So much turmoil is coursing through the soul of the nation.
Since the events that took place in Ferguson, MO, I have been at pains to find out what the Church’s response should be. Not only in response to what happened as a result of Michael Brown’s death, but to the explosion of racial tension, acrimony, and indignation. I can say, likely to the displeasure of many, that I have never thought the answer lay solely in the SJW campaigns, though I think activism and civil disobedience are effective and necessary. Regardless, I kept feeling there was something more to be done, specifically, by the Church.
Though I felt discontent with activism, that is certainly an aspect of it. I remember seeing images of Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church marching and standing with Martin Luther King Jr. Those images moved me when I first saw them, and I knew the Bishop was doing justly (see Micah 6:8). We have known for centuries that God has called his people to act on behalf of the oppressed. I am tempted to dive into this matter more, and it really does need to be addressed, but this post is not the place for me to do that. Suffice it to say, we belong in the protests, and we need to stand against injustice, always.
But, there is more.
As the news of the White Supremacist protest began cluttering my Facebook feed, the familiar gnawing dread turned my stomach. I watched those men march down the street chanting “Blood and soil!” This phrase, a translation of the German, “Blut und bloden,” was used by Nazi leaders as it rose to power in Germany. It signifies the desire for a pure-blooded race of people (Aryan) and their rule (domination) of the land that feeds them. And though it should not be surprising by now that people with these ideologies still exist, I was surprised. My sentiments echoed those of so many, “We fought a damn war over this!”
The next morning, I followed the events as closely as I could, and was horrified when I found out someone had driven their car at 40 miles an hour into the crowd. Later, I saw the pictures of people being tossed into the air by the car. Later, I heard Heather Heyer, though I didn’t know her name at the time, had been killed.
My stomach dropped, and I felt a deep emptiness in my heart. It hasn’t gone away.
I kept asking the Holy Spirit, “What do we do? Where are we supposed to be? Where would Jesus be?” The answer seemed clear enough.
The Church belonged in front of that car.
Jesus came to the earth to bear the sins of humanity. Those sins were laid on him violently, brutally, and lead to his death. His stated purpose was to “set the oppressed free (see Luke 4).” He would confront the authority figures over and over again, condemning the way they oppressed the poor, and the way they treated minority groups. There is no room in his kingdom for this kind of ideology and behavior. And yet, his greatest activism were not found in his polemics against the Pharisees and Romans, it wasn’t even when he cleansed the Temple. His greatest form of activism was in the act of giving himself into the hands of the Pharisees and Romans so they could kill him.
A phrase has been running through my mind since August 12.
For the life of the world.
Jesus died for the life of the world. Jesus was nailed to a cross for the life of the world. Jesus had twisted branches full of thorns forced onto his head for the life of the world. Jesus was beaten, chunks of flesh literally being torn from his body, for the life of the world. Jesus was punched in the face for the life of the world. Jesus was spit on for the life of the world. Jesus bled in intensity of prayer for the life of the world.
“The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh (John 6:51).”
This is where Jesus has called his Church. This is what he meant when he told James and John they would be baptized with his baptism, and drink his cup. This is what he meant, after his resurrection, when he told Peter, “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. Follow me.” This is what he meant when he told us to turn the other cheek. This is what Paul meant when he said he was filling up in his own body “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Colossians 1:24).” He has not called us to retaliation, but to sacrifice, the same sacrifice he gave, his own body. His own self.
The bravery needed to act in this way is far greater than the bravery and strength needed for retaliation and revenge. Who can love like Jesus did? Yet, that is the life which he called us to live. To love like he loved. To lay down our lives for the wicked and the good. To give our flesh for the life of the world.
Where does the Church belong?
We belong in the middle, between the fomenting rage of injustice, taking and absorbing the wrath of humanity. We belong in the crossfire. We belong in front of the car. I’m well aware this doesn’t make sense. How will this fix anything? Maybe it won’t. I don’t think that’s really the point. But Jesus did it, and he reversed Adam’s curse. Maybe, just maybe, if we acted like Jesus, we could reverse the curse of racism in our nation. The prospect is terrifying. I’m terrified. But this calls for the “leap of faith” Kierkegaard urged us to so vociferously. To jump in blind, willing to give everything, knowing that on this side of death we will receive a blessing from God.
Can we tarry with him?
Her eyes stared into nothing. At least an hour had gone by as she lay in the bathtub. This moment passing into the next, indistinguishable from the one that came before, or the one into which it flowed. Her consciousness floated on the surface of the water like her long hair. Drifting back and forth. A single candle set light dancing across the walls and water.
She could remember running through the yard, her short legs pounding the ground. Her mom’s laughter and innocent taunts echoed from somewhere in the distance.
Where are you?
