January 14, 2013
It has become quite a popular quote in some church circles to remind that church is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. Your life from Monday to Saturday is where the real church happens, so we say. But what if that is wrong. What if it is all about Sunday morning 9 o’clock? What if everything that I’ve been reflecting on over the past 5 years on this blog (emerging churches, missional conversation, public theology, liberation theology, theology and racism) should not be a call towards the Monday-to-Saturday-real-life, but rather a radical call towards Sunday morning 9 o’clock.
On the ticket of it-is-not-about-Sunday, some of my friends has quit the church-on-Sunday’s system. They left that behind, since if the logic that it’s not-about-Sunday, but about my life from Monday to Saturday is correct, then why not take it to its logical conclusion and just end Sunday morning 9 o’clock (or whatever your equivalent of the central gathering of a community of faith is, whether Sunday evening 6 o’clock, or Wednesday evening 11 o’clock). but for most people however vaguely committed to the Jesus-story there remain a Sunday morning 9 o’clock, or equivalent event (perhaps not weekly, perhaps not in a church building), which give some kind of explicit form to their faith commitments, even though they, to some extend rightly, identify their whole of life as the place of faith.
The dark side of underplaying Sunday morning 9 o’clock is that we can use Monday to Saturday as a tool to divert the gaze away from the problematic nature of Sunday morning 9 o’clock’s gathering of a community of faith, and so underplay the very important symbolic moment which Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain, a moment which publicly reveal that which is real, and in this revelation is actually calling the church’s (and is this perhaps more than merely the church’s) bluff… or at least should be.
The form this might take is the following: “Even though we are a white middle-class community gathering on a Sunday morning, that is not our real identity. Our real identity is to be found Monday to Saturday, where members of this community of faith are through their work building relationships across racial lines, and in our outreaches building relationships with the poor“. Sunday morning 9 o’clock is therefore not our real identity, and the exclusivity revealed in this gathering should not be seen as central to the identity of those who are gathered. The church is therefore not simply a middle-class white Afrikaans community, since Sunday morning 9 o’clock is not a true revelation of who we are.
But what if Sunday morning 9 o’clock does indeed reveal our true identity. Does our choice for who should help us in heating pews on Sunday morning not reveal our relational commitments in it’s truest form? Perhaps not on an individual level, in the sense that I only choose my friends and romantic partners from those who attend church with me (although this remain common in some church circles), but rather more generally, in the sense that those who I join on a Sunday morning reveal the broader class, racial, ethnic or cultural group into which I commit myself relationally. I also do not wish to argue for simple causality (as in that the church is the reason why I have bound myself to this network of people), but rather that we need to notice that this particular commitment to a community of faith does indeed reveal our “true identity”.
Is this not perhaps in part why transforming religious communities is proving to be so extremely difficult? Not only in South Africa! Follow the North American discourse on race, look at how church from similar traditions remain separate when immigrants to Europe prefer their own communities rather than joining the existing church. On an even superficial reading of the Christian tradition we know this to be problematic, which is why we have a very long history of attempting to theologically justify this phenomenon. A mission policy which dictated that it is “more effective”, “better” or “biblical” for “each group” to have an “own church” was one brutal way in which we did this (an approach which has resulted in extreme shame as we had to acknowledge that this was built on racial ideologies masked as theological convictions), but why should a reinterpretation of Monday to Saturday necessarily be exempt from similar biases?
Don’t get me wrong, the theology which made Sunday morning 9 o’clock into the absolute symbol of religiosity need to be challenged! Insisting that Monday to Saturday (or perhaps just Monday to Sunday) should indeed be the place where faith finds its primary expression – in how we conduct business, where we choose to buy our homes, the schools we choose for our children, the way in which we do our shopping, the political convictions we have – is indeed an important shift (although not a new revelation, but rather something which we have a centuries long history of attempting to do). And using a small religious life as a way of diverting the gaze from how we continue our ruthless exploitation of others beyond our religious life might be on of the most important insights the church need to face in our day. But what about the opposite?
