As our Lenten journey becomes Passion Week and Easter, there is just too much unrest and tragedy in the world for me to simply focus liturgically on the passion of Christ as a sacred event of the past. It was for the world, the present world included, that Jesus was born, suffered, died, and rose again. In this our 21st century world there is still so much unbelief, abuse of power, and suffering born of humanity’s inhumanity to itself, that one can ask, “has anything changed?” In our humanity we can’t help lament as we connect with the suffering of our co-humanity in the world, mostly because of senseless acts of destruction, war, and exploitation….I need not list the arenas of conflict and war, or of political rhetoric arguing to expand the scope of waging of war and living by the sword. I listen to our nation’s policy makers take advantage of public fear to pass heartless, not to mention needless, crime policies, to them minimizing poverty and homelessness issues to name a few. Too long have I experienced our country’s leaders avoiding proactive problem solving in areas of social and criminal justice, poverty, homelessness, and racism, that I no longer ask, where is God? I ask rather, “What were they thinking!”; “Where are the wise and just citizens of our society, the compassionate and humble servants for the Good; where is the Church, the Body of Christ?” I no longer believe that absolutely everything that happens is by the will of God; much that happens is simply sinful individual and corporate moral irresponsibility, in a social mentality, consumptive individualism, and, positivist liberalism; and as has been said, that, too many good people do nothing.
My implicit neo-Calvinist vita activa disposition also asks, “what is the relevance our Easter liturgies and of the Easter messages to our lives and this world in this our 21st century world that seems to be falling apart at the seams; is the church corporately and individually not called to be salt, light, and servants for the common good, especially for the least of those in our global world, including our enemies?” Something must be done! Perhaps, to Use Bonhoeffer’s phrase, it is time to be” this- worldly” in our following Christ today, not other-worldly or narrowly “religious” sense by merely going down memory-lane. I conclude, though, that “church services” are vital, but not sufficient in themselves, and that the manner of our response to this world must conform, not to this world, but to the model of God in Christ. The relevance of our liturgies of the word and sacrament is that they point us to the person and work of Christ and invite us to follow in his footsteps.
Faith and action are inseparable dynamic reciprocals; vita activa and vita contemplativa entwine. We are inspired to follow Christ as we contemplate His passion and work, his humble obedience to the will of the Father, and his loving servanthood to bring his healing touch to those oppressed and in need. Contemplation and faith are inspired by the Revelation of God’s Word and liturgical experience, and this inspiration leads us into the valleys and shadows of our world’s needs. In this attitude of Christ we are called to follow, to follow in his manner of love-in-action. St. John’s Gospel presents a close association between Christ’s miracles, his works, and his words. In this Gospel, Jesus consistently refers to his miracles not as powers, dynamis, as in the synoptics, but as works, erga; these works are accompanied by explanatory discourses. These “works” or miracles are presented by John to encourage our faith in Jesus and His oneness with God the Father. Christ’s’ works seem to echo the Revealed Acts or great works of God as revealed in the Old Testament as Christ reinstates those healed to Creation’s Goodness (Brown, 1966, 525-527). Christ, in his discourses as recorded in John, speaks usually to the “Jews”, those in religious-social-political authority hostile to his works. There is a decided sharp, frankness in his words as Jesus speaks plainly to the “Jews,” to those who wield oppressive power systemically over issues of faith and life at that time. Jesus put all the hot button issues on the table, and wishes for serious honest dialogue.
From our adversarial, competitive, mentality of today, or from a persistent conflict avoidant posture to issues that divide, we might think Jesus is looking for a fight. But he is zealous for the faith of those in power and hostile to him, for their repentance and transformation of their minds and actions. Jesus is looking for opportunities to have open dialogue with religious types who have more love for law and dogma, than for the sick, the poor and the oppressed, or for the essential intention of the Law of Moses for that matter. Christ’s opponents get all up in arms about Jesus healing people on the Sabbath. They care not a whit about the miracle of shalom, nor of lives restored; of doing justice to the value of life and life’s flourishing. The primary focus of John’s Gospel is to present Jesus and his work as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures in Him. In Christ God is glorified in space and time, not simply “on paper.” Christ has the authority of the Father, creating life out of sickness and deaths, turning the curse of sin and alienation from God to redemption and blessing… in his works Christ brings Glory to the Father into our history and our time. Christ’s work on earth also showed the manner of God’s love and justice, not based on merit of perfect attendance at religious rituals and conformity to the letter of the law. In Christ’s oneness with the Father he is revealing God’s unfathomable suffering love, forgiveness, and grace; and, His will for flourishing life experienced by human beings as embodied shalom is signaled for all to see and believe.
