Sunday, June 28, 2015

Why Church? (Does there have to be a cost for goodness?)

Installation of Elizabeth A. Eaton as presiding bishop, Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), October, 2013, in Chicago.
(Source: Episcopal News Service)

The presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has asked a provocative question:

There are many socially conscious, kindhearted, generous, morally upright, compassionate atheists in the world. How are we [Christians] distinguishable from them? (See "Getting to what really matters" by Elizabeth A. Eaton in The Lutheran, January 2014)

This question makes me wince.

The form of inquiry in which we try to define how "we" are different than "them" seems to me to be filled with peril.

Specifically, the Church has been responsible for enormous harm, buttressed by a self-enforced status of "different and superior."

Psychologically, it simply may not be possible for humans to process information in this way without going astray.

December, 2014: Seminarians from Lutheran School of
Theology Chicago (LSTC) walk out as part of the 
#BlackLivesMatter protests. (Photo: Tom Gaulke)
On the other hand, particularly in the moment we are in, perhaps it is important for us to zero in on how "we" really are different than "them" -- for instance, in the US in 2015 where "we" are the beneficiaries of massive and unwarranted privilege and "they" are the recipients of centuries of oppression. (How about that difference?)

On a practical level, when it comes to the discussion of Christian or non-Christian, believer or atheist, I am deeply grateful for my friendships and working relationships with committed peace and justice advocates -- socially conscious, kindhearted, generous, morally upright, compassionate -- who come in both the believing and unbelieving stripes. Many of them have substantial experience of the Church. I would wish to be very careful and respectful in entering into any discussion of the role of faith in our lives and work.

In her essay in The Lutheran, Bishop Eaton goes on to say,

If our life together consists primarily of being affirmed by God’s unconditional love and doing works of justice and charity without understanding that God has brought about the transformation of justified sinners through the costly grace of the crucified Christ, then we are not church.

I think that does invite reflection and response.

Why do we have to talk about Jesus? Why the cross? Why does there have to be a cost?

These questions came to mind as I was working on the World Beyond War campaign in recent days. World Beyond War is a mass campaign to spread the idea that we can end all war, and is based on the idea that the power to do so lies in enlisting the voices of everyone who hopes and believes this is true. The heart of the campaign revolves around:

A world beyond war really IS possible . . .
I'm working to make it happen!
See and hearing others . . .

Believing . . .

Saying . . .

Acting . . .

Social media enables this to happen in large numbers very quickly. It is tempting to try to envision a successful campaign that needs only a very little from each person. On the other hand, the stakes are so high that it seems wrong to take the risk of falling short by asking too little.

And so we quickly come up against the question: "How much does each person have to do?"

I haven't thought this through completely, but I am feeling some resonance with the tension that Bishop Eaton lifts up: shall we simply bask in hope and positive feelings? or must we recognize and embrace the cost?

I am beginning to think that the success of World Beyond War will involve a formulation that expands to become something like "I am paying a price to make a world beyond war a REALITY . . . and the price I pay will be worth it."

Paying a price: easier said than done.

What is the form of organization that is going to support and buttress all these price-payers? What will sustain their commitment when the price gets high?

Related posts

I believe an enormous number of people will conclude that, if they really believe "we can choose to abolish war," then what's required is to speak it.

(See "We can choose to abolish war" (The rest is just details) )

Can there be any more clear illustration than the one at left to remind us that the work of the Church is liberation?

(See Christian "Church"? How about Christian "Liberation Organization"? )

Like a full-service prophet, Ron often has to be his own interpreter and explain to people what the expression "fly in the ointment" means! However, when he shows them his sign, with the big gross fly on it, they intuitively understand the role of social critic in making people uncomfortable and pointing up the need for change. And they understand that the role is not
always welcomed.

(See Flies in the Ointment and Plumb Lines for Israel)

Faced with chorus of voices saying, "Isn't it time for you to tone it down? Can't you be more reasonable? What is it you want, anyway?" Jesus kept right on doing what he was doing. And that was a sign to us about how to live our lives . . . .

(See WWJD? Occupy! )