Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Peace of the Body of Christ, Part III: Efficacy, Faithfulness, and Worship

I would like to continue addressing the question of systemic violence and faithful responses that I began in the last post. It seemed right to conclude with the tragic and ongoing case of domestic abuse, to let it sit and not to make a show or an example of it, rather than to go on to the thoughts I share below (especially when the tone shifts from understanding or appreciative to critical or hostile). Once again, we are employing John Howard Yoder's The Original Revolution (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1971) as our guide in this series.

4. The presumption of violence.

One of the foremost challenges of Christian pacifism is its relentless refusal to accede to our cultural, received, taught, biological, and/or ingrown presumption that violence is in itself more likely to accomplish our purposes than nonviolent or peaceful action. For example, the story is told that when the assassination plot in which Bonhoeffer took part -- being the example par excellence of a former pacifist who gave up his unrealistic convictions and conspired to do the responsible thing -- actually came to pass, and Hitler somehow survived the bomb's explosion, he walked away convinced he was spared miraculously by God and became even more emboldened to enact his plans.

Of course, assuming the story is true, it does not decide for us whether or not Bonhoeffer was right in his action. What it does demonstrate is that we do not know what will happen. Our finite nature, and thus the poverty of our foresight and knowledge, impinges on our involvement and approval of violence perhaps more than in any other realm of life. To say dogmatically that there is only one clear course of action in any given situation that will "get the job done," and that that action must be violent, is not only to forsake the biblical faith, it is to presume that we know as God knows. And we do not.

5. Efficacy versus faithfulness.

The question of the efficacy of our actions, however, raises a deeper question: Do Christians live or act (or believe!) according to worldly effectiveness at all? The answer, of course, must be no; if yes, most of Scripture falls by the wayside. If effectiveness, or "a reasonable amount of success," were the biblical standard, would Abraham have believed the promise? Would Moses have led Jacob's children out of Egypt? Would the people have collected and eaten the Manna? Would the exiles have returned? Would Jesus have healed the sick and raised the dead? Would we worship a God crucified and risen? The very essence of the faith is constituted by a God clearly captivated by the most ineffective means available to accomplish his purposes. God's people, then, no less than their God, must be empowered and enlivened by a faith and a way of life that embody the trust that God has acted, today acts, and will again act through situations and human actions that, beforehand or seen from the world's perspective, are without question unlikely, strange, ineffective, irresponsible, opaque. This is what it means to be the church.

Thus "conversion" is a requisite before coming to follow Jesus. Conversion, according to Yoder, is less "remorse, regret, sorrow for sin" than "a transformation of the understanding (metanoia), a redirected will ready to live in a new kind of world":
When Moses met God on a mountain and received from Him the tables of the law, this law was for all the children of Israel. When Jesus from another hill proclaims again the statues of His rule, it is to His disciples. This is not a set of moral standards to be posed on everyone or on the unconvinced. It is not proposed that persons using these standards can rule the unbelieving world accordingly, nor that they will be prosperous and popular. The ethic of discipleship is not guided by the goals it seeks to reach, but by the Lord it seeks to reflect. It is no more interested in "success" or in "effectiveness" than He. It is binding only upon those voluntarily enrolled in the band of His followers. It is assumed that they will be a minority in society; how the world would look if everyone would behave as they is not a question we immediately need to answer. (pp. 38-39)
Our task, then, is to be disciples of Jesus, looking forward to the consummation of all things, to the full and complete realization of the kingdom of God. For as God's people, we know that this world and its institutions and all its nations and kings and wars and ragings are falling away, and because "[t]he consummation is first of all the vindication of the way of the cross," wildly, unbelievably, "[t]he ultimate meaning of history is to be found in the work of the church":
The victory of the Lamb through His death seals the victory of the church. Her suffering, like her Master's, is the measure of her obedience to the self-giving love of God. Nonresistance is right, in the deepest sense, not because it works, but because it anticipates the triumph of the Lamb that was slain. (p. 61)
And this has always been the case for God's people, from Abraham to Peter, from Maximus to Francis, from Luther to Bonhoeffer:
Just as has been the case ever since the patriarchs, and most notably at Christ's cross, the task of obedience is to obey and the responsibility for bringing about victory is God's alone, His means beyond human calculation. God's intervention, not human progress, is the vindication of human obedience. The Christian's responsibility for defeating evil, is to resist the temptation to meet it on its own terms. To crush the evil adversary is to be vanquished by him because it means accepting his standards.