What if we use our public lives which is lived in a more diverse environment, or even our acts of charity across class divisions (to approach the Rollins parable used in the above link from another angle), to keep the critique out of our most intimate spaces. For us as religious leaders the most intimate space might be the church itself, and we might use the above kind of argument to divert attention from the very obvious symbols of exclusivity which our churches remain, while for members of faith communities the gathering on a Sunday morning is symbolic of our most intimate relations, and we therefore need to divert the critique away from this, even using some nice Christian notions like participating in development work or living out our faith from Monday to Saturday as tools in immunizing the local community of faith against critique.
The message of Jesus and Paul seem to be much more radical, and Sunday morning 9 o’clock might be the more important political event, even in our day. As I read both the gospels and Paul it seems like their social experiment, grounded in a particular vision of who God is, was to change the most intimate relations, which was also often found around religious gatherings. Jew and gentile, tax collector and zealot. These were not bound into a spiritual unity, but rather walked the same roads following the same rabbi, or gathered in the same community – or at least that was the ideal.
Most white South Africans have black colleagues, and we tend to at least “muddle through” these relations, and often have good relations. But the unwritten rules remain that I can leave these relations behind Friday afternoon. These relations can remain official. And we can volunteer at a local soup kitchen, but no one expect us to continue sharing a meal elsewhere with those who come to get a bowl of soup. But we perhaps know that the local congregation has a different set of rules. The local congregation to some extend assume that we will share a table at some point, perhaps give others access to our home (through various small groups or Bible studies for example) and that we should cry together when others experience pain.
What if we just started right here, at what seems to be the most difficult. What if CEOs and cleaners, black and white, Zulu and Shangaan, Afrikaans and English, were to sit next to each other on a Sunday morning. To listen to the announcement of the deaths of each others family members. To visit each others homes. Have our kids attend Sunday School together. Drink coffee together while we wait for the Sunday School to end. You know, just typical church stuff, but explicitly crossing the very divides which our particular context keep in place. Obviously we could find new ways of keeping the divisions in place even within one congregations, and a naive focus on the membership list should never be mistaken to relationships which transform our identities, but the very difficulty of doing exactly this might be a reminder that it might be the place where we should start.
Perhaps it is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. But as long as Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain a symbol of class, racial and ethnic divisions in a society, we might want to consider that the truth is that it is about Sunday morning 9 o’clock for most of us. This is indeed the place which illustrate who I am in all its obscenity. I am part of this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation. I am not the guy who is nice to my workers or who contribute to a soup kitchen. As a Christian I might actually be doing this exactly in order to divert the critique against this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation of which I am part.
April 8, 2012
The gospels give us two groups of narratives which provide us with a glimpse onto the resurrection. There are those narratives when people find the empty grave, and those where the resurrected Christ meet them. See for example Luke 24: First a group of women come to the grave, finding it to be empty, with messengers from God announcing that they shouldn’t look for the living among the dead, after which Peter run to the grave, confirming that it is indeed empty. Then two people are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and are met by a stranger, a stranger whom they discover to be the resurrected Christ, just as this Christ disappear from their sight.
Modern debates about the resurrection, to my mind, don’t seem to focus on any of these narratives, but rather construct, from all sides of the popular debates, a new narrative not told by the writers of the gospel: the narrative of what happened inside the grave.
Take any construction of two sides to a popular debate on the resurrection, call them “conservative vs. progressive” or “fundamentalist vs. liberal” (both constructs of tensions in the church which I believe oversimplify the reality of real communities of faith) and you generally find a debate raging on: “could a body come back to life?” The question of what happened inside the grave. From various theological and scientific presuppositions we speculate on the missing narrative, the narrative inside the grave. Did the blood miraculously start to flow again? Was the body stolen? Was there a ‘spirit’ or ‘ghost’ which rose out of a dead Jesus? Did this Jesus simply take the blankets of from his body and face and walk out?
These are not modern questions, but have been the subject of speculation for many centuries, and particularly in the first centuries of the church. But the gospel writers refuse to answer the many questions. The gospel writers, as authors of their books, have the power to reveal information hidden to the characters. They sometimes reveal information on what Jesus was thinking, or what he prayed when no one else was with him, so they are willing to present the reader with information which no one could actually know (in the technical sense which we modern people like to connect to the word ‘know’). But when it come to the grave, they don’t dare walk onto that ground.
