Tag Archives: Community

Gleanings in Pacifism

I have a couple of thoughts about pacifism. The first is my own:

I am not a pacifist, but I do not believe that there is any killing which does not require forgiveness.

I would like to be a pacifist. But then there’s the real world. I hate living in this tension. I would like to be a pacifist, but I have an African American friend who won’t let me–because without that brutal war, nothing would have changed for the slaved.

I do believe that the Christian’s place in society is always to bear witness to another economy: an economy where defeat of the gravest powers of the world came by the defeat, rather than military victory, of a marginalized people’s prophet-king.

Within this story, I do not know that it is possible to ever claim that a war is just.

Claiming to be a part of this story, Christians must actively work for peace: blessed are the peacemakers. That should typify kingdom people.

Then sometimes you’ve got Russia and China keeping the Security Council from doing justice. What then?

Thought two. This time, a quote from Stanley Hauerwas:

I’m not a pacifist because I’m so nice. I’m a pacifist because I’m such a mean sonofabitch I need the community to keep me accountable.

Confessing the demands of the gospel story is not, at its best, to issue a claim that faithful expression of this religion is to be like I am. We confess the demands of the gospel story to set out the impossible, glorious vision of the Kingdom of God so that we can, as a people, work toward embodying that vision and seeing that vision reflected in the world.

I talk about the economy of the cross all the time–not because my life looks like one of self-denial, but because that’s how it should look in every relationship, every dollar spent, every minute blown in front of this computer screen.

Ok, so maybe that’s a good argument for being a pacifist after all…

Jesus Beyond Jesus

One thing evangelicals do well is our incessant hammering on the need for each of us to continually respond in faith to the God who is reaching out to us in Christ. We insist on personal accountability before God.

But if the down side to this has been that we’re slow to realize the fully communal implications of our faith.

As I’ve said before, I used to shrug off the old hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Because, NEWS FLASH!, I wasn’t! I was a couple thousand years too late for that one.

But then I started to realize that the body of Christ is all around me every time I gather with God’s people. And I began to realize that these were people I had wounded, people whom I had judged and rejected and injured. I had become an instrument in the wounding of the body of Christ.

So yes, I was there. And I am there. I participate in the crucifixion when I judge and reject and injure those who are, themselves, members of Christ’s body.

When Jesus places His name on someone in baptism, he takes this identification with them with utmost seriousness. It’s not just that the person is bound to the story of Christ (something else we need to learn more deeply than we have) but that Christ is bound to the person of this story.

And so Jesus tells his disciples:

Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me. (Mark 9:37, CEB)

The disciples weren’t too sure about this whole, “name of Jesus” thing. So they pressed back a bit:

We saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us. (Mark 9:38, CEB)

Wrong answer.

Everyone who’s not against us is for us. In fact,

I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded. (Mark 9:41, CEB).

We too often fall into the trap of thinking that our relationship with God is one thing, and our relationship with people is something else. Sometimes we’ll acknowledge the connection by saying something like, “When my relationship with God is askew, it messes with my relationships with people, too.”

There’s truth in that.

But there’s a more profound truth that such statements skirt; namely, our relationship with other people in the body is, itself, our relationship with the Christ whose name is upon them.

Before us is Jesus beyond Jesus.

God has determined to renew each of us after the image of the firstborn Son.

And so, what we do to them, those who bear the son’s image, is done to the son whose image they bear. When we engage the one who is Christ’s, for blessing or for curse, we bless or curse the Christ to whom they belong.

Believable

Communities make things believable.

They are the “plausibility structures” that provide us with the scaffolding we need to integrate what we experience with what we believe.

Given the right plausibility structure, the belief that the earth is under 10,000 years old becomes largely self-evident, the clear grid for assessing every piece of scientific data. Given the right plausibility structure, and the belief that the earth is 4.5 billion years old plays this same role.

Once we become aware of this, we are confronted by the question: what do the communities I am a part of make believable?