...[The New Testament view] means being longsighted, not shortsighted; it means trusting God to triumph through the cross. Faith is just this attitude (as the examples of Heb. 11:1-12:4 show), the willingness to accept the apparently ineffective path of obedience, trusting in God for the results. (p. 63)
This is the gospel of the resurrection, of Israel's unpredictable and free Lord, the one "who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not" (Romans 4:17).

6. The how and why of worship.

The presumption of violence as necessary because it is effective does not merely lie harmless and limpid outside the walls of the church's gathering and worship; in the American context, it is as present inside as out. It comes to bear most prominently and most dangerously in the words used to define, prescribe, and mark out the reason and impetus for communal worship. How is it that we come together, that we are able to come together? Like so many others, I have heard the given reason.

American soldiers, overseas, securing and protecting our religious freedom.

A discussion of the military, or the concrete possibility of Christians serving in the military forces in America, is a minefield, figuratively and (in harsh truth) literally. That is for another time and place, preferably in person, undertaken by individuals who know one another well and love each other deeply. (Actually, that describes the context that ought to prevail for nearly any serious or consequential theological or political discussion.) It is likely easy, though, to know where I stand on the issue, so let me emphasize before I offer my thoughts on the issue of worship: all Christians in America may and ought to be thankful for and respectful of every single individual who chooses to put his or her own life in harm's way for the sake of others. That must be the starting place for any Christian discussion of violence, the military, and the demands of discipleship.

However, with regard to the issue of the gathered people of God, come together in petition and praise, word and sacrament, we must be absolutely clear about what is going on. There is no distinction whatsoever between the "how" and the "why" of communal worship: the answer for each is one and the same, the triune God. Whom do we worship? The God of Israel. Why do we worship? The resurrection of Jesus Christ. How do we worship? By the call and empowerment and indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

How, then, are we able to worship? Or why are we able to worship in this way? Once again, by the grace and gift and glory of the one true God. Would we gather to worship if our government did not authorize it legally? Yes we would. Would we gather to worship if, illegally, groups sought our dissolution or destruction? Yes, we would. Would we gather to worship if, for whatever reason, the soldiers of the nation in which we found ourselves were not serving overseas or were not willing to fight or did not exist at all? Yes, amen, we would. We would gather together to worship the triune God in spirit and in truth. We would read from Scripture together, and we would pray together, and we would share the body and bread of the Lord together, and we would sing to God in praise and thanksgiving for the gift of the Spirit and for the resurrection of the Messiah and for the faithfulness of the Holy One of Israel. We would do all these things: without protection, without authorization, without legalization. We would do so because we would know who we are -- a people who once were not -- and by whose hand we became so -- the gracious Creator of all things. And we would also because we know the object of our worship, him "whose name is jealous" (Exodus 34:14), and he will have no other gods before him.

But, most foundationally, we would in fact gather together no matter the situation, because our worship is not determined or constituted or delimited by violence. Rather, our worship is grounded in the deep and abiding shalom of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our gathering, our community, our worship is intrinsically, divinely, and truly peaceful. We do not depend on the violence of the nation, or of soldiers, or of our own hands in order to come together to see and to hear and to love our God. We depend on his grace alone, and for that we are thankful.


  1. Just so you know, I really, really love this series. Your insight into the triune nature of the "how and why" of worship is incredibly profound.

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  3. "From where the wind blows nobody knows - but instead we have the sensation that we're held up, delicate like children, sinners as brittle as porcelain, and so filled by the fortitude unknown and ever new to us, His love."