So we are left with two narratives: The grave is empty. The resurrected Christ has appeared to Peter, the woman at the grave, the travelers to Emmaus.
Are we allowed to dare walk into the grave, attempting to guess what happened? I would say yes. I say yes simply because I don’t think anything is out of bounds. Simply because I think that the God which we find in the Bible is fine with our questions, our attempts at sense-making, our attempts at giving a coherent or rational (sometimes both, sometimes these two seem to exclude each other) argument for our beliefs, or the tradition within which we live.
But I do think we miss the point if our debates and conversations about the resurrection end up as a technical conversation about what happened within the grave. The grave is empty. That’s it. That’s enough. That’s what the gospel present us with. The resurrected Christ, the one with whom we have been resurrection (following the (post)-Pauline writings in Collosians), has appeared to his followers, and this changed their lives.
I want to dare say that if we move our conversations out of the grave and into life, away from what happened in the grave and into what should happen to those to whom the resurrection Christ appeared in their lives, we might find a conversation which both bind us together and lead the church into becoming salt and light. This, to my mind, is a conversation we are in dire need of. What is the implication of the resurrection for the economy, the ecology, for a world in which death, not life, is the reality which face a very large proportion of this planets inhabitants. If our belief in the resurrection don’t translate into a belief that the death facing us can be overcome (and leaving people to die because we believe that they will go to heaven is not believing that death has been overcome, but rather a firm belief that death has won, that opposing death is impossible), then I struggle to call it faith in the resurrected Christ.
This is the sixth year that I’m blogging on the resurrection on resurrection Sunday. Earlier posts can be found here.
October 22, 2011
If there is a unifying thesis that runs through the bric-a-brac of reflections on violence that follow, it is that a similar paradox holds true for violence. At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible “subjective” violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts. A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance. This is the starting point, perhaps even the axiom, of the present book: subjective violence is just the most visible portion of a triumvirate that also includes two objective kinds of violence. First, there is a “symbolic” violence embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call “our house of being.” As we shall see later, this violence is not only at work in the obvious-and extensively studied-cases of incitement and of the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning. Second, there is what I call “systemic” violence, or the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.
Third, there is the matter of violence. Support for violence is intrinsic to Marxism. Without condoning the violence of the status quo and Christians’ blessing of it (which is actually the bigger problem), one has to express concern about the support for revolutionary violence (which is actually the lesser problem, since it is really a response to the violence of the system) in some branches of liberation theology.
Transforming Mission, p441
They reflect on different aspects. But a common thread is an important reminder: the violence of the status quo is the bigger problem. I’m convinced we’ll achieve more if our public discourse tackle the issue of economic exclusion and inequality, inhumane living conditions and deep racism, elements of what I would consider to constitute the violence of the status quo today, almost inevitable by-products of the smooth functioning of our economic system. Violence, also in it’s “subjective” forms, is a serious problem facing South Africa. Yet the vigor with which we are tackling this issue might just be deflecting attention from the violence of the status quo, the violence that keep the the privileged the privileged, and the poor the poor. Creating the impression that the “real problem” is individual acts of violence associated with what is considered criminal, while this should be read symptom of a bigger problem of violence.
September 14, 2011
A few weeks ago I arranged to speak with someone from CABSA, to find out from her how she think the church is doing in it’s mission in a context of HIV and AIDS. It was one of those conversations where I quickly realized that the best thing I could do is to keep my mouth shut about everything I thought I knew about HIV and AIDS, and just listen. Early in the conversation she explained that the question she is asking is not whether a congregation are involved with an AIDS project here or there, but rather whether they are HIV competent. HIV competent meant that the congregation understood the complexities of the problem, contributed to breaking down the stigmas concerning HIV and AIDS, and in short, was a space where those who carry the virus would feel safe to participate in this community. Very few congregations would be able to call themselves HIV competent.