She remembered her father walking through the door in the dark. She lay still on the couch, every effort given to imitating sleep. He sighs. Strength wraps around her legs, cradles her head, and she floats to the room washed in pearl light. He whispers her name. Warmth permeates her self from inside. His fingers brush over her head and through her hair. Her eyes whisper open as he leans over to kiss her forehead. The silhouette in the doorway assures her All is well. All is well.
A life. The crawling days of childhood ended before she was ready. Adolescence ended with a crash, with bleeding noses and the vanishing friend. In her dreams she tried again and again to reach her before the outside swallowed her, before the sky stole her away and never gave her back.
Misunderstanding and fear and love are volatile mixture. No house is large enough to hold the reaction inside its walls. Is there another choice? Get out onto the other side of these walls. Push. Push. Push. How many arms would she try out for measure before she found the right pair? Would she finally stop looking? Days run now.
What is trust? She had been more naked than she was at that moment, suspended in the water. But when she walked down the street, more naked than she was laying in the water, no one saw her. No one could see her. No one knew what it meant to be naked. The more she shed, the less she was seen. Trust molted. As it fell away, she clothed herself. The less naked she was, the more clothes she wore, the colder she had grown.
The water was cold. It was so nice when it was warm. With consciousness skimming across the water, she couldn’t make herself move. She wanted the water to be warm again.
She wanted to be warm again.
Tiny pop of lips parting for air
Rush of liquid finding a way from teeth to throat
Beating heart against the bars
A son hiding from a father’s unexpected conflagration
A mother making a room a place to be
A room where passed time means safety from
A room where learned to be alone
A room where Alone learned
Absence is safety
Absence, no one knocking
Absence, a name called from somewhere
Absence, a crippling safety
The election is days away. With each day, my heart grows heavier. Most of my readers and friends have some clue about the ideas I have concerning the Church and the political process. Namely, I feel the Church should pull out of the process, and be something distinct from government entirely. I really need to dedicate a blog to that subject alone, but this can’t be that post. In fact, in this post, I won’t ask anyone to forego voting this cycle. Ultimately, people need to follow their conscience concerning the roles of Church and state, and I can’t impede on that. So, if you feel like voting Clinton, or Trump, or some other third party, please do so with your conscience under the discipleship of Jesus.
Now, to be on with the real subject, political resistance.
Whether or not a person feels they should vote, the problem every Christian needs to acknowledge is the current relationship between the Church and politics is sick, at best. This is not specific to one party. The GOP and Evangelicals have a history together, and this is what most people think of when they talk about an unhealthy relationship between Church and state. But I’m thinking of both (all) parties, especially since more and more young adult Christians are finding their beliefs and convictions line up closely with the Democratic Party. If things continue this way, in a very near future, the way people feel about Evangelicals and the GOP will be the way they feel about Millennial Christians and the Democratic Party.
This shift from Conservatism to “Liberalism” has been fueled by two, probably legitimate, desires in young Christian Americans. The first is a longing for an authentic Christianity that more closely resembles that taught by Jesus in the Gospels, and the example of the early Church. The second is a desire to no longer be bound by lifeless religiosity, conventions that know how to only say “No!” without real connection with the Spirit of Jesus.(This negative Christianity, that can only say “No!” instead of “Yes!” has been the cause of so much Church fall out and the Christian inability to function as normal human beings who can talk about and enjoy things like alcohol and sex, among other things.) An offshoot of the second reason is the desire to be culturally relevant to an America that was not only hostile to the typical expression of Christianity, but unmoved by it.
Each flavor has its particular danger. The Conservative side is in danger of holding legalistic standards over others and over unbelievers (all the while letting themselves getting away with the same sins, and crushed by shame) apart from the experience of communion with Jesus. The Liberal side is in danger of allowing serious compromise into their lives, choosing sinful lifestyles in the name of being culturally relevant and not being religious. This, too, happens apart from communion with Jesus.
Communion is the hinge one which this all swings. The reason, a reason, the Church is at war with itself, at least in the political arena, is because we are choosing sides and participating in this system apart from communion. If we are not first and foremost disciples of Jesus Christ, it will be impossible for us to participate in this country as Christians. Republicans and Democrats, yes, but not as Christians, not as witnesses, and therefore, always at the mercy of the current of culture, unable to change the direction it heads. Significantly, both sides want to help change the direction of culture, influencing it in a Gospel way. I ask the question, if there is no actual communion with Jesus, how can we influence the culture with the love of God?
I believe it is time to resist the system at every angle, time for the Church to no longer let its voice be manipulated by the vicious and disgusting politics that happen in this country. If we are honest with ourselves, neither party, no party, speaks with the authority of Jesus Christ because no party is concerned with Jesus and the Gospel. Again, this isn’t a direct call to quit voting or work in the political system, but it is imperative that we change the way we approach the political system specifically, and culture generally. This is where the Sermon on the Mount comes in.
