the church as alternative politic and way of life
The following is a sermon I preached in my community on Sunday 28 July, 2013. I have been asked by quite a few people to post it, so here it is.
The first two paragraphs of this written version of the sermon have replaced a much longer section in which I told my story of being hurt by the Church in greater detail. I shared this story with my community, and I feel that it should remain there. I hope the remainder of the sermon makes sense, even without this background story, and that it is helpful and challenging for people.
In some ways it is a strange thing for me to speak about the Church, particularly for those who know my story well. In recent years I have experienced a fair amount of pain at the hands of churches, not least because of my theology, but also due to personal relationships.
I do not say this to evoke sympathy. I do not want it. My story is merely a description of a part of my life, the seemingly inevitable experience of the ugly side of the Church. Indeed, my story is by no means the worst experience of the Church and many others, including some in my own community, have lived through far more terrible injustices. Such people have too often been left hurt, with deep scars and a lingering distrust of “the Church”.
So why would I want to talk about the Church?
In truth, following a series of negative experiences, I went through a stage of deep disgust at the Church for how I, and (in particular) my wife, had been treated. I very seriously considered giving up on the Church. At times I imagined that I could “do” Christianity without the Church, and indeed this is a common sentiment amongst young Christians disaffected by ‘institutionalised religion.’ In one sense it is a completely understandable reaction.
But unfortunately for me my theological education was too good to let me get away with such an idea.
It may be that I had been hurt deeply. But I realised eventually that a church’s failings could never be a true reflection of the biblical vision of the Church. Indeed, such shortcomings could only ever be a failure to embody the true calling and nature of the Church.
We often imagine the Church to be another volunteer organisation. The Church may believe in Jesus, but it is in essence similar to Rotary or the Scouts. We take this idea to be true because we have absorbed the assumptions inherent in a liberal democracy like Australia. We assume that individuals are autonomous beings for whom freedom of choice is supreme and essential to life. In this way of thinking we join churches because there are people of like-mind there, and it helps us to be encouraged to be better Christians or better people. We also come to think that if the Church was taken away from us for whatever reason, we could continue to be good Christians because ultimately Christians are just like everyone else except with a belief in Jesus that motivates them to do good things, or “saves” them.
And so when someone like me is deeply hurt by a church, we imagine that we can live justly and faithfully as disciples, even apart from the Church. But this is deeply mistaken. Any attempt for the Christian to live apart from the Church, whose loyalty is to the God of Jesus Christ alone, will result in that’s person’s loyalty being placed in something else. It may be that we can continue as Christian believers for some time, but our loyalty to God requires a community around to believe for us when we find ourselves in a moment in life where we simply can’t believe.
In my attempt to conceive of Christianity without the Church I also realised that, despite my passion for social justice, I could never embody justice in any meaningful way without the Church. Indeed, without the Church my concept of justice will simply be a liberal definition of justice, not one defined by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. This is because, despite my desire to do justice, by being separated from the Church I am necessarily separated from the alternate community empowered by the Spirit that has been called out of the dominating systems of our world.
And this is the New Testament essence of the Church. In the NT the Church is the ekklesia, that is, “the called out ones”. Called out of what? In a world of empire—of Roman violence and domination; of economic exploitation and inequity; of the worship of and allegiance to what is ultimately false; of anxiety and hopelessness—the Church was called out of this way of life. It was called to embody an alternative: to use persuasion and demonstration instead of violence and domination; to practice economic sharing and redistribution; to worship the God who raised Jesus from the dead and to become like him; and to experience joy and hope, even in the midst of suffering.
It is this nature of the Church, as called out ones, that makes the question ‘should the church be political?’ so nonsensical, and the identification of God with a certain political Party so perverse. For the New Testament Church, the question was never whether they should bury themselves in the imperial politics of the time. The Church was a politic. It represented a radically different vision of what life should be like, and it embodied this vision in ongoing practices that took discipline and patience to develop.
Nothing has changed in terms of what God has called the Church to be. It is of course possible for anyone to offer a critique of society and politics. I imagined that I could live without the Church because I had a keen sense of the problems with contemporary society and politics. But critique of violence and injustice is, by itself, powerless. There must be more. There must be, as Walter Brueggemann describes, an imaginative alternative that is lived out. This is what the Church should be, and what only the Church can be.
The recent policy decision regarding asylum seekers is a great example of this. Many in society, and indeed within the Church, have expressed outrage over what has developed. However no one, including most Christians, really has an idea of what should be done in response. This is because we have failed to be the alternative politics that is the true Church of God, and have become beholden to the politics of our current age. We have become disillusioned with politics in recent times, but you can only become disillusioned with what you have become illusioned with in the first place. And (small ‘l’) liberal politics is an illusion.
We live in a world where community fabric is weaker than ever, owing to our insistence on our own rights and freedom of choice. We want to do what we want, and no one is going to pin us down. As a result there is nothing to bind us together. Thus when an issue like this latest asylum seeker episode occurs, we have not the community relationships to act together in response beyond momentary public critique.
