Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Signs of Hope

In case you missed this declaration, it's worth reading. It's one more sign of hope for progressive people of faith. These days we need all the signs we can find.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Resident Aliens Revisited

OK. I’ve had a few days to digest Resident Aliens, and here’s one more small response -- although a rather lengthy post -- to add to the volumes this little book has already inspired.

How can we form communities of discipleship in the midst of what is undoubtedly a culture of disbelief? Now I mean that question to be provocative, but I don’t mean simply to suggest that the unchurched don’t believe in God. Indeed, since their numbers are huge and they are diverse in background and perspective, I don’t know what it is that they believe or disbelieve beyond the self-evident fact that few of them believe that getting up on Sunday morning to worship is worth their time and effort.

Moreover, naming our context as a culture of disbelief condemns the church far more than it does the culture. Hauerwas and Willimon are spot on when they suggest that the church itself has made disbelief an easy perspective to take because “we Christians have given atheists less and less in which to disbelieve! A flaccid church has robbed” disbelief of its edge, of its sense of avante guard and its sense of adventure.[1]

The church itself too often works – or, better, fails to work – by way of a functional atheism. This is true internally and externally. In other words, it is true of the church as it performs the necessary acts of maintaining an institution – setting budgets, recruiting and hiring staff, making decisions about its common life; and it is true of the church as it witnesses in the world through acts of mercy and of justice, as it engages the community in service and through political processes.

As Hauerwas and Willimon put it, “The church is the dull exponent of conventional secular political ideas with a vaguely religious tint.”[2]

This is true, they argued, whether we are speaking of liberal social witness or conservative social witness or of the church’s internal functions. In other words, the religious right is indistinguishable from the Republican Party while the religious left is the Democratic Party at prayer. Both sides too often seek to exercise power rather than take up a ministry of reconciliation. Churches left and right look indistinguishable from the Kiwanis Club when they make internal decisions. I’ve seen a lot of church budgets set over the years, in liberal and conservative congregations, and precious few of them developed through a deeply spiritual process of discernment.

If the church is a house of memory, if Brueggemann is correct, if we are drawn together by practices of memory, perhaps we are suffering from spiritual Altzheimer’s disease. We have forgotten that what draws us together, what makes faith a remarkable adventure, what makes our journey together a powerful and transformative witness, is that God has acted decisively in the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and that in and through Jesus Christ, God calls followers of Jesus together to be the church.

When we respond – when we follow Jesus together – we become “salt and light.” We become a sign for the world – a beacon of hope, a way beyond the left and right ways of the world.

The kicker comes here, though. For, as Brueggemann clearly says, we are drawn together by practices that include suffering. This is not a call to suffer for the sake of suffering, but rather to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel and the sake of God’s good creation. When Jesus says, “follow me,” he is inviting disciples on a journey that leads to Jerusalem and to the cross. As Bonhoeffer put it so bluntly, when Jesus calls, he bids us come and die.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, this is the point at which his invitation runs smack up against our deepest desires for security. We are afraid. We live in a culture not only of disbelief, but of deep and abiding fear and insecurity. You don’t have to look very far from where I live in Northern Virginia to understand how deeply this culture values security, nor, I would guess, do any of us have to look any further than our own homes, checking accounts, jobs or investments to see how deeply we, as individuals, value security.

But Jesus calls us to a life together, as church, marked by a radical trust in the sovereign Lord of history and an utterly, foolishly adventurous life of discipleship as we follow him into a life where the poor are blessed, the mourners are comforted, the meek inherit the earth and the peacemakers are called the children of God. That world doesn’t look much like North America, nor much like the North American church, where all too often the poor are blamed for their poverty, the mourners are an embarrassment unless the grieving is “healthy” and brief, the meek are silenced and the peacemakers are called all manner of things from traitor to naïve.

Nevertheless, God is calling us to follow Jesus into the world – into our own backyards now where old memories are giving way to new opportunities – to share this radically counter-cultural gospel of going the second mile, of turning the other cheek, of loving neighbors and enemies.

Now, you have heard it said – on the talk shows, through the internet, from our political leaders, and, too often no doubt from pulpits – you have heard it said that such is not the way of the world, that this is impractical, that nobody really lives this way. But I say to you that God calls us to this life, and, by God’s grace and mercy and love, we can join the great adventure of trying to live it. If we are resident aliens, let's make a joyous noise in a foreign land, and make the life of faith a journey of adventure once again.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), 50; they cite Alasdair MacIntyre, The Religious Significance of Atheism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 24.

[2] Hauerwas and Willimon, 38.