This message which Jesus gave to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, is the guiding principle for the Christian. The beauty of it is, since Jesus moves the commandments from outward actions to internal ways of being, we are given no choice but to wait for the word of God, the voice of the Spirit, in every moment of crucial decision. There are no correct answers, no laws for us to follow, only a voice to hear and obey. That is why the Sermon is resistance against the system, against the culture, and why it will be the way to engage with and transform both. Anyone who knows me, or is familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, will know immediately that his teachings are highly influential in my train of thought, right above the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries. Let’s allow him to say something about the Sermon:
“I think I am right in saying that I would only achieve true inner clarity and honesty by really starting to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. Here alone lies the force that can blow all this hocus-pocus sky-high–like fireworks, leaving only a few burnt-out shells behind. The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather people together and do this.”
Bonhoeffer thought the Sermon was “the deciding word on this whole affair.” Are you concerned about social justice? Are you offended by the beggar on the street corner? The Sermon speaks, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (5:42)” Are you poor? Are you rich? Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, (5:3)” and, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (6:19, 21)” Are you concerned about the moral direction of our country? Do you try to stay away from legalism? Jesus warns, “You shall not commit adultery, but I say to you that everyone who looks with lustful intent has already committed adultery in their heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out… (5:27-29)” We could all use Jesus’ warnings about anger, “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment… (5:22)” Next time you want to have an outburst of anger toward a Trump supporter, or a Clinton supporter, or any of their followers, remember that one. How can we forget the (in)famous, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also, (5:39)” and, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. (5:44, 45)”?
My point is, it’s not just Conservatives or just Liberals who need to start taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously. It’s every Christian. It’s you and I. The Sermon speaks to every disciple, and if anyone would be a disciple of Jesus Christ, they must take the Sermon seriously, or risk discovering they never were a disciple to begin with (see 7:21-23).
This is the way of resistance. In the end, a person can vote for whomever they want, but what truly matters is whether or not they are being Salt and Light. For “if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?“
In the end, Christians of both political persuasions must give up hope in the political system, at least as a means of establishing a good society, whatever that means to each person. Even more importantly,
we have to stop fighting one another over political parties.
We are one Church, and we are called to be witnesses of Jesus Christ in our country by how we act, not by what we say is right, not by legislation, not by what we say isn’t wrong, not by political persuasion, and certainly not by accusing our brothers and sisters to those outside the Church. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.“
We must be the Church before anything else. We must be disciples of Jesus before we are Democrats or Republicans or Moderates. Our allegiances and guiding principles must belong to Scripture and the voice of God above all else. It is the Church’s job to stand over against the government, whatever form it takes, and declare the word of God, and shelter all who flee to her for refuge from the governments. It is our duty to be a preserving agent (salt) in the world, while the state is called to “bear the sword.” (See Romans 12)
There is so much to say. I have so much to say and have thought, wrestled, and prayed about this particular subject for a few years now. The Sermon on the Mount is where I am landing. I have had some radical(?) ideas in the last couple years about proper Christian response, not simply to this election, but to the political system in general, and I feel this Sermon is the sun around which all other ideas have to orbit. So if this is a call, and I hope you read it that way, it is not to vote for anyone person in particular, or to not vote (which is what I am choosing), but to commit to taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously, to commit to becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, encouraging our brothers and sisters in the Church in the areas we find easy, and allowing ourselves to be challenged and changed by Jesus’ words in the Sermon, and by those who find those parts easier. We are in this together, whether we like it or not.
Last election cycle, I said that the next would leave Christians in a particularly difficult situation. The details of it worked out a little differently than I thought, but the overall effect is the same. Christians have as options people who care nothing for the Gospel or human dignity. Whichever way a Christian might vote, they are doing so by necessarily making significant compromises to the Gospel and to Jesus. Maybe it’s always been this way, but it seems out in the light this time around. At this point, we can only be blind to that fact by conscious decision. I believed then, and I believe now, that this is God’s way of breaking the unhealthy relationship the Church has with the State, forcing us to realize we have to go about engaging with culture in a different way, and giving us little option but to either continue in compromise until our voice is completely obliterated, or become the Church.
I’m reading My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman. It might be the most beautiful non-fiction book I’ve read. It’s challenging me in ways I’ve never been challenged before, the way I think about God and the world. I like it. It makes me uncomfortable sometimes, and I’m having to take them into prayer.
I started reading the book shortly after I posted My Darkness, and it seems to fit my mood perfectly. All that being said, I’m going to quote a couple paragraphs from it here. I’ve never done this before, and I don’t know if it’s legal. So, Christian, if you somehow come across this, first of all, thank you for writing, and secondly, all credit goes to you.
