The Politics of Jesus remains a landmark book that has inspired much of neo-Anabaptist thought. I read it for the first time in seminary alongside several other seminal works by Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Reinhold Neibuhr and others. It’s represents a movement that I’ve been impressed by in recent years, particularly with its critique of how power often gets used in our culture and in the church to reinforce hierarchies and antagonisms, rather than to advance God’s kingdom.
Category: Church and World (Page 1 of 3)
[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog.]
In his work, Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes a distinction between the spiritual posture of what he calls the “sick soul,” on the one hand, and “healthy-mindedness,” on the other. Neither label is necessarily positive or negative.
By “sick soul,” James means someone for whom human suffering and injustice tend to be an inescapable and overwhelming problem. There are no answers for it, and finding a state of “rest in God” can be very difficult for those with this disposition. By contrast, the “healthy-minded” person of faith is able to cultivate a deep sense of peace and trust that God is good, and all manner of things will be well. Evil for the healthy-minded is like a lie that poses no serious threat.
Of course, many of us probably oscillate between these two places from time to time, and certainly the latter is ultimately more desirable from a Christian point of view. But rush too quickly to healthy-minded religion, and we are sure to lose the prophetic heart of the biblical narrative. We see examples of both throughout Scripture, each one given legitimacy as a earnest stance before God — e.g., “How long Oh Lord?” (Psalm 13) vs. “I have stilled and quieted my soul” (Psalm 131). But the movie Silence, much like the book, does not make the still and quiet of healthy-mindedness very easy to come by.
I am no expert film critic, so I leave that job to others. (For reviews of the production and casting quality, see this write-up by my friend Rod Machen, or this excellent, more thorough one with spoilers.) Nor will I give a summary of the plot and characters here. My interest in Silence is more about the theological and existential themes that are developed throughout, and having just read the book, I was eager to see how Martin Scorsese would adapt the story.
No, I didn’t “like” the Movie…
There’s almost nothing “Hollywood” about Silence. It isn’t “entertaining,” and it doesn’t mean to be. As another reviewer commented, this is not the kind of movie you “like” or “don’t like.” It’s one that you “experience and then live with.”
Every scene makes you sit and watch longer than you want to, but without overindulging. The violence, though brutal, isn’t depicted in a sadistic or gory way. That would distract from what’s really going on. Scorsese wants to draw viewers in to the devastation of the story, not shock them with grotesque imagery.
The miserable condition in which the priests and peasants find themselves leads them to take comfort in the most vital and basic of things: sunlight, food of any kind, a smile, camaraderie, or even just simple religious icons. One feels both admiration for their courage and empathy for their plight. What appears to sustain these Christians, in addition to their faith, is the solidarity that each shares with the other in their suffering.
It will be no surprise to viewers to remember that Shusaku Endo wrote Silence in the 1960s. The “Death of God” movement of the day shows up in several of Padre Rodrigues’s (Andrew Garfield) inner monologues—he is the protagonist of the story. In some ways reminiscent of Elie Wiesel’s Night, written a decade earlier, the account could scarcely be imagined in the Western Judeo-Christian mind prior to the Holocaust.
Endo’s Silence, however, has a different feel to it than Wiesel’s Night. Whereas the Nazis sought to systematically exterminate an entire people group, the Samurai and Japanese ruling elite do not hate the Portuguese or even their fellow Japanese who have converted to Christianity. They merely want to root out Christianity itself. They claim to have studied it but determined that it is dangerous and threatening to their culture and way of life. This in no way excuses their cruel tactics, of course, but similar to how, say, the Gospel of John makes Pontius Pilate sound like a “reasonable” man, Silence manages to humanizes the Japanese persecutors despite their brutality.
Still, there are moments eliciting nothing but sheer anger and disgust at the sight of such terrible pain being inflicted upon the poor Japanese Christians. Even as a Christian, one can’t help but wonder, was it really necessary for these people to be converted? Was the salvation of Japanese peasants actually at stake if the gospel wasn’t brought to them in the first place? Couldn’t the God of Jesus Christ have mercy on them, regardless?