It may be that secular community groups do good things in relation to such crises, and indeed it is a good thing that the Church involves itself in such alliances in order to work together for the common good. However such groups tend to be bound to the dominant vision of political and social life, albeit slightly adjusted. There is no radical vision for the world stemming from that world’s Creator, and so there can never be meaningful and sustainable resistance or alternative.
The Church however, when it is embodying its true call to be the Body of Christ in the world, is the only thing that can meaningfully offer more than critique, a radical alternative of love, empowered by the chaos-ordering Spirit of the Creator. We can offer a politics shaped not by violence or power or domination or self-interest, but a politics shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus—love, patience, suffering and sacrifice. Secular politics offers a situation where people acting as a group are typically less moral than what those people might be individually (only a caucus could come up with an asylum seeker policy so inhumane…). But the Church, as John Howard Yoder says, offers the only example where the group is able to be more moral than the individual. This is because the Church’s insistence of cross-centred love and its patience in light of God’s control of history allows it to embody a community life in which the sum is far greater than the parts.
This is why, despite my being hurt by particular church groups, I refuse to give up on the Church (whatever forms it takes). More than that, I am willing to give my life in service to the Church. It is the hope of the world, the foremost presence of the kingdom of God, and, as Stanley Hauerwas has said, a sign that God has not abandoned the world.
I do not want to give the impression that I am blind to the failures and injustices of the Church; I am completely aware that churches too often fail to live faithfully in accordance with their call as the “called out ones” of God. But for this to happen is for the Church to fail to be the Church, the community called by God to live the alternative way of life I have described.
We cannot be Christian without the Church, for in the New Testament there was no such thing as Christianity apart from it. Christianity, after all, is not a particular choice of belief system regarding metaphysical realities, but an alternative politic, an alternative way of life. It is a way of life that can only be realised in a community shaped not by war cries or national anthems, but by the Lord’s Prayer seeking an alternative kingdom of daily provision for all and radical forgiveness for one another. Not by commonsense wisdom but by the foolishly-subversive Beatitudes which claim the poor are blessed. Not by the sword and technology but by crucifixion and communion.
What I have outlined is, I think, the essence of what the author means to say in the Colossians 2:6–15 lectionary reading this week. Paul speaks of not being taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition and not according to Christ. He is, after all, the true Lord of the world, says Paul. We have been called to partake in his presence, and having been forgiven by God we have been made truly alive. And all the things that brought death to us, Christ has conquered, not in violence, but in his execution and resurrection. And the Church is shaped precisely by this story—foolishness to the world—in which we are called out of empire to live a radical alternative centred in Christ and his cross.
To finish, I want to read an artistic expression of this Colossians 2 passage, written by a Canadian couple, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, in their book Colossians Remixed:
Make sure that no one takes your imaginations captive through a vacuous vision of life rooted in an oppressive regime of truth that parades itself as something other than a mere human tradition, as if it somehow had privileged access to final and universal truth about the world apart from Christ. You see, in Christ there is a radical presence of Deity, fully instantiated and situated in the particularities of history. And you have come to partake in that presence; that fullness is yours in Christ, who is the very source of every rule and authority that purports to have sovereignty over your lives.
In him you find your legitimacy, your entrance into the covenantal community, because in relation to him your real problem — a deeply rooted sinfulness manifest in violence and self-protective exclusion — is addressed and healed. The symbol of legitimacy is not the size of your stock portfolio or the number of hits your website gets daily, but that ancient rite of baptism in which you die with Christ to all these pretentious symbols of self-aggrandizement and are raised with him through a trusting and believing faith in the power of God, who raised Jesus from the dead.
Don’t forget that you were once dead too — dead in the dead-end way of life that characterizes our cannibalistic and predatory culture. But now you are dead to that way of life, and God has made you alive with Christ by dealing with the real problem through radical forgiveness. You see, when the idolatrous power structures that bolster this oppressive regime of truth nailed Jesus to the cross and poured out all their fury on him, all of your debts were nailed there too. All of the ways the empire of death held you captive and robbed you of your life — the exhausting and insatiable imperative to consume, the bewildering cacophony of voices calling out to us in the postmodern carnival, the disorientation and moral paralysis of radical pluralism, the loss of self in a multiphrenic culture, the masturbatory self-indulgence of linguistic and societal games, the struggle to not become roadkill on the information highway — all of this is nailed to the cross, and you are set free. Let’s not beat around the bush here. What is at stake in this conflict at the cross is indeed a power struggle. And Jesus takes precisely the principalities and powers that placed him on the cross — the idols of militarism, nationalism, racism, technicism, economism — and on that very cross disarms, dethrones, conquers and makes public example of them. In this power struggle, sacrificial love is victorious precisely by being poured out on a cross, a symbol of imperial violence and control.
A people living in the reality of this vision? That, my friends, is the call of the Church.
Posted on August 5, 2013, in Biblical Studies, Church/Ecclesiology, New Testament, Politics, Theology and tagged Brueggemann, Church/Ecclesiology, Colossians 2:6–15, Community, Ekklesia, Hauerwas, Liberalism, Politics, Yoder. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.