Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bad Words IV: "A Sense of Community", aka, Corrosive False Peace in the Church

I don't know the person who wrote this, but it is bang on. It is a bit of rant, but makes a good point about what today's franchised church-ianity too often settles for and even advertises, as if community and hospitality are "things we feel rather than things we participate in." Feel free to go read it.

But lest I turn this fourth instalment of "bad words" into a cop out by letting someone else's blog do all the work for me, let me try to explain with an excerpt from an email I just sent this morning. My friend and I were discussing the alarming verses littered throughout the gospels about forgiving and loving others as Christ forgives and loves us. On one hand, if you have a full-bodied idea of what forgiving and loving look like, that seems impossible. On the other hand, if you have a kind of sentimentalized idea of forgiveness and love, that seems too shallow and easy. In my email I was trying to explain that I think Christ is calling us to what Paul would later call the ministry of reconciliation:

"One thing I'm exploring in my dissertation is this idea you mentioned, about "straight up forgiveness". I think that's been a problem in the church, basically because of our generalized and privatized notion of justification. We tend to think that we are called to cover everything in blanket forgiveness and move on. But I don't think this is a biblical conception of forgiveness. Forgiveness is wedded to too much else in the grander scheme of reconciliation.

So it isn't a matter of confrontation being a plan B for when you can't forgive. But it is that you do forgive---and therefore you engage with a person and with the community (as appropriate) toward full reconciliation. That includes naming the sin or the enmity (confrontation and confession), agreeing on it (repentance), and aiming to together be caught up in God's work of healing and witness in the world. This is the opposite of false peace. It can be messy. It won't feel like the community we advertise on our church websites. But it would be communion."

Feel free to stop here if you've read enough, and want to comment or question or think on what I've proposed. But if you want to read a little further, here is Karl Barth's argument along the same lines from The Doctrine of Reconciliation IV/3.2. I know I have put some lengthy excerpts on here, but if this grabs you in any way, I do encourage you to read on carefully:

"It [a church's witness] can have the appearance of a true message of Christ, a true preaching of the kingdom of God or true praise of free grace. It can ostensibly be a proclamation of justification by faith alone and a warming reference to the spiritual conversion and moral renovation needed by humanity.

And why should it not proclaim this with genuine emotion and true zeal? In this corrupted form only one thing will be carefully left out and therefore lacking.

The impartation will not be intended nor go forth as an invitation to or demand for a concrete decision of faith and obedience .... In spite of all its profundity and eloquence, at the point where it ought to do this, it will come to a halt and become an inarticulate mumbling of pious words.
There will be talk of inward regeneration by faith, of the struggle for a new awakening by the Spirit of God, of the solemn prospect of a distant "world of Christ," but there will be no demand to grasp the nettle and to make a small beginning of this regeneration and awakening in a specific act of will here and now.

There will be prayer for peace, but prayer committing no one. When the time comes for steps to peace which commit anyone, there will be quick withdrawal into neutrality, into a safe avoidance of the fatal problems and the even more fatal freedom from problems of the existing present, followed by a new and powerful and sincerely meant but blunted and generalised and therefore impotent assurance that Jesus Christ is risen, that He will come again at the last day and put everything right, and that faith in Him is the victory which overcomes the world.

The community which wants to adopt this attitude will never be at a loss for practical reasons in its favour. . . . But would it not be better if, when at what is perhaps a critical moment for the world and therefore for itself the community finds itself in the disturbing position of not knowing what to say or what not to say, or of being divided on the point, it should at least refrain from regarding itself as excused or even justified for these reasons? . . .

[O]ught not such an attitude to give it a very definitely disturbed or bad conscience which will not allow it to persist in its neutrality but will impel it rather to become a new and perhaps more attentive hearer of the voice of the Good Shepherd? It is this disturbed conscience, however, which it does not seem to have so long as it can find such good reasons for its neutrality, its empty generality, and the consequent blunting of its word, of its supposed attestation of the Word of Jesus Christ" (pp. 813-815).

