Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, May 22, 2017

Resistance: a biblical calling

Resistance is one of many new political mantras. Hillary Clinton, in a relatively unbuttoned recent interview with Christiane Amanpour, made a move to anoint herself as the new queen of resistance. That's not the direction I want to follow. The Wesleyan dictum that Mrs. Clinton frequently quotes ("Do all the good you can") depends upon what the Mockingbird people call a "high anthropology." As a Reformed theological thinker, I'm not in that camp. There are many figures beloved by those of us who like to try to think radically about biblical politics while still affirming the justification of the ungodly: William Stringfellow, Will Campbell, Vernard Eller, the Blumhardts père et fils, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Ellul, Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder (more ethically tarnished than the others, but a herald of the resistance nevertheless), and many others. This theological stance requires, among other things, a suspicion of "victimology" and a full-throated affirmation of the universality of human bondage (hence, a "low anthropology").

The most familiar biblical text using the word resist (Greek root antistasis) is I Peter 5:8-9:
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist (imperative antistete, stand against) him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
The book I may or may not live to write is tentatively called The Cruciform Life, originally intended as Part Three of my book The Crucifixion. 200 pages exist in preliminary form but had to be split off when The Crucifixion grew to be 850 pagesOne of the chapters of this partially completed volume is called "Resistance." In this relatively brief blog post, I'd like to say something about how resistance, biblically understood, is a significant marker of Christian life in the world.  But first we need to rethink the way we read the Bible, and especially the New Testament, because very few 21st- century Christians have been taught to take the Devil seriously unless they worship in the backwoods (so to speak), or unless they have read Jeffrey Burton Russell's four-volume academic work on Satan. I'm not going into detail on that here (for more detail, read the first part of my chapter "The Descent into Hell" in The Crucifixion) but will just point to the cosmology of the New Testament, which presupposes the entrenched opposition of an occupying Enemy against which the human race is powerless without aid "from another quarter" (hinted at in Esther 4:14). And see also The Lord of the Rings, in which this scenario is superbly dramatized.

A brief look through several New Testament translations offers no alternative rendering of the Greek antistete other than resist. Literally, it means "to oppose," "to stand against." How are we to resist evil in our current situation without 1) becoming insufferably self-righteous; 2) linking our views to specific political figures; 3) alienating a significant percent of our congregations?

The most-read blog I've ever posted is this call to arms:
This was written in July 2016. I can't say that I've seen much in the way of "resistance preaching" since the election. I've observed, however, that there have been some oblique messages from pulpits and in newsletters that, given time, may bear fruit. The interim pastor of a small rural church that I occasionally attend has not failed to speak out, Sunday after Sunday, about biblical mandates such as care for the poor, hospitality to the stranger, love of the "other." At the same time I don't hear the most radical call of all--to love our enemies and pray for those who curse us. There is a beautiful "Prayer for our Enemies" in the Book of Common Prayer, but I have yet to hear it used in any church unless I was reading it myself. It seems to me that praying for our enemies is a particularly powerful form of resistance. It marks out the unique character of Christian faith, which emerged out of the prayers of Jesus Christ for his enemies; and who were we if not his enemies?

People often protest that we should be for something, not against something. We should affirm something, they say, not protest something (as in "Protestant"). But sometimes--oftentimes--it is necessary to be unmistakably against that which destroys what we are for. When anthropological theology threatens to run away with the church, we need to resist it--by countering it with strong biblical theology. Simply offering the strong biblical message without a counterpunch, however, does not always do the job. I have learned that the hard way, as I have watched groups steeped in the genuine evangel quickly deteriorate when some "Galatian" or "Corinthian" teachers (Paul's opponents in two of his churches) moved in and began to offer a legalistic or gnostic "gospel"... and people did not even notice what was happening; no wonder Paul wrote in such impassioned terms. More than once, in the 1980s, I preached during a Lenten series in which Bishop Spong also preached. It was very apparent from frequent comments at the church door ("You and Bishop Spong are my favorite preachers!") that they could not tell the difference between my preaching and Spong's. Because of this lack of theological training among churchgoers, resistance needs to be explicit. It does not need to be nasty, but it needs to make itself known.

It seems to me that we in America are now observing a gradual settling-into the new geopolitical situation, a "normalizing" of it. The new tone is part of this--the deterioration of the language, the new tolerance of profanity and insult in public life, a new contempt for sober intellectual analysis, the celebration of ignorance, the widespread dissemination of untruth--all this is rapidly gaining acceptance. There is an unmistakeable uptick in attacks on Muslims, Jews, Hispanics, Arabs (or anyone mistaken for an Arab), and others who do not fit into the "white" spectrum.  Who would have thought that a displaying a picture of the Statue of Liberty would have become an act of political resistance?

