This post is about two ways that the Christian Church typically responds to situations of pain, and how our default settings miss something vital.
Part 1: Mercy more than Justice.
In the fortnightly online discussion group that I’m a part of we’ve been thinking about ‘The Powers’ that are in play around us, and what a Christian response looks like.
In the New Testament, the powers that are at the forefront are:
1) The Jewish religious leaders and
The way that Jesus responds to the power of religious leaders is something that you might be familiar with. The conflict is right there on the surface in the Gospels.
Iff we were to look a little deeper, we would see also how he challenges Roman imperialism.
(I’m just starting to read Ched Myers’ book – ‘Binding the Strong Man,‘ a political reading of Mark’s Gospel – more on that another time maybe.
It shouldn’t surprise us then that as Christians we are called to be aware of the powers around us – economic, social, political, organisational etc which are often working for the common good, but are just as, or more likely to be pursuing their own agendas.
Being aware of how the powers are at work is the first step, but if and when we judge that the powers are not aligned towards justice and peace there comes a point where some response is called for. This response could be expressed in protest, or resistance of some kind, but as I argue below, it’s more likely to be a response driven by compassion.
Just the other day, I came across this quote from Hannah Arendt, German thinker –
The antidote to evil is not goodness but reflection and responsibility. Evil grows when people “cease to think, reflect, and choose between good and evil, between taking part or resisting.”
The first part of that quote reminds us that when we see that the powers are not aligned with the Common Good, we have a choice how to respond – with goodness or responsibility.
For example, in line with the often repeated instruction in the Old Testament, we are called to look out for ‘The widow, the orphan and the stranger,’ but over the course of history I would guess that the most typical Christian response has been through acts of goodness, service and compassion – binding up the broken hearted, healing the sick and so on, rather than through a commitment to justice.
We see the compassion response in the foundation of hospitals, hospices and a host of other projects that are driven by a Christian impulse to serve – especially those who are suffering. I would argue that the mandate to justice as well as mercy has often been forgotten, because it’s easier to help people than to buck the system. It’s easier to patch things up than getting to the root of the problem.
Part 2: Individual more than Collective.
There’s a second emphasis in the usual Christian response that I want to point out, and that’s our fixation with the individual. Not only do we find it easier to be compassionate than to confront, we tend to focus on our individual responsibility to change and be a part of bringing about change rather than seek a collective way.
I refer here to an earlier post when I quoted Walter Brueggemann’s assertion that the foundational work of transformation is not to be found in individual action as much as in Liturgy and Organising.
That is the work that we do when we are bound together in action to resist the powers, together with the organising that makes that happen.
In the context of Christian worship, I’m trying to pay attention to the different ways that we use liturgy, and how we read the scriptures, and how that might speak into a discussion on ‘The Powers.’
So, for example, in the Anglican tradition, there is a prayer of confession, usually at the beginning of a service. Here’s an example that is used most often.
Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned against youand against our neighbour
in thought and word and deed,
through negligence, through weakness,through our own deliberate fault.
We are truly sorryand repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,who died for us,
forgive us all that is past and grant that we may serve you in newness of life
to the glory of your name. Amen.
We are often encouraged to reflect on the past week, to call to mind the things we have done, thought or said that we regret, and those good things that we didn’t do. The prayer is all about getting ourselves ‘right with God’ before we continue in worship.
It’s all very individualistic. It tends to lead to a spirituality that is focussed too much on ‘sin’ and ‘me’ and the things in my life that need putting right. In the Bible, sin is a problem, but it’s not the only problem.
Two of the central stories in the Old Testament for example are:
The story of liberation from slavery in Egypt – that speaks to our bondage to the powers around us.
The story of exile and return – that speaks to our longing for home.
A suggestion put by Marcus Borg, in his book ‘Speaking Christian,’ is that we give less airtime to the prayer of confession, by using it maybe once every five weeks, and for the other weeks, replacing the confession of sin with images of our predicament as slavery, exile, blindness, sickness etc. “Imagine the absolution replaced by the proclamation that God wills our liberation from slavery, our return from exile, our seeing again, our healing and wholeness. Sin matters, but when it and the need for forgiveness become the dominant issue of our life with God, it reduces and impoverishes the wisdom and passion of the Bible and the Christian tradition.”
Speaking Christain p.152
In addition, when thinking about how we read scripture, I would suggest that in many (most ?) Christian worship services, the sermon will read the Bible through a very personal and also individual lens. Even the teaching about how we serve God will be likely focussed on what we as individuals can/should do.
This is of course tied to the point about confession made just now. If our obsession is with sin, and putting our personal relationship with God right, then it follows that the teaching in our churches will be aimed at keeping us on the right track with God, and serving God by ‘loving our neighbour.’
(This was brought home to me as I was listening yesterday to the Archbishop of Canterbury interviewing writer Stephen King. Stephen King talked freely about his faith in God, portraying it as a personal matter, that seemed to have little to do with what goes on in the world. He quoted Jesus saying ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s to God,’ as a way of justifying keeping religion separate from politics. Keep God out of politics).
In the time of the gospel writers, the power that was calling for total allegiance was Rome and the Emperor. When Jesus contrasts Caesar and God, he is setting before us two complete opposites. Are we to say ‘Caesar is Lord ?’ or ‘Jesus is Lord.’ To put God first will mean that Christians are called to engage the powers of the day.
Perhaps the way we go about ‘confession’ in our worship and the treatment of scripture can help redress imbalance, moving the focus from the individual to point us towards the more collective pains, ills and injustices in the world.
If you are a church goer, you might want to pay particular attention to the way that the prayer of confession and the use of scripture are experienced in your worship services.
To what extent, if any, do they address the questions of the powers, and issues beyond our individual response ?
How as communities can we resist and challenge those powers that call for our allegiance, rather than God’s ?