I return regularly here to the Story of Jesus as the defining marker of Christian faith and Christian community. The story of Christ crucified and raised is what makes Christians Christian. It is the unbelievable claim that God so loved the world that He gave His Son; that the Son so loved the world that he gave himself; that the self-giving Son was the self-raising son; that the son-giving Father is the Son-Raising God.

My concern is this: it is all too rare that we as Christian communities sustain this narrative as credible by our lives together.

We create communities that grow under the guidance of dynamic leadership and sharp speakers. I did not need the death of Jesus to make plausible that good leadership will grow an organization.

We create communities that thrive under the rubric of a common theological system. I did not need the resurrection of Jesus to make plausible that shared belief, differentiating one political party… er… system of doctrine from another creates cohesion and attracts adherents.

Christian community is supposed to create a plausibility structure, one that makes credible the self-giving love of Christ: “By this all people will know you are my disciples–if you love one another.”

This love is the storied love of our gospel narrative: “Love one another as I have loved you–greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”

We are called to renarrate the story in our life together, so that our story will be believable.

And, of course, the converse side of this call is that we are just as capable of making our story unbelievable when our communities thrive on something other than our story or become playgrounds for dissension and arguments, self-serving protection and consumption of our neighbor.

Jesus or God?

In yesterday’ stop along the Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? blog tour, Jim West demurred over my articulation of the ministry of Jesus. This seemed like a good, old-fashioned substantive disagreement, or at least, a place where sounding the note with the right emphasis might be important.

On p. 100 of JHILBP, I say, “Jesus came… to form that family of God around himself.” To which Jim replies:

Jesus doesn’t seek to form anything around himself- he seeks to form a people of God around God, the Father. Kirk’s (apparently Barthian) Christocentrism has led him astray. Jesus was theocentric to the core. His will was to do the will of the Father. Nothing less, and nothing more. For Jesus, it wasn’t about Jesus. It was about the Father.

Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first: Jim is the third person ever, and the third person in the past week, to call me a Barthian and/or Neo-Orthodox. You will forever be on the top three list in applying the label to me! Well done!

The difficulty in responding to the paragraph is that I don’t want to say that Jim’s wrong, that it’s not about God but rather about Jesus. However, what I want to say is that the way in which Jesus’ ministry is about God is by being about Jesus.

Jesus is the one in and through whom God’s kingdom is dawning in the world. Jesus is the King of God’s coming Kingdom (at least as that story is told in the Gospels).

Let’s bring this down to the ground level of the Biblical stories.

Jim rightly says that Jesus comes to do the will of the Father (John 6:38; cf. 4:34). But Jesus then turns, in chapter 6 of John, and immediately says, “This is the will of my Father: that everyone who looks to the son and believes in him will have eternal life” (6:40). The way in which people on earth faithfully respond to God is by faithfully responding to Jesus.

This is what I mean by Jesus coming to form a community around himself–to reject Jesus is to reject the Father, to accept Jesus is to accept the Father. This, in contrast to either everyone already being part of the people of God, in contrast to people being delineated the people of God simply by keeping Torah and faithfully worshiping according to the OT prescriptions, and in contrast to Jesus simply saying that the previously given covenant is sufficient to delineate God’s people.

Similarly, in a passage I discuss more than once in my book, Jesus says, in a statement that would seem to be to Jim’s point, “whoever does God’s will is my mother, sister, and brother” (Mark 3:34, CEB).

But how are these people worthy of the approval as those who “do God’s will”?

“Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, ‘Look, here are my mother and my brothers’” (Mark 3:34, CEB).

Sitting at Jesus’ feet, following Jesus, puts one within the will of God. Jesus does form a community around himself. Following him becomes the defining marker of the people of God. Yes, it is the people of God, the Father, who are formed; yes, it is the will of God, the Father, that is done. But it is done by following Jesus.

It wasn’t about Jesus?

No, this we cannot say. Jesus places himself in the middle of everything–”Whoever hears these words of mine and does them…” (Matt 7); “Whoever is ashamed of me in this wicked and perverse generation…” (Mk 8); “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” (Lk 4); “He came to his own… To all who received him, to all who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (Jn 4).