Over the past year, and the past few months specifically, I’ve been struggling with some similar questions concerning mission. To state it bluntly: I’m disillusioned with the way the church always want to fix the problems of others, while keeping them on a distance. Something deeper is needed. Maybe we need some missional competence (although I hated the concept even while writing the post title), or something like it. We need to be poverty competent, suffering competent, in the sense that the friend from CABSA challenged me.
What would mission become when the local congregation isn’t asking themselves “where is God active in the world today”, and then join projects in the community, but start asking themselves: “who are the poor today? why are they poor? how do we end poverty? and most importantly: is this a community in which the poor, as the poor, are welcome?”. These questions might be somewhat in tension with the reflections in the previous post, which should lead us to ask “who are the poor whom this congregation should be joining and learning from?”, yet, these questions might be somewhat more practical for the average middle-class white congregation to ask.
It is the change from: we are running a soup kitchen down the street to those who benefit from the soup kitchen are teaching Sunday school, serving as elders, and participating in the life of this community. It is the change from we are handing out breastmilk to HIV+ mothers to some of our cell group leaders are HIV+.
Maybe that wouldn’t make us competent. Maybe that wouldn’t even make us missional. Maybe that would just remind us that we are broken. Maybe brokenness is closer to the core of being church than mission?
September 6, 2011
A personal introduction is in order for this blogpost: I think that the past two years has been a very long conversion experience, and an ongoing one. It was characterized by a journey into a space where I am no longer the answer for the world, but where I begin to notice how I am embedded in the sins of the world. I you scan through the posts from the past two years, Amahoro possibly being the single most important event in this journey, much of this will be found. It is an ongoing journey, one which I find to be struggling with, but one which are pushing me into a world from which I can never return, and I believe pushing be towards the Jesus whom I have learned to call Messiah.
The phrase “blessed are the poor” (Luke 6) has always been one of those strange moments in the journey with the Bible of the congregations and groups where I’ve spent my life. Luckily Matthew (Matthew 5) gave us an easy cop-out when talking about “blessed are the poor in spirit”, that phrase we knew how to interpret. But it is Luke which continue to push our imaginations. What do we do with the blessed poor?
I can quickly think of two common ways we solve this statement. The first is by projecting onto the poor those things we experience as lacing in our own lives: rest, not worrying, community with others. The second is my spiritualizing poverty so that everyone become poor. Some are poor because they lack meaningful family relations, others because they lack money.
But for Jesus some people were categorized as poor, and some as non-poor, as rich. The poor had little room to manege their own lives, they were oppressed by a system of taxes and the rich taking over their land. But I also don’t get the idea that Jesus is romanticizing poverty. He is not the kind of ascetic who call people into poverty, because of some deeper spiritual meaning. Jesus is a prophet challenging the system of injustice which create the poor. Yet Jesus is the one saying that “blessed are the poor”.
However, when we move away from this passage, then the poor are no longer romanticized nor spiritualized. We are aware of the fact that poverty is a very real problem in our country, and I would say that the dominant approach within the church is that the poor are pitied, and that we want to help the poor. We want to bless the poor. Sometimes we would even talk about blessing the poor with our gifts and help. If we were to stand up and do our own sermon on the plain (what we generally call the part in Luke where this phrase is found), we would probably start with: “Let us participate in the coming of the kingdom of God by blessing those who are poor. Let us bless the poor” (even using nice missional language like participation in the kingdom of God). But would we start our sermon with the words: “Blessed are you, the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”.
What does this imply? If I understand Belhar correctly, then God is in a unique way present with those who are suffering. Belhar states “… that in a world full of injustice and enmity He is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged and that He calls his Church to follw Him in this”. In his commentary on this text, Piet Naudé writes: “God does not stand by the poor because they are poor or because – as in a class struggle – he is in a particular way the God of the working class. In God, there is no injustice. God stands with the people who suffer in situations of injustice, because of this in justice. God can do no other. This is how God is.”