Doubt, Betrayal, and the end of “Healthy-Mindedness”
And this raises perhaps the most obvious and pressing theological predicament of the film. It’s the same one Rodrigues himself asks: “God heard their prayers, but did he hear their screams?” Such a incisive question could also call to mind Bonhoeffer’s famous line from his Letter and Papers: “Only a suffering God can help.”
Another probing provocation by Silence is about the role of a pastor or priest. There are a number of gut-wrenching scenes throughout the film that get directly at what it means to intercede or atone for someone else. If Jesus is the great high priest who substitutes himself to take away our sin, so too do Rodrigues and Garrpe (Adam Driver) yearn to mediate between their new Japanese brothers and sisters and the suffering imposed on them by the infamous Japanese “Inquisitor” named Inoue. In heartbreaking fulfillment of priestly duty, these good shepherds love and defend their sheep in the face of any harm.
But maybe the most difficult faith question of all comes when Rodriques is finally reunited with the fallen priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson)—his former Catholic teacher and confessor, who has now renounced the faith and become a Buddhist scholar. They even gave him a new name!
Ferreira didn’t initially commit apostasy because he doubted his Christian God. He did so to end the suffering of fellow Christians. Eventually, however, he learns Japanese and begins to think that many of the Japanese “Christians” weren’t genuine converts after all. They may have conflated Jesus-worship with worship of the sun (confusing the translation of “son” and “sun”). Ferreira argues with Rodrigues about this and insists that the Japanese cannot imagine a transcendent God that exists beyond nature itself. Ferreira contends that the martyrs died for priests like himself and Rodrigues, but not for Christ.
Rodrigues judges Ferreira’s words as blasphemous and disgraceful at first, but Scorsese concludes the movie with some creative license, departing in imaginative detail from the novel, and leaving the viewer to decide for herself whether Rodrigues remains a believer. Whatever his destination, there’s little doubt that Rodrigues’s journey disabuses him of any “healthy-minded” religious condition — one that for Rodrigues stemmed from his naive assurance that everything God wills or allows to happen is for the good. Rodrigues was ready for martyrdom, but not one like this.
So Silence is silent about many things: is renouncing one’s faith in order to save others from suffering merely a formality, as the Japanese interrogators suggest? Is the cost of faithfulness too great if someone else has to bear it? Would it have been better for the Jesuits never to have stepped foot on Japanese soil? It seems the Japanese political leaders figured out how to force a choice between the fidelity of betrayal and heretical orthodoxy. There is no resolution or solace either way.
No Answers in Silence
If you’re expecting a movie that will strengthen your faith, this may not be the one. I also suspect the film (and book) has its shortcomings. But you should still see it. Missional Christians have something important to learn from not only the trials and tribulations of the Catholic missionaries, but from both the resistance to and embrace of Christianity by the Japanese. What is the responsibility of the evangelist when the lines between syncretism, gospel contextualization and mere proselytization become so blurred? The movie doesn’t give answers. It only demands contemplation. Such is the holiness and ambiguity of Silence.
And yet, Scorsese still leaves room for faith. Jesus himself walked the path of Godforsakenness. Jesus himself came to be trampled on and renounced for our sake. What if Jesus himself is the one who breaks God’s “Silence”?
This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog.
A (not so) Secular Culture
Despite declining numbers in church attendance, the majority of people in North America are not necessarily growing less religious or spiritual. People’s faith in something transcendent remains, and God is still a common reference point for morality, politics and even sports (e.g., Lebron James’ shout out to “the man upstairs” in his emotional speech after the Cavs won the NBA finals). In many ways, the postmodern era continues to usher in a plurality of religious and spiritual enchantments. One might find more evidence of “worship” at the Republican or Democratic National Convention or the Copa America than in some churches.