You know the value of your doubt by the quality of the disquiet that it produces in you. Is it a furious, centrifugal sort of anxiety that feeds on itself and never seems to move you in any one direction? Is it an ironclad compulsion to refute, to find in even the most transfiguring experiences, your own or others’, some rational or “psychological” explanation? Is it an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, an assuredness that absolute doubt is the highest form of faith? There is something static and self-enthralled about all these attitudes. Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, is marked, it seems to me, by three qualities: humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward–or at least outward–even in your lowest moments. Such doubt is painful–more painful, in fact, than any of the other forms–but its pain is active rather than passive, purifying rather than stultifying. Far beneath it, no matter how severe its drought, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.
The Gospels vary quite a bit in their accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and the ensuing encounters he had with people, but they are quite consistent about one thing: many of his followers doubted him, sometimes even when he was staring them in the face. This ought to be heartening for those of us who seek belief. If the disciples of Christ could doubt not only firsthand accounts of his resurrection but the very fact of his face in front of them, then clearly, doubt has little to do with distance from events. It is in some way the seed of Christianity itself, planted in the very heart of him (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?) who is at once God and our best selves, and it must be torn terribly, wondrously open in order to flower into living faith.
But how does this happen? Here, too, the Gospel stories are helpful, Just as some of Jesus’ first-century followers could not credit the presence of the risen Christ, so our own blindness, habit, and fear form a kind of constant fog that keeps us from seeing, and thereby believing in, the forms that grace takes in our everyday lives. We may think that it would be a great deal easier to believe if the world erupted around us, if some savior came down and offered as evidence the bloody scars in his side, but what the Gospels suggest is that this is not only wishful thinking but willful blindness, for in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.
There it is. These are the reasons I love this book.
Lord, if we are going to have doubt, when we inevitably have doubt, let it be devotional doubt, and not self-sufficient pride.
This weekend, I found myself, unexpectedly, sitting next to a man I knew several years ago. He’s a minster, and has been an inspiration to many. I was surprised when he walked into the room where I was reading Wise Blood, but naturally, I stood to hug him. We sat down and began the necessary dialogue between two people who haven’t seen each other in a few years. As we talked I saw he was the same man I’ve always known him to be: passionate, prophetic, driven, ready to move, ready for the next big thing.
It was as he was telling me about the next venture for his ministry that I realized I had changed. I wondered to myself if the changes were for the better? I don’t think I can say with one sweeping statement they’re all good or all bad changes. Obviously, I hope they’re good, but reality is I can’t actually know. All I know is I have changed.
Some years ago, I found myself dissatisfied with my Christianity, realizing if it was going to be sustained, I would have to stop simply swallowing what was given to me by my teachers, as well meaning and genuine as they were and are, and seek truth for myself. I did just that.
I have tried my best to stay away from certain beliefs, or rejecting them, based on the mere fact of them being liberal, or progressive, or conservative, or ortho- or heterodox. It is tempting to reject old beliefs simply because they’re old or to adopt new ones simply because they’re new. I don’t want to be a partisan theology student. I have sought truth and have tried to hold onto it regardless of who does or doesn’t believe or disbelieve in it. I want to know and believe truth.
I try not to react to things with cynicism, but it is difficult to continue to believe certain things after years of disappointment.
What is truth?
(I swear if someone says “The Bible!” or “Truth is a man!” I’m going to lose my mind. Those are the kind of answers that are not helpful at all. I get it. But there’s more to it than that, and those answers don’t lead anyone on the path of truth.)
I don’t believe truth is relative, subject to change, or vanity. I do feel like our grasp of it is often weak at best. We adjust our lives and believes as we discover it. At least, that’s what I (try to) do.
Christ does not change.
But we certainly do.
I certainly do.
I have changed. I hope I continue to change, and I hope it’s in the direction of truth. I hope it’s in the direction of Christ. Sometimes we discover that a road we thought led away from him actually leads to him. This is always a surprise, and sometimes it’s painful to grow into new ideas.
How much do we hold onto simply because it’s what we’ve always held onto? Is that reason enough to continue holding on? Is it reason enough to let go? Maybe these questions should not even be part of the equation. Maybe it’s the pursuit of truth itself that is important, without regard to old and new, same or different. Though, I don’t mean a pursuit of truth as an abstract concept, as something to be learned, but as an experience, made of many experiences, to be lived.
Maybe that is why it’s important that Jesus is called the truth. He is not a thing or concept to be accepted. He is a concrete…no…a flesh and blood person to be experienced. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands…we have seen it and testify to it…that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
To follow Jesus, I think, will mean to follow him “outside the camp,” to follow him where our fellow believers will often be unwilling to go. This is a painful thought because this entity called The Church is a communal reality, and any truth has to be lived in life with others, experienced with others, if it is to be truth. No person can be a Christian alone. No person can know truth in isolation.