What does the the poor being blessed imply in Luke? Not that they have access to the lost ideals of the middle class, but that the kingdom of God is their’s. Maybe we could say that the kingdom of God can be found among those who suffer. I usually explain the “kingdom of God” to youth groups with two statements: First, the kingdom of God is how this world would look if God was king and not the rulers of this world. Second, the kingdom of God is God’s dream for the world, how God dream the world to be. Is it to much to say that among those who suffer in situations of injustice, those who we can call the poor (being more than an economic category, but being those who are placed at the bottom of the system), there we will find God’s dream for how the world should look. There we find the dream of what the world might be if God were to be king and not the rulers of this world.
What would happen if those of us in the rich church exorsise our drive to be the ones who are blessing the poor, and start recognizing the poor as those blessed by God. Those who find themselves in the place where God is to be found, and start listening for the dreams of what the kingdom of God might look like. Obviously we do not enter this space in a naive manner, where the voices of the poor suddenly become some kind of direct link towards the voice of God. The poor have no more direct line to the thoughts of God than the spiritual does, and listening to one lone voice is not hearing the voice of God, just as listening to one lone super-spiritual congregant is hearing the voice of God. But if we dare enter into conversation with those who are poor, with the entirety of this category whom of people we call poor, dare listening to what the poor are dreaming the world to be like, might it not be that we will find among those to whom the kingdom of God belong dreams of what this kingdom might look like? And if we then want to participate in the coming of the kingdom of God, then it might not be through our blessing of the poor, but through the discovery of the blessedness of the poor, and the participation in the coming of the world which the poor are dreaming into being.
A personal conclusion is in order as well: I’m not at this place. I struggle with this. I like to find solutions for poverty rather than listen to the world the poor are dreaming into being. I like to be the hero. But most of all, I’m not sure if I’m ready for the radical dreams the poor are dreaming, I fear that I might not like what I’m hearing. But might it be that these dreams are the coming into being of the kingdom of God? I think I need help struggling through this, so your thoughts will be appreciated.
August 3, 2011
Yes, that is a play onto McLaren’s well-known book which gave rise to fingers being pointed towards heresy, but this post has little to no reflection on McLaren’s book.
A few years ago conversations on “orthodoxy and orthopraxis” was quite common. The parts of the conversation which I enjoyed basically boiled down to the idea that orthopraxis (“right living”) was more important than orthodoxy (“right doctrine”). Obviously critiques came in stating that orthodoxy shouldn’t be read in such a narrow fashion, not to mention the various critiques from those who believed that the correct doctrine (narrowly defined as the thoughts we have concerning God) was indeed the most important part of being Christian. I generally found myself comfortable with voices arguing that in reading the gospels our lives as followers of Jesus seem to be more important than getting the facts and details right (thus the orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy argument as it was popularly formulated).
In the meantime the conversations has evolved, suddenly everyone went missional, the emerging label died a silent death to a certain extend, we have American’s teaching Africans about postcolonial theology and what have you more. But I experience a certain amount of tension growing with this newly discovered orthopraxis. More and more it would seem like we get a form of Christian boastfulness where some are “more missional” than others. “I feed more poor people than you” seem to be the new scale along which God’s favour for certain groups are to be measured. The idea that “we have found the real radical Jesus while you are still struggling with the old institutional Jesus” end up not very far from the many debated which we’ve seen over the past two centuries where various groups have declared themselves to be the true bearers of the correct faith, only now, the correct faith is equated with the correct way of fixing the world.
Annemie Bosch once shared a story of what David Bosch used to say during Apartheid. She gave permission that I can share it, although she hasn’t read these words, so mistakes in this paragraph are my own, but nonetheless, it goes something like this:
During Apartheid David Bosch would often say that in the struggle against apartheid, and in the work of transforming the mainline church and it’s relation to apartheid, we need to voices of Carel Boshoff, Johan Heyns, David Bosch as well as Beyers Naudé. Those who aren’t able to listen to the one, might listen to the other, and although they are voicing seemingly contradictory opinions, each in his unique way is contributing towards the end of apartheid and a just society.
This is no generous orthodoxy (in the strict popular interpretation of the word), but might rather be described as a generous orthopraxy. Tony Jones wrote a brilliant piece a number of years ago where attempted to describe a broad understanding of a changing orthodoxy where all role-players (I believe in a blogpost on the paper he used the words “from Benny Hinn to the Pope”, although I can’t find it) co-determine the definition of orthodoxy, and we remain open to the possibility that our consensus might change.