Last week, the Republican and Democratic primaries were held here in the state of South Carolina. I voted, but as I did so, I had the odd feeling that I was acting in a way that was totally divorced from my faith community and any collective sense of citizenship in God’s kingdom. I think this is because when it comes to Christian political responsibility, the role of the church is to make followers of Jesus who witness to an alternative way of being in the world together. The act of voting, privilege and duty that it is, just doesn’t have very much to do with this.
[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance Blog.]
The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.
This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog yesterday.
I heard it said once that the heart of Jesus’ teaching is pretty well summed up in these two commandments: Don’t be afraid, and love your neighbor as yourself. Of course, simple as this sounds, we soon figure out that nothing could be more difficult. This is all the more true given the way that Jesus defines neighbor (i.e., even your enemy), and given that fear is often more deeply rooted than we care to admit.
It starts with subtle worries about every day things from bills to pay, job security, and health to retirement, but then grows deeper into anxieties about rejection, loss, pain, loneliness, failure and the absence of purpose. The root of this fear is that as both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations, but infinite expectations and pretensions. This leads us to become self-conscious about our insecurity, which in turns produces the anxieties just mentioned. Anxiety inclines us to seek control of our own lack of certainty and security, of which there is never enough, and so we are driven to chase after these things to the detriment of others. Generally we either 1) abuse our freedom by grabbing for power, or 2) flee into our finitude via sensual indulgence (these are the sins of the older and younger brother in the Prodigal Son parable, respectively). In other words, fear and anxiety are what stand in the way of us actually loving our neighbors.
The following is an outline of Lesslie Newbigin’s lecture at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in May of 1995. I’ll be posting a few more of these in the coming weeks. I’m making these outlines available to read along with the audio of the lectures, which will be posted soon at saintpeters.me:
I. Thesis: Christ has created a place where sinful men and women may nevertheless be accepted by God and enabled to live and rejoice in his presence.
- The Church is continuation of the ministry of Jesus who received sinners, and who ate and drank with them. The Church is that place where that still happens
- The Church is an integral part of the gospel. Nobody becomes a Christian simply by studying the doctrines of atonement and justification by faith and then looking for some place to make contact. Rather, in one way or another, the work of the Holy Spirit draws us into some kind of existing Christian fellowship. The Church precedes our faith.
- Moreover, the gospel is not a set of disembodied ideas or words. It is always a concrete reality in history, a given reality, and the context for that reality is the Church.
II. Unity of the Church
- Ecclesia, the Greek word for Church, was a secular word that described the assembly of all the people in the Greek city-states. So, Gentiles could understand it. It literally means “the calling out of the people” or “assembly.” When used in the NT, then it is not just an “assembly” though, but the “Assembly of God.”
o The same word is used for an individual local church and the whole church. The early church did not make a distinction. Paul spoke of the churches in terms of their area (e.g., Asia). It is not that the individual churches are branches of the Church. Rather, the church is that act of God gathering people together, in each place and in all places. it’s a dynamic picture, through Jesus Christ, gathering people into this place of atonement.
o The church is never designated by any other adjectives than by the name of the place and by the one who calls it. Location and God’s name. That’s it. (e.g., The God of Jesus Christ in Charleston/Mt. Pleasant).
o We are not “Peter’s party,” “Paul’s,” “Apollos,” etc. This is carnal and dismembers the body of Christ, Newbigin says. The church in each place is the catholic church (little ‘c’). Where God is, it is not a branch, but the Church. It is of the very nature of the church then that it is One, just as God is One.
III. Disunity in the Church
And yet we come to the sad story of disunity through history of the church. The main divisions are (approximately every 500 years — see Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence):
- The 4th and 5th centuries, churches outside of Roman Empire that could not take part in the theological discussions which defined the nature of Christ, became separated (e.g., Armenians, Assyrians, Copts, Ethiopians). A tremendous political divide when Roman and Persian Empires.