I think this is really well put. Rather devastating, actually. If Barth is right, we are back on our knees before the grace of God, even if we do stand in joy and walk again in the over-abundance of that very same grace.

This is not a church-bash. Please don't take any of my posts in this series that way. If anything, it is hidden people of the church (and certainly not our blandly tolerant society) that have taught me to strive to deeper understand and articulate what is true community. You've likely met them. They are generally the people who didn't leave the church when they got burned but stuck it out and found the grace in the gravel. They don't have blogs and they don't advertise themselves. They just are. They are the people who continue to go to church despite the shallow promise of a "sense of community" and actually live in the substance of communion so becoming an outpost of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Jesus, I'd love to be counted among them.


Stewart said...

Love all your posts Jon...haven't said much lately because of time constraints. Ah yes, forgiveness...that elusive yet essential aspect of spiritual health, both individually and corporately. Always struck by Christ's words: "for if you don't...neither will my Father...". Loved your phrase: "grace in the gravel" because there seems to be a lot of gravel in church life.

Jon Coutts said...

there is a lot of gravel in all life.

I think that it should not concern us that this is so in the church. Nor should it be a matter of pride that this is so.

What ought to concern us, though, is when we attempt to downplay this reality or to gloss it over with a warm "sense of community" of the sort that one can buy for 3 dollars at Starbucks.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether when we do so are we thus muffling the actual activities of the church wherein its Christianity is to be felt and known: Where we in the gravel lament it, confess it, repent of it, seek reconciliation in it, hope for peace in it, pray for kingdom come in it, and yet hold no place for teeth-grinding angst, introspective anxiety or despair-wallowing emotional penance because in joy we can live confident that nothing surprises the crucified and risen one, and His grace is greater, goes with us, and brings us healing even as we go...

Tony Tanti said...

I think you're right here Jon, I don't see how forgiveness means anything to a community if it doesn't go along with engaging with the person that is being forgiven.

This might be a subject change but the whole time I was reading your post today I couldn't help but think about all the people in the church who think being joyful and putting on a smile is part of their spiritual duty. I wonder if the glossing over of messiness (gravel) is partly to blame for some people's inability to engage with those they feel have wronged them.

I sure like your comments about "sense of community", nobody should settle for a sense of anything if the thing is the goal.

Jon Coutts said...

Yeah, definitely. I do think you get that sense of dutiful smiling in lots of social situations, and it probably isn't always unhealthy. But to build a community on it, and to advertise yourself as such..... ugh.

Kampen said...

Hey, I just noticed you linked a blog post of mine. I glanced at your CV and saw that you attended MEI for high school. I went to Westgate Mennonite Collegiate.
Anyway, regarding your post. Interesting thoughts on forgiveness. One of my pet peeves with Christianity is that forgiveness is viewed as the appropriate, obvious, and often expected "Christian" response to harm inflicted on oneself or a group. The problem with this is that that's simply not an accurate account of (how) the Kingdom of God (relates to the world). Certainly, forgiveness is a mark and practice of the church, but to forgive someone is terribly hard. Forgiveness is a practice, that is, every day we must choose to forgive again the person we chose to forgive yesterday, and we will face the same challenge tomorrow. Forgiveness is only possible because of the work of Christ on the cross; the forgiveness for all nations. Rowan Williams reminds us in his book "Tokens of Trust" that 'God doesn't forgive us because we're good, rather, he makes us good by forgiving us.' (quoted from memory, not entirely accurate).

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks for the comments, Kampen. I'm not sure where Westgate Mennonite Collegiate is. I'll have to google it.

I agree with everything you've said there. I am doing a dissertation on forgiveness within a fuller concept of reconciliation, and want to do justice to both the staggering claim of Christianity that you DO forgive and also the context of Christianity which places that within a larger work of God rather than being a meaningless and naive gesture of tolerance.

I appreciate your words to that effect. You've put it quite well. And thanks for that original post.