Within the complex reality of our world today it might be important to remain skeptical of the person with the “perfect plan for poverty”. Within the broad discussion of those who believe in justice for all we might want to recognize the role played by everyone from American short-term mission teams to Africa right through to Marxist analysts. Working with a fluid orthodoxy assume a robust debate, but it is a debate where we remain generous on who we consider to be a “legitimate voice” within the ongoing discussion. In our quest for justice, for ethics, I’d suggest we remain generous on who we consider to be partners on our quest for “right living”. This will require a robust debate, a clashing of ideas, but it assume that those I differ with are a necessary voice, and more important, a necessary body, in our quest for justice.
Annemie Bosch kindly rewrote the story to better reflect what was actually said, and agreed that I could add it here:
During Apartheid, David Bosch maintained that in order for us to attain justice for all in South Africa, we needed, in the Afrikaans-speaking section of our nation, the voices of Beyers Naudé, David Bosch, Johan Heyns, Carel Boshoff and Andries Treurnicht. Each of them was, in his own way, campaigning for a just society and for true equality and equity. Those who, because of their background and upbringing, could not hear what Beyers said, would perhaps be able to hear what David said – and so on, all along the line, up to the stance which A.P.Treurnicht took. So each one of these people, and others like them, were contributing towards a change in South Africa so that we could have justice and peace for all…. Which, even up to this day, we have not achieved. So once again we need the voices of many people at different levels of “the Stuggle for Justice” in the New South Africa. Let’s not write off those who differ from us in some or other way. Lets rather use our energy to do what our hand finds to do, and do it well. Let’s take hands and stand together against that which is wrong in our society – and especially in THE CHURCH – which is so much bigger than our little part of it!
January 28, 2011
I sat in church one morning as the preacher was sharing a story about Shane Claiborne. Suddenly a mass of thoughts kicked in which sprang from this one insight: this preacher doesn’t really want me to follow Claiborne! Why would the preacher propagate the example of Claiborne, Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Madiba… (Jesus?) and various radical voices if I shouldn’t follow in there footsteps? This is the post I’ve been meaning to write for many months. The one I maybe never should have written.
Youth ministry has a way of becoming a kind of barometer for what is cooking within the church. Here is the very simple test: In the church we like telling stories of Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Shane Claiborne (whom I mention because a story about him started this reflection in many ways) and many radicals. But what would the middle-class church do when we take these examples seriously? If we make them normative for youth ministry? What if youth ministry become a place where we tell children that they shouldn’t worry about getting a job and good education, but rather give up money and possessions in order to live among the poorest of the poor. And what if the children of the congregation would follow through on this. What if they were to literalize our examples, understanding our sermons and the examples we use as something which should actually be followed through?
Reinhold Niebuhr wasn’t the world’s greatest fan of the Mennonites and other radical church-based ethics. But maybe he can help us in understanding this fascination with the radicals. In the classic Christ and Culture Niebuhr himself have to acknowledge that there is a certain fascination with these approaches where what they say and what they do actually come together. When we find these voices embodying a radical non-violence, actually living with the poor, we have a certain kind of respect for them. Niebuhr himself didn’t seem to consider the Christ Against Culture approach, where he would list the examples of Mennonites and other radicals, to be really helpful, and most mainline voices would probably be more comfortable with some of Niebuhr’s other approaches. Our continued use of example of radicals might therefore be out of respect, but I’m thinking something more sinister is at work here.
In line with liberation theology 101 we should begin to be skeptical when we see how these radical voices is being used. The overused quote from Dom Helder Camara enlighten us on this topic: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” In the middle-class church we seem to like telling stories about the saints. But then the saints from Camara’s quote. Religious people. Those who give food to the poor. Those who practice Christianity in applaudable ways. We ignore the fact that these voices are calling into question the very existence of the churches in which we are quoting them! Because all of them, Claiborne, Theresa, Ghandi, Madiba (I have to add him at this point because of the frenzy running at the moment), Jesus, were not only the saints from Camara’s quote, but also the communists from Camara’s quote. They all called into question the middle-class white Western status quo (except for Jesus obviously, although it was another white Western middle-class that he was challenging). So maybe we like quoting saints. Not even the radicals from Niebuhr, those putting action into words, but those who participate in high-profile acts of compassion. But maybe something more sinister is at work here.