- The Great Schism (1054)
- The Reformation (1517)
- 19th century U.S. church history: the development of the idea of a denomination, and the proliferation of so many different denominations in the US.
From these divisions, we can discern that there are three great emphases in the Christian Church, which are not mutually contradictory, even though they’ve become separate and are often unnecessarily in competition:
- The Church is defined in part by its valid historic succession.
- The church was chosen by God/Jesus, not the other way around. So we do not “choose” it.
- But this consecration by apostles/bishops does not exempt the church from falling into error/sin/etc. Lineal descent is not the only mark by which the true church is known…
The Catholic Church can become lifeless.
- The reformers made the point further that the church is something created by the living Christ, through the sacraments and the Word, the Gospel, and is more dynamic, not just historic. This led to tremendous renewal but also division.
- The danger is that it neglects that which the Catholic emphasis affirms. It makes the church almost too dynamic, something that happens moment after moment, rather than something that is an historical reality given by God.
The Protestant can have no sense of unity even if lively. Over-dependence on correct doctrine leads to continuously dividing.
- Correct doctrine, sacraments, and succession are important, but the living power of the Spirit may still be absent. This is what Pentecostals emphasize.
The Pentecostal runs the danger of emphasizing experience and the autonomous individual without sufficient attention to what is it that we are experiencing (subjectivism, relativism, feelings… the Methodist/Wesleyan Church tended this way, historically).
In sum, we need all three to be the “true” church. Each is valid. Each is in the Scripture, but each taken by itself can lead to the loss of substance.
IV. How to Overcome these Divisions?
We cannot escape the force of the words that Jesus used (John 17) about being One that the world may believe. We cannot escape the imperative of unity, however much we may be disappointed by the difficulties we face.
- Each of us is bound to confess that the church we belong to is the one, true church, because it’s the one by which we came to know Christ. The temptation is to look at other and say they lack something in one of the three areas.
- There is an important difference between saying that something is a proper mark of the church and saying that it is essential!
- Again, the church only exists by God’s grace, and not by people’s fulfillment of any of the conditions for the church. So the way that we restore unity in the church is that we accept one another as God seems to have accepted us — as we are.
- We must first acknowledge the many ways we fall short of God’s purpose for the church. And then, only then, can we seek to correct, reform, build up one another in the faith.
o The is very different from the kind of easy-going way that some are inclined to take, in which we simply stop after acceptance. We must not continue in sin that grace may abound. God’s grace is not so that we can carry on the way we are. That is unthinkable.
About the present situation, we can make three observations (church in Europe, primarily):
1. stubborn intransigence of the Roman Catholic Church is still a tremendous power, but is facing very severe internal contradictions.
2. Mainline Protestant churches are in decline.
3. The main growing churches are evangelical and charismatic.
- The Anglo-Catholic wing of the church of England was the strongest wing, had the best scholarship, leadership and so on when Newbigin was growing up. And evangelicals were a relatively small and frightened minority. The position today is almost exactly the opposite. But a major strength of the Catholic church is its stress on the objective reality of the church as a given through the sacraments. This is to be celebrated. The importance of the Eucharistic service, for instance, does not depend on its relative meaningfulness to you and me. So he suggests that we have to begin to express our unity in very informal ways across the board! This is a great challenge to us at the present time.
- Newbigin declares that the real issue that divides Christian in “this country today” is not between Protestants and Catholics, or Evangelicals and Pentecostals/Charismatics. Rather, it is between those who believe [trust!?] that there really is a gospel and a God-given reality of good news, and those who do not… And whether there is faith that “here” (in the church), there is the place of atonement, vs. those who say it’s just opinion, experience, etc., with no real gospel. Catholics, evangelicals and Charismatic hold in common this belief, which distinguishes them from many other Christians who have simply lost it, namely, that there is a real gospel.