Our secularized power hungry world today solely needs to hear the Gospel’s creative Word, its redemptive words, and pointed prophetic words for seeking for Justice and peace. Dominant Western culture seems to be on the wrong track however, having discarded God in secular life and having functionally separated Him from economic, social, and political issues. I hear little moral philosophical guidance in our churches regarding systemic issues inherent in living in our modern globalized politicized world. Some may appeal to the doctrine of the separation of church and state as an excuse; or, plead, “I never bring the Bible into politics,” assuming that Jesus was a-political. Therefore, significant issues in our complex world are left abandoned to the whims and often political sophistry of those in power, unaided by voices of lament for those deemed politically unimportant of the day. Absent from much of public life is prophetic wisdom rooted in God’s Good Word for Creation and for this World as revealed in Christ’s works and Words. When dialogue happens, all too often it occurs in camps opposed and divided. It is said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is not for nothing both Amos and Jesus attach “humility,” praus, centrally to the pursuit of justice; the power of justice easily goes to the heads of those in power, while beguiling the public with vain empty promises or preaching civic mythology. After a while policy makers seem to believe their own rhetoric. Their motivation is essentially about winning the next election, not about the common Good. Our own nation’s leader are more interested in making something of themselves, to use Bonhoeffer’s phrase, rather than attending as servants to the existential needs of the community. Without shepherd are those deemed politically unimportant, usually the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Our leaders lack a solid moral grounding or vison of God’s Good design for human life and creation.
In our modern commercialized world, the business and military models reign. God’s image bearers, human beings, are merely seen as voters and consumers, objectified; Christ’s Creative Redemptive Words gave life, created food and gave sight, to the disenfranchised and shepherd-less people of his day. It was not by merit of their faith, but of his suffering unconditional love and justice entwined. Christ fulfilled the will of the Father in compassion bringing wholeness to those living in a desperate dehumanized state, bringing shalom to masses of people existing shepherd-less. Bonhoeffer emphasized that God calls sinners, not simply meritorious holy types, successful in religious methodology. Referring to such as the Shepherds and Wise men who came not as converted sinners, but they were simply drawn by the manger or star. “Finally,” Bonhoeffer illustrates, regarding Joseph of Arimathea and the women at the tomb. “The only thing that is in common to all these is their sharing in the sufferings of God in Christ. That is their ‘faith.’” Jesus calls people, he suggests, not to a new religion but to life (pp.108-109).
There are many areas of need; there is still much to do. Jesus death and resurrection do not put an end to cross bearing and suffering with Christ. In this-worldly life we put to work what we have “seen and heard” at Gethsemane. It is also not simply having a vison or a revelation, but rather how these inspire us in our walk of faith. This being election year in Canada, politicisation is simply about winning the election and not really about peace, or justice, or the common Good. I lament Canada’s Criminal justice issues; such issues catch my attention having worked in them so long: As a vote grab, Justice Minister Peter MacKay tabled an unwarranted life-in-prison bill on March 12, 2015; there is lobbying to end statutory release; reported and ignored is an alarming rise of self-harm in Canada’s prison due to deteriorating conditions; complaints about prison food and concerns about health inside prisons were brushed aside. Not an inspiring track record! What work would Jesus do, and what would he say? At another level we ask, “What moral, political philosophy is at work in our governing bodies today that leads them to act as they do? How does this square with our participation in the suffering of Christ?” How can we simply go along with what is going on? Our society, and yes our whole world, needs to sit down and come to a better understanding of what is just and good, of how to live together even with “beefs” and differences, especially with those designated enemy and criminal. Such dialogue is not about winning, but about understanding, reconciliation, justice, and peace.