It is showing up on all sides: increasing racial and ethnic tensions, contempt for the opposition, the hyper-frenetic pace of competition, the lack of humility, the crass and unashamed display of the pursuit of wealth, the focus on surfaces and consumption, the increasingly precarious lives of people on the margins and increasing indifference toward them. Any act, however small, of refusal to participate in these trends is an act of resistance. Acquiring less, giving more, seeking quiet pursuits, being neighborly, picking up trash, joining book clubs, writing letters to the editor, supporting charitable endeavors--such things are, in their way, forms of resistance.

However, for those who are called to public life, and for those of us who depend upon their leadership, there is an overwhelming need for open, even heroic, acts of resistance...and there are ways to support that. I'm thinking not only of the famous dissidents known to everyone, but of Sophie Scholl and her student friends against the Nazis, the Monday Demonstrations in East Germany that helped bring down the Berlin Wall, the "No" campaign in Chile by hip young people who designed media messages to help bring down Pinochet...the list is long, but not as long as it might be. Do you know about these movements?  The "No" campaign is portrayed in an excellent movie starring Gael Garcia Bernal (entitled, simply, NO). Sophie's movement is the subject of an even more powerful movie, The White Rose. Might we not look for something like this today in our own setting?  The Monday Demonstrations were started at St Nicholas Lutheran Church in Leipzig, each Monday after evening prayers. The pastor there, with the unlikely name of Christian Führer, was the catalyst.

A close friend once asked me why I spent so much time reading about and watching films about great atrocities. That was a challenging question. I gave it a lot of thought. I finally decided that I wanted to inform myself about the worst of the worst because it gives me a sense of mastery, a sense of agency, a sense that I might have a role to play. I have never been confronted with a life-or-death decision, but I would like to think that I was prepared. It's been said about the survivors of Mother Emmanuel, the AME church in Charleston where Dylan Roof massacred the members of the Bible study group, that whereas they were not ready for such a horrific attack, they were prepared The extension of forgiveness by some of them to the killer was not glib or superficial. They understood that forgiveness in such a situation was not from a position of victimization, but from a position of superior strength.

Being prepared means looking without blinking at the presence and potency of radical evil in order to register the worst about human nature, to fortify ourselves to resist the worst, and to prepare for this resistance by acknowledging that there are submerged dark inclinations in all of us that under certain circumstances can come to the surface. These ideas belong to the season of Advent, a time for reflecting upon preparation, not so much for the coming of Christ as it is for preparing to live a Christ-like life. That kind of preparation is part of our calling as part of the Body of Christ. We hear about this in a context of crisis/ in Mark 13, just prior to the season of Advent :
...Take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them...  And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit...  and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.
And then if any one says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. False Christs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand.
"I have told you all things beforehand..." As followers of Jesus, we are prepared and fortified with the Holy Spirit. We will recognize the difference between the speech that degrades and the speech that elevates. We will see that such things as ramping up the atmosphere of consumer excess, shaming poor children whose parents cannot or have not paid for their lunches, exploiting workers who have no defenses, continuing to enlarge our prisons without care for the inmates, allowing gun violence to continue unabated, and watching passively as environmental protections are dismantled require not just deploring from afar, but active resistance.

The kind of "resistance" we are now seeing on our college campuses is disgraceful. When left-wing students come out to protest with insults and violence, resistance is demeaned and co-opted by the very forces the demonstrators supposedly wish to contest. There is no more central ethic for Christians than the ethics of means. If the means do not mirror the mind of Christ, then resistance becomes corrupt and self-defeating, not to mention unChristian. This is a subject requiring much more extensive discussion, but in the meantime these reflections are meant simply as a contribution to the discussion. And when it comes to active resistance, there is a little (tiny, actually) primer that distills some of the great learning and wisdom of  public intellectual Timothy Snyder as a handbook and guide to resistance:

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Debating "free will"

I have been involved in a miniature discussion on Twitter with a group of admirers of Pope Benedict XVI  (I'm an admirer too...sort of). Does God sometimes override human will? Is it always necessary for us to say "yes" to him before he can do anything with us? I offer the illustration of St Paul, who said nothing but "no" to God until God knocked him off his horse and blinded him on the way to Damascus. Other biblical no-sayers include Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos, Ezekiel, etc etc. (See the poem "The Hound of Heaven"...)