- Either we are built up in our life in Christ through the Eucharist, or we are judged, but there is an objectivity reality there, and we need to recover our sense of that, in the face of the subjectivism/relativism in our culture, because it is the evangelical and charismatic parts that are at this time so strong and confident but in danger nonetheless of losing this important component.
V. In Conclusion, getting back once more to the historic reality of the Christian Church:
- Whether it is popular or unpopular, big or small, is relatively unimportant. People talk about the Church in the media as if it is a fairly marginal phenomenon only interested in gaining popular. The only question the media asks is whether they are going to be more popular or not, and that is it. According to Newbigin, this is absurd.
o The church has outlived empires, philosophical systems, totalitarian systems, everything about public thinking, etc. These will be phantoms half-remembered twenty years from now. But the church will still be there. This given reality needs to be at the center of our thinking as Christians.
- That the church is this body of sinful men and women, whom God calls Saints — this is what matters. Because God has made us his own. That is the whole meaning of atonement.
o Because the church is always a bunch of sinners. It is very easy to become completely pessimistic about the church, but we have to be both realistic and faithful, knowing if God has called us saints, made us his own, given us his gift of atonement in Jesus Christ, then that defines who we are. Above all, let’s not escape with this idea of a merely invisible Church. Invisible means we get to choose who we think is in and out. But that is not the church.
- The Church is defined by its center, not its boundaries. When we define it by boundaries, we get into all kinds of legalism. Is a person absolutely committed to Christ, and the Christ that we encounter in the Gospels? The church is constituted by its relationship to Jesus Christ. And how can you reconcile what you say and do with Jesus. .
- That the Church be a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the kingdom of God. The Church is not itself the kingdom of God, but neither are they completely separate. When we separate the two, we’re susceptible to turning the Church into an ideology, a program, or political utopia.
o A sign points away from itself, to something that is not itself, but is nevertheless a reality. It may be an instrument of God for doing the will of the King. Because it’s a sign and instrument, it’s a foretaste. And because it’s a foretaste, it can also be a sign and an instrument.
- The church is in communion with the saints who have gone before. This is an element we are in danger of losing in the reformed, Protestant churches. We are in communion with those who wait for the resurrection and the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.
When Schmemann argues that the liturgy itself expresses a concrete, primary theology, he also specifies what the nature of that theology is. Speaking of the worship of the early church, he says, “It was born out of the Christian vision and experience of the World, the Church, and the Kingdom, of their fundamental relationship to one another. That it so say, in the very act of assembling (church) on the Lord’s Day (world) to break bread (kingdom), the church is concretely expressing its understanding of and realizing the intimate connection between church, kingdom and world. But this fundamental relationship can be maintained only if the church does not lower the eschatological tension of living in this age and in the age to come. Eschatology sustains the mission of the church. The moment it resolves the tension either by becoming totally immersed in this world or by divorcing itself from the world, it ceases to be the true hope of the world, even when it is involved in all sorts of “mission” activities and programs.
In the liturgy, the church straddles the kingdom and the world and maintains its dual orientation toward both. Von Allmen compares this dual orientation to the heart’s pumping blood to keep the body alive. At worship the church keeps a “diastole” beat toward the world and a “systole” beat toward God. These two poles, Von Allmen further argues, are preserved in the application of two key terms to the church’s worship: Eucharist and Mass. Eucharist “connotes . . . a movement . . . of gathering together, of assembly to become an offering of praise for that which God has does in Jesus Christ for the world’s salvation.” Mass, on the other hand, is the movement of going into the world when the celebration ends. “These two words describe the very movement of the Church in the world, the pulsation of her life in history.” The Supper is the “center” from which the church goes out to the world and to which it returns from the world with its “harvest” to offer to the Lord.