This obviously bring me to Peter Rollins (well maybe not so obviously, but is does). In one of Rollins’ parables (32 min into the conversation), he tells the story about the business man who lost his faith thanks to the preacher who prayed for him. This business man was using religion to define his being, while his material reality was that of being a corrupt business man. We could continue with hes corrupt ways because of the religion of which he was part, which he could use as lie to tell himself that actually his corrupt ways doesn’t define him.
But let me go somewhat deeper, into an argument which I believe might underlie Rollins’ story. In Zizek’s A Plea for Fundamentalism (at 25 minutes) he shares the insight of Agnes Scheller. Scheller was in a concentration camp in the 2nd World War, and observed that the largest group of people became a kind of “living dead”. They lost life, not even fighting for existence. Another group however resorted to a kind of egotistical life or death struggle. Everything was allowed in order to continue living. Lie. Steal. Fight for life in the most ruthless ways. But among this second group there was always (emphasize always) the idea that there is someone somewhere in the concentration camps that were able to remain a moral person. Should they however find that this doesn’t exist, they would become part of the living dead. The paradox he states: In order to be this total egotist, you had to believe that there is someone who hasn’t become this egotist which you are.
Zizek continue to talk about how religion keep capitalism in place. But at this point I want to move away from him, since the example he use is of religion that advocates a disconnect from the material reality which help us to fully participate in the capitalism reality (which is beautifully illustrated in Rollins’ parable). But in some mainline liberal environments the examples we use is exactly those who critique the same things Zizek critiques, who might agree completely with Zizek. We use these examples, the radicals actually living that which they say (or at least we believe that they are living what they are believing), but with the understanding that these examples are not to be followed.
Is it not that we share these stories to tell each other that “there is someone who was able to actually live the Christian life, and my identity is determined by being a Christian, not by what I am busy with daily”. Ghandi we obviously use in the church as a kind of Jesus-follower, ignoring his Hindu background and focusing on the fact that he liked the sermon on the mount. We call in these people and name them examples for how we are supposed to live, but there is a collective understanding that these examples shouldn’t be taken too seriously, although they should be considered part of the tradition which we are part of, they are Christian, we are Christian, and therefore we are part of those who actually live this radical life (although our very existence as middle-class church are shouting against this idea).
My fear is therefore that the sinister reality is that we call in people as examples in order that we can continue never to follow these examples. When do they move from being an example to becoming the soothing voice telling us that it is OK to continue on the path that we are on, since they have lived the radical path on our behalf.
On a side note I have to clarify why I have Nelson Mandela on this list next to Mother Theresa: Isn’t our reactions to health of Madiba a reminder that we have used him as a soothing voice for our own non-commitment to reconciliation? If Madiba was truly the inspiration we claim, then we should be able to let him go in peace, since a whole country would have taken over that which he claimed to stand for. Is the idea that Madiba shouldn’t die not the ultimate reminder that when we loose this icon of reconciliation, we (and I’m speaking primarily from the white community) would have to face the reality that we have not commited ourselves to reconciliation? (In similar fashion to Rollins’ parable and Zizek’s example from the concentration camp).
And then we need to go to the end of the list. Jesus. When Nolan writes:
“On the whole we don’t take Jesus seriously – whether we call ourselves Christian or not. There are some remarkable exceptions, but by and large we don’t love our enemies, we don’t turn the other cheek, we don’t forgive seventy times seven times, we don’t bless those who curse us, we don’t share what we have with the poor, and we don’t put all our hope and trust in God”
Why then do we call Jesus in as example? Is it because we think he should be followed?
I’m not against Mother Therese, Ghandi or Jesus. But if we use them to keep in place that which they were fighting against, then the faithful act might be to reject them.