Though each Gospel tells its own story of Jesus, each agrees on this: Jesus is the way to the Father, the one in and through whom the people of God is being reformed. It is, of course, about God, because “whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” says Jesus in John. Or, “Jesus was a man, testified to by God,” says Peter in Acts.

So while I don’t want to disagree with Jim that this mission is about the Father, I can’t see how the Gospel narratives allow for this mission to be about the Father without it being also about the son.

Blog Tour, Day 3

Today, the Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? Blog Tour goes to the Matrix and Missional land, with a review of ch. 3, “Christianity as Community.”

Think that Paul’s idea of Christianity is, basically, getting you, yourself, and you right before God? Think again…

James McGrath’s thoughts are here.

Look for Jamie Arpin-Ricci’s at missional.ca.

Community Is Crucial

A few weeks ago I posted about friendship, claiming that “who you are when nobody’s looking” isn’t necessarily the truest testimony to who you are.

I want to riff on that a bit today, in conversation with my Open Letter to New Testament Intro Students. In short, community is crucial for keeping hold of your faith when your faith is challenged.

The context within which a dearly held conviction is challenged, and the way that faith is depicted in relationship to that challenge, can make all the difference in whether that challenge leads to a lost faith or a reconfigured and strengthened faith.

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In response to my open letter, several commenters voiced their concern that critical reconfiguration of what the Bible is and what it says do not happen more in the church. And I think there is something tremendously important about this call. Yes, we have to handle the issues carefully and not unduly disturb the faithful.

But here’s the problem with pretending that the Bible is something it is not: if the context of faith depicts the Bible, or science, or belief in one way, and then a student enters a non-faith environment and discovers that the Bible or science or belief are entirely different it creates an apparently clear choice. Either stay with the faith and reject the learning or hold fast to the learning and reject the faith.

The reason why NT Intro destroys people’s faith in college is because the community of faith has not been forthright about what the Bible actually is, and so the student is confronted with a choice between belief or knowledge.

In general, communities help create and perpetuate systems of plausibility. This can be a bad thing or a good thing, depending on the truth and benefits of how the group is perceiving and articulating reality.

If Christianity is true, then the calling of the church is to articulate, and demonstrate, a coming reality that is often not visible to human eyes: Jesus is the enthroned and coming Lord. We need community to keep making that reality real, to help us be renewed by the transforming of our minds, by the conversion of our imaginations.

This means that when we’re struggling, we need the community. If we leave it, we are placing ourselves on an interpretive grid where this true reality is not accounted for in the interpretation of the world. And its unbelievability can quickly become unplausibility, and the faith withers.

It is precisely because context is crucial for wrestling with faith-challenging issues that I think it is a seminary professor’s duty to deal with all the difficult issues in class. The fact that Christians, in a Christian setting, while confessing Christ as Lord, can acknowledge these things is, itself, tonic against the notion that certain realities about the Bible or history tear apart the very fabric of Christian faith.

In the film Gods and Generals, Stonewall Jackson utters this provocative line to a dying man who confesses to unbelief: “Well then, I will believe for the both of us.”

When we’re struggling, we need people to believe for us. We need people to carry our belief when it cannot carry itself. We need ourselves to be infused with the gift of faith that comes from the participation in the body of Christ. And we need to know that our struggles can be Christian struggles, modes of living and doubting that honor the Christ whose faith saves us.

Friendship

Once upon a time, I took a lot of stock in the notion that what mattered most was “who you are when no one’s looking.”

Ok, there’s some value in such a self-assessment. We do need to have a level of integrity in what we do on our own and what we profess in public. We mustn’t be hypocrites.

But…

At some point I decided that what is most important is who we are when we are part of the communities in which we find ourselves; or, perhaps more telling–who we are when we are among the people with whom we have chosen to surround ourselves.

Who are your people, and what does your life look like when you are together with them? What do you do together? Who are you for one another?

From a Christian perspective, one might say that who you are as a functioning member of the body of Christ is more important than how much you look like an ear when you’re hanging out alone in the ear storage facility.

