"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

How to Separate Religion from Real Life

"For generations the church has been polarized between those who see the main task being the saving of souls for heaven and the nurturing of those souls through the valley of this dark world, on the one hand, and on the other hand those who see the task of improving the lot of human beings and the world, rescuing the poor from their misery. The longer I've gone on as a New Testament scholar and wrestled with what the early Christians were originally talking about, the more it's borne in on me that distinction is one that we modern Westerners bring to the text rather than finding it in the text. Because the great emphasis in the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transformed the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work. That draws together what we traditionally call evangelism, bringing people to the point where they come to know God and Christ for themselves, with working for God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That has always been at the heart of the Lord's Prayer, and how we've managed for years to say the Lord's Prayer without realizing that Jesus really meant it is very curious. Our Western culture since the 18th century has made a virtue of separating our religion from real life, or faith from politics. When I lecture about this, people will pop up and say, 'Surely Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world.' And the answer is no, what Jesus said in John 18 is, 'My kingdom is not from this world.' That's ek tou kosmoutoutou. It is quite clear in the text that Jesus' kingdom doesn't start with this world. It isn't a worldly kingdom, but it is for this world. It is from somewhere else, but it is for this world." - N.T. Wright

"I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" ( Amos 5:21-24)

God here demonstrates his disdain for religion which celebrates its own prosperity while forgetting those he loves - the poor and oppressed. Justice is at the core of Christianity, or else what is worshiped is not Christ.

While there are many good-hearted evangelicals who see this truth, the systematic separation of religion from social life disables the vision of those who would break "...out of the boxes that church tradition tries to impose upon the evangelical church." If only it were just a matter of more enthusiasm for social justice, of breaking out of the boxes imposed by tradition. Unfortunately, those boxes were created for a reason, a reason that has to do with separating the power of the spirit from the creation on which God wants us to work. His will is ever to undamm the righteousness like a never-failing stream that longs to flow over this fair world. The separation of church from social life came about largely because it benefited those who did not relish moral oversight of their profit-making activities. A religion that dare not step outside the realm of "personal belief" is a religion which is safe for those who thrive on the misery of billions. Such a religion provides the consumerist benefit of "spiritual serenity", while allowing the worship of commodities to flourish unhindered.

To attempt to escape this world, to flee to an imaginary "heaven" is to run away from the gospel. It is in fact an anti-biblical act of despair, directly contrary to what the crucifixion of Christ signifies. This type of religion is exemplified by a sermon given recently by an Episcopalian pastor on Good Shepard Sunday, while war protesters lurked in the congregation, "She said that the 'voice of Jesus calls us from the Cross', and 'we need to shut out the noise of life to hear the voice of Jesus.' In this way, she said, we will find 'a life where we can feel safe and secure.'"

Note the emphasis on security. Our shepard shields us from the noise of life. Where is this meadow where one can feel safe and secure? It is in the valley of the mutual funds, country houses, Windham Hill CDs, and frequent flier miles. Only these can afford the "silence" in which we can be comforted.

Such comfort is disturbed when the noise and heat of battle intrude into the dark walnut nooks of the Tudor chapel. From a recent protest in which demonstrators entered a church and unfurled an anti-war banner:

"Church announcements followed immediately, so we remained standing and moved to the aisle along the right wall and held high our banner, which read:

4,033+ U.S. Soldiers Killed – Thousands Wounded
One Million Iraqis Killed – Millions Displaced
Much of Iraq and Its Culture Have Been Destroyed
The U.S. Has Spent Two Trillion – 4 Billion from Westchester

Within less than a minute, Reverend Britt came down from the platform at the front of the church and walked to the first row pews to address us. 'Take the banner down,' she said. 'You are welcome to join us, but you are not free to protest.' - "War Protest Unwelcome in an Episcopalian Refuge", afterdowningstreet.org

You are welcome to join us, to join in the safety, the comfort, the well-polished mahogany peace which threatens nothing and no one, but actual moral practice has no place here. Though you are free to soak up all the "comfort" that we provide, you are not free to question the foundation of that "comfort", the hidden blood curdling on the floor of this chapel.

But the comfort of Christ is of another breed:

"How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won where the way leads to the cross. Which of us can say he or she knows what it might mean for the world if one nation should meet the aggressor, not with weapons in hand, but praying, defenseless and for that every reason protected by a 'bulwark never failing.'" - Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

For most churches, it seems that Christianity has become a sleep aid, a way of soothing the conscience so as to make rest more easily available, a form of self-hypnosis. Whatever disturbs the illusion of peace is to be shunned - thus the speed with which Reverend Britt descended on anti-war protesters. Excess morality makes sleep more difficult. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "There is no peace along the way of safety." We do not become more peaceful by contemplating peaceful scenes: meadows, and rivers and clouds. We become peaceful by daring justice, by analyzing the real causes of poverty and misery and daring solutions. This is the worship that God asks of us.

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