefully) the support of MadReverends, which according to one recent and very scientific poll is the third most popular religious blog in Canada.

This post is motivated by two recent experiences: a conversation with a friend who's just moved to a new job and a new church, and an article on businessmen "experiencing" poverty in Lansing, Michigan. The name comes from the first, and the idea (mostly) from the second.

My friend, a grad student and now an itinerant sessional lecturer (which is the fate of most of us graduate humanities students these days), recently took up a new job in northern B.C. His new Anglican church there is, thanks to one of the most stridently anti-gay marriage ministers in the province, home to a branch of the "Zacchaeus Fellowship" (here).

This fellowship appears to be a sort of reincarnation of one of Christianity's past fads - conversation of gay sinners into proper heterosexuals. The website explains that members are in the process of transitioning from their "same-sex attractions" to "heterosexual wholeness." A key step appears to be overcoming "the brokenness that led to" homosexuality. If you fail in this purpose, there's a second-best alternative: you can "obey God's teachings by living in celibacy." I wonder if this means Jesus was the first member of the fellowship.

I hadn't realized Canada had an indigenous ex-gay movement; it's gratifying to know we haven't been spared the attention of good Christian sex police. I was a little confused about the name, though. Zacchaeus, as some might recall, was a man Jesus met in the Gospel of Luke. Zacchaeus was a tax collector - by implication of the story, a corrupt one - who met Jesus and immediately pronounced he would give away half his money to the poor. Jesus then blessed him for his faith. What this story has to do with overcoming homosexuality is beyond me; the Fellowship website claims that, like Zacchaeus, they have come to see Jesus's love for them and the need to confess their sins in exchange for his forgiveness. It's a pretty weak-like-tea argument. I think they're just looking for an excuse to adopt a cool first-century Greek name for their movement. It sounds better than "Canadian Ex-Gays for Christ." After my first reading of the website, I resolved to reclaim Zacchaeus, and now I've found a way to do so.

This article from a Michigan newspaper describes a "simulation" of urban poverty conducted for professionals from local businesses, government agencies, and some non-profits. "Could you take poverty for even one hour? asks the paper. The answer, apparently, was no. The lesson, so far as I can see, is that the poor are better at money management than the rich: only two of the thirteen families in the simulation were able to keep their children from starving to death. Over the course of an hour, the participants sat around counting their welfare money out of envelopes and pretending to go through all the work and financial decisions a single mother with kids would make over the course of a month. There are some inspiring quotes from various people who were "mind-boggled" and "will not be the same." Neither will the fake kids who starved to death in less than an hour.

Apparently the simulation accomplished its goals, but it's disturbing that the middle class in our society has become so divorced from the lower working class and the unemployed that they could gain anything from an hour in a conference room. Other than the fact it wasn't being done alone, this could have been a math problem in my grade 10 textbook. You and your two children get $670 a month in welfare money. Each of you eat three meals a day. If you spend $400 on rent, how much will you spend per person on each meal? Or, to take a British Columbian example: Quesnel and Prince George are 100 miles apart. A hobo leaves Prince George on a CN Rail train travelling at 25 miles per hour. A second hobo leaves Quesnel on another CN Rail train travelling at 15 miles per hour. How long will it be before the CN trains collide and both hoboes die in the inferno?

Reading about the simulation prompted one Lansing resident to see if he could live for a month on a dollar a day (here). He could - in fact, the total was more like $28. This was accomplished via copious amounts of rice, noodles, and frozen vegetables. At the end, he donated the money he would normally have spent on food - somewhere around $200 - to a local food bank. I'll bet I could do the same thing, once my pots arrive at my new apartment so that I can actually make more than sandwiches and salads.

This inspirational story has prompted me to propose a new Zacchaeus Fellowship. This one will actually bear some relation to the Zacchaeus story: people who join will either eat on a dollar a day and give away the rest of the money they would have spent on food (the Zacchaeus Lite® plan), or spend money as they normally would, but set aside one dollar for charity for ever dollar they spend on food (the Zacchaeus Faithful® plan). I suppose you could do both at the same time, which would be the best way to save money (call it the Zacchaeus Combo®). You could be like the other guy and give the money to the food bank. Or, if you're feeling adventurous, you could give it to something a little edgier and more anarchist, like Food Not Bombs or a local Catholic Worker house. That's what I think I'll do, personally. (Since returning to Ottawa, I've discovered that, as a real city, it also has real hippies - FNB gives away free food every Sunday afternoon, most of which it's "salvaged" from local businesses.)

This new fad will be even better than past ones because it won't require wealthy, idolized leadership (though I will cheerfully accept money from anyone who wants to enrich me), can be summarized in less than fifty words (which means it won't require believers to buy new books and go to expensive seminars to hear me speak via satellite), plus, most important, it gives true Christians a chance to proclaim the fact they're better and holier than the average, run-of-the-mill churchgoer. (These proclamations can be best made by my new Zacchaeus Fellowship T-shirts, which will soon be available for a nominal fee.)

Another bonus is that as a student I'm already pretty sure I know how to live on less than a dollar a day's worth of food. It does bear asking, though: does beer count as food?

Up next: I'm going to Christianize the GPL. With Biblical Quotations® for added persuasiveness.

Note: MadReverends does not endorse the views of the Church of the Orange Sky as represented in this article. We encourage you to consider investing the money in a savings account instead. WWJD? He would eat ramen, so that he could afford his SUV.