I attended an Episcopal church this past Sunday morning, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The traditional Episcopal liturgy was used. As it progressed, the prayers, hymns, and readings seemed almost as though they were designed specifically to guide us in this controversial matter. The first thing that struck me was the Collect for the day:
O Almighty God, who alone can order the unruly wills and affections of sinful [human beings]: Grant unto thy people that they may love that which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise...." 
This is a virtual paraphrase of Augustine's celebrated saying: "O Lord, grant what you command, and then command what you will" (Da quod jubes, et jube quod vis). This was the utterance that riled up his great antagonist Pelagius. So here we are right in the middle of the Pelagian controversy once again. It never dies, but arises anew in every generation--so determined are we to hold on to our own supposed freedom, even to our utter destruction.

The second Scripture reading was from Romans 8:
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot...but you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit...
The mind that is set on the flesh cannot submit to God's commandments.What then will free us from the grip of the "flesh"? Can we just make up our minds to free ourselves? or do we come to realize that "we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves"? (That's from the Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent.)

I was taught by some of the greatest biblical scholars of the second half of the 20th century, but it was eight years after graduating (I can date it almost exactly) before I finally began to catch on to the radicality of Paul's teaching. Romans 8 can't be called as witness to the issue of  "free will" unless we understand what Paul means by "flesh" and "Spirit." "Flesh" (sarx), in Paul's thinking, does not refer to material or carnal matters. Paul uses the term sarx to mean an entire realm or dominion--"this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4)--ruled by the cosmic Powers of Sin and Death. Paul uses the phrase "the freedom we have in Christ Jesus" in Galatians 2:4 to make the strongest possible contrast between the freedom we have in Christ and the legalism of the newcomers in the Galatian congregation who want to reintroduce the rule of Law. In Romans 7:9-11, Paul explicitly says that God's good commandments have been seized by Sin and made into a weapon of destruction. Paul is greatly alarmed by the new teachers in Galatia and their assault on "the freedom we have in Christ Jesus," mounting a ferocious counterattack. There is no similar crisis in the Roman congregation, so Paul speaks in a more moderate tone; however, in the letter to the Romans it is more obvious that Paul is speaking of two realms, the realm of the flesh and the realm of the Spirit. We are in bondage to the realm of the flesh until the Spirit sets us free. (This language of bondage and freedom is found in the Fourth Gospel also--see John 8:31-36).

To sum up the previous paragraph (I realize that Paul's letters are not easy, but they have always been central to understanding the gospel): Humankind is in bondage to the Powers of Sin and Death, and no amount of  human effort can untie that knot. "The good I would do is not what I do, but I do the very thing I hate" (Romans 7:19). It is only the action of God in the Holy Spirit that can free the human will to be conformed to his will. God's action is prevenient (pre-venere, going-before) to the human decision.

Getting back to this past Sunday's service:
The Gospel reading was the raising of Lazarus. I have often enjoyed remembering a remark I once heard--I can no longer recall who said it, but I remember the effect it had on me: "Could Lazarus have said no?" This was half a joke and half completely serious. The command of Jesus ("Lazarus, come forth!") is called "irresistible grace."

The next hymn was "Take my life and let it be/ consecrated, Lord, to thee." I've always loved the line, "Take my intellect, and use/ every power as thou shalt choose." I've always relied on that line to guide my very poor prayers as I've pursued my writing.  I suppose one could say that God won't answer that prayer unless I say yes to him first, but I've found that it is often when I am most recalcitrant that grace finds me in spite of myself.

The communion hymn was one that I have not sung for a long time.  The tune by Stainer is a bit syrupy to my taste and I had always thought of the hymn as rather sentimental. Not so! The text is by William Cowper, a good minor English poet. The hymn expresses a deep sense of estrangement from God and a desperate plea for his presence. The fourth verse reads:
The dearest idol I have known
whate'er that idol be,
help me to tear it from thy throne
and worship only thee.
The hymn seems to confess the utter inadequacy of the petitioner to put his thoughts in order, and his utter dependence on God to make the first move.

[Cowper had a tragic life, struggling with depression and mania. In this he is like the greater hymnwriter and poet, Christopher Smart.] 
Read about Cowper here:

These references are fragments, and none of them will convince a person who has made up his/ her mind to honor human freedom more than the prevenient and irresistible grace of God, but it all added up for me. Not my will, O Lord, but thine be done.