This week we have friends in town. Good friends. Life friends. Friends who love my children even when they’re going ape-poop. Friends who can say, “No, I’m sorry, that’s a really bad idea.”

With good friends, we come together and rediscover not only who they are, but also who we are. We remember that the guy who spends all day long in his study or his cube, the woman who spends all day long moving in and out of examining rooms and filling out charts and dictating patient visits–these people aren’t the full embodiment of who we are.

What really matters is more than this–although these alone dynamics play their part. What really matters is who we are when everyone’s looking, when everyone’s gathered, when everyone’s loving.

What Threatens the Chuch?

In the wake of the Rob Bell controversy, his editor at HarperOne, Mickey Maudlin, wrote a reflection on what transpired.

Bell wrote a book many disagreed with, and the disagreement immediately was charged with words like “Heresy,” and was roundly condemned in many circles.

Maudlin points out how blithely the notion of heresy was invoked:

Why would leaders attack as a threat and an enemy someone who shares their views of Scripture, Jesus, and the Trinity? What prevented leaders from saying, “Thanks, Rob, interesting views, but here is where we disagree”?

What list of theological beliefs must be fully checked off before someone can be embraced as brother or sister even if we disagree about other important issues?

Maudlin sees in this reaction itself the true threat to evangelicalism. The threat to the evangelical church’s life is not creeping liberalism. The true threat is tribalism.

But now I think the biggest threat is Christian tribalism, where God’s interests are reduced to and measured by those sharing your history, tradition, and beliefs, and where one needs an “enemy” in order for you to feel “right with God.” Such is the challenge facing the church today and what the reaction to Love Wins reveals.

Or, in the words of Paul, “If you bit and devour one another, take care or you might just consume one another.”

I think Maudlin is on to something. At some basic level we have gotten our story wrong. We have begun to act as though the way that we know we’re faithful to Jesus is if we condemn anyone who seems to be tearing down the walls of the theological circle that inscribes the faithful.

But there is no such wall.

Falling within a theological border is not, has never been, can can never be, the means by which the faithful followers of Jesus are demarcated.

The first-century church had to painfully wrestle through the reality that Jesus came to break down the dividing wall of hostility that was Israel’s Law. It seems that we must come to terms with a Jesus who breaks down the dividing wall of hostility that is Christian Theology.

If we don’t, we may find ourselves in the very position of Paul’s opponents in Galatia, compelling others to become like us if they would be marked as part of the people of God–and thus as agents of nothing less than anti-gospel.

Christ. That is All.

Colossians 2 resumes the strange idea of filling up what’s lacking in Christ’s afflictions that Paul spoke of in ch. 1. “I want you to know how much I struggle for you… and for all who haven’t known me personally.”

The goal of this struggle is knowledge of Christ. That is all.

But we need to be careful about how quickly we run to this conclusion. There are several paths we might take to get there, and in my western context the way to such knowledge is typically articulated as something personal and intellectual: I pray, and I know Christ. I study and I know Christ.

But Paul has another route in mind.

He prays for everyone’s hearts to be encouraged and united together in love (Col 2:2). There is a rich interplay between who we are as individuals and our life together in community. Christian epistemology is never an internal, private affair. We can know only as we know together and only as we love together.

Contexts determine much of what we can know, much of what we will find persuasive. One of the most significant functions of Christian community is to create an environment of love, where Christ as the all-in-all of God becomes a compelling and believable confession.

On the flip side, this corporate route to knowledge underscores why the failure of Christian community is such a grievous affront to the faith of individuals. If a community of love provides the context for sure knowledge that Christ is God’s all in all, then a community that destroys and discourages the hearts of its people, a community filled with strife and division, will disprove the message to the hearts of the hearers.

The assurance that Paul prays for, the assurance that leads to full knowledge of Christ as all, does not come from reading books or having our dilemmas solved through apologetics.

The assurance Paul prays for comes only from community—a community of encouragement and love that is, itself, the earthly manifestation of the body of Christ.