If we use different imagery, the liturgy may be compared to a journey – a journey from this world to the heavenly kingdom and back to this world. In the language of the liturgy, Word and sacrament are bounded by two other acts: the gathering and sending forth. As Christians leave the world to come together, they are “on their way to constitute the Church . . . to be transformed into the Church of God.” The biblical paradigm for this journey is the Mount of Transfiguration. The disciples separated themselves from the world and ascended the mountain with Jesus Christ and then returned to serve. But the basis is the ascension of Christ. In the eucharist prayer (the anaphora) the church is raised up to heaven to join in the heavenly liturgy: “We have entered the Eschaton, and are now standing beyond time and space.” It is from there that the mission of the church begins; from there that Jesus set the Holy Spirit to constitute the church as his Spirit-filled body; from there that, after being give spiritual food, the church returns to the world – back “time” – to love and serve the Lord. pp. 82-3
When Jesus is tried, he is asked about his disciples and his teaching. His answer is: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly” (Jn 18:20). The scenes of the Acts of the Apostles take place in the same public arenas, which is why both the trial of Jesus and the testimony of the Apostles become political issues. By opening up an horizon beyond the immediate horizon of the state, they indirectly limit the latter and subject it to an eschatological critique. A king who is not of this world but acts in utter seriously on the public world stage is bound to be involved in the political drama. The only question is, in what sense? Does not Buddha too subject the whole theatre of the world and the state to a similar criticism, but in his case by projecting into onto an apolitical horizon? And as for Judaism and Islam, do they not push the political dimension beyond itself and dramatize it by infusing it with a messianic and eschatological motive power? Christianity stands strangely elusive between these two approaches, or beyond them both; this gives it a highly distinctive dramatic tension which is only inadequately expressed by the word “political”. The Kingdom Christ announces as the fulfillment of history stands at the door; both individual and community have to live with all their attention fixed on it, bending all their spiritual powers toward it, but it is from God that it comes; it does not emerge from within history as the result of human effort…
The life of Jesus — contrary to [some] Jewish hopes, contrary to the messianic models of his time and contrary to the accusation which led to his death sentence — was devoid of any political claim to power, nor did it prematurely institutionalize features belonging to the eschaton. The Christian as such may be utterly deprivatized, commissioned to act publicly as an assessor on the world stage (1 Cor 4:9; Heb 10:33) — and in this sense [she] maybe political: all the same, [her] existence cannot be classified in secular terms, and [she herself] cannot grasp it in its totality, and so the Christian cannot be simply put int o the “political” pigeonhole.
Politics concerns [the Christian]: as a “member” under Christ, the Head, [she] is in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers [and sisters] and must realize that [she] has an inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live. In this more-than-human, specifically Christian responsibility, which is rooted in Christ’s solidarity with every last sinner and poor [person], there can be no self-complacent community of Christians, no closed Church. The Church is essentially planted in the field of the world to bear her special fruit in it and from it; she is mixed in with the world’s dough to leaven all of it; but just as the Church can only be herself in going beyond herself to the world, so, on the other hand, the world is designed, retrospectively, from the eschaton, to transcend itself in the direction of the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:25ff.). At this very point the Church becomes the world’s substantial pledge of hope that bursts all bounds, although her leaven, which continues to ferment in society and presses for worldly power to be used in the service of justice and peace, is powerless in itself. Or, in Paul’s paradox, it is only strong when it is weak (2 Cor 12:10).
The impotence of the Crucified in death, which remains the inner shape of even the most vigorous Christian life, can never be manipulated to “amorize” humankind. The dramatic situation in which the Christian is consciously, and the world and its history are unconsciously, involved goes far beyond the category of politics. It complements the latter with a dimension which, depending on how one looks at it, can be described as ineluctably tragic or utopian (whether in a meaningless or meaningful sense) or as ultimately bringing reconciliation. If the “political” is to claim relevance to the issue of ultimate meaning — and it cannot do so unless it is prepared to give up applying valid norms even within the temporal sphere — it must consent to being taken beyond itself and set in relation to this dramatic dimension of human existence, which attains its highest tension only in the Christian reality.