Exploiting public fear for political gain is in, and off the radar is compassion and justice, other than the retributive kind, both at home on our streets, in our prisons, and abroad. The belief is I suppose that a state being seen busy at war abroad and tough on criminals at home is showing the people that they are in control and worthy to rule; might makes right it seems to them. There is blind belief that the market forces simply know best, and that free enterprise will surely feed the hungry. Who, and what, shapes public opinion and that which seems to drive economics and politics in today’s world? The world is in as much need of direction and love, if not more, than in Jesus time; and whose job is that, simply God’s job?
I suggest that followers of Christ work together with all like-minded people of any faith or interest in serious moral and philosophical engagement regarding issues of peace and justice, not to mention global warming, that threaten the shalom of our world today. Anemic one-sided faith group discussions or think tanks that are often simply engaged in expounding their own narrow interests and perspectives and need to learn of the humility of the way of the Cross, to let go and join hands and heads in dialogic pluralism. We will not win over the hostile world simply with aggressive debate, force, or with the sword; nor can we feed the hungry with neo-liberal logic. There must be humility in justice and mercy, existentially expressed. Wise justice in Love has more power to transform hearts and nations, for the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ is in the turmoil and mix of life and moral discourse with us. Wooden literal interpretations of the Bible will simply not do in today’s complex technological pluralistic world. The Bible is not a textbook with specifically laid out political economic theories; specific policy values must be wrestled from the text in every new situation; there is wisdom in the ancient dictum that warns to, “beware the person of one book.” It takes hard work and self-denial to collaborate with those with different values and opinions, and sometimes minimal accomplishments must be tried in the name of peace. Christians should recognize that minimal positions are not the complete solution, and that the work of moral discourse is never done. Neither should we think that we necessarily have the corner on the truth; to truly listen to the other is an act of humble grace in which we truly believe that we may learn something. There is common Grace in our post-Pentecost world. Often in our struggle we will lack unanimity, but we do have faith that we are not alone as we continue in the Spirit of Christ, in his memory, with a hermeneutic of humility, and with the goal of love and peace.
Our world is a trust that God the Creator gave to us, not as an absolute object to exploit or use for private or corporate business gain. As church members and members of the body of Christ we share in the same public opinion that ultimately determines the polls that lead our leaders to create domestic and foreign policy….”public” that includes us, the church, the earthly body of Christ. If that be so, then we too as citizens of our democratic society, grounded in the Gospel’s Good News of God’s Justice in love, are responsible to contribute meaningfully, to the debate, yes struggle for new public and foreign policies, in humble servanthood, in the way of the cross. It is not simply about our pet moral peeves, our own corporate interests, but it is for our neighbours’ good, and for world’s needs for peace and justice. Perhaps some of us having extraordinary opportunity can influence policy with wise, respectful, yet direct and clear moral discourse in its formation in the House of Commons. Jesus was not reticent to put hot button issues on the table before his opponents. He was not conflict avoidant, nor adversarial; He spoke the truth in love. We know, that Christ also said that whoever has faith would do greater works, erga miezona, than he did himself (John 14:12). That will take simple but humble focussed faith. I can’t help thinking that Christ had in mind works of agapic love, the same as that of the hymn of agapic love that St Paul would compose for the Corinthians, and for us: Faith, hope, and love, but the greatest is that of love. Any action without agapic suffering love is simply worthless, Paul suggests. It is suffering, servant love after the manner of Christ that will essentially win over the world and produce shalom. How to translate that into relevant policy and action is going to take cooperative work. But It is up to us, the body of Christ, his arms, legs, hearts, and mouths…the Spirit empowering us, to pray, to lament, to give expression to our calling in whatever this-worldly way we can in truth and love. We are called as slaves of Christ to walk and work in His footsteps. “For we are His workmanship created in Christ for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
Henk Smidstra, March 31, 2015
Bonhoeffer, D. (1977). Religionless Christianity. In J. Needleman, Religion for a New Generation (pp. 99-109). New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Ltd.
Brown, R. E. (1966). The Gospel According to John I-XII. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.