Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Project, or, Yoder on Forgiveness and the Church

I'm still trying to figure out how to answer people when they ask me what I'm studying. The difficulty is that this is usually asked in the context of informal conversation, and therefore the paradoxical request is for a one or two sentence description minus the technical shorthand that such a concise answer tends to require.

Lately I have begun by saying I am studying forgiveness, ethics and ecclesiology in Karl Barth's doctrine of reconciliation, and seeing where it goes from there. Usually that means a short discussion of what "reconciliation" means to Barth, and maybe if the person really meant it when they asked we get into a short discussion of what are the issues in ecclesiology and ethics. But even once you get that far how do you begin to describe the intended ins and outs of exploring such a conceptually slippery and practically difficult thing as forgiveness? Usually you have to grab on to an illustrative aspect of it and try to focus on that. I'm not saying the listener can't handle it, I'm saying I have trouble getting my tongue around it.

All that to say that I found recently in John Howard Yoder a great quote that really gets to the heart of what I think my research project is, in the end, after. This because Barth left his ethics of reconciliation unfinished, and Yoder may have exhibited the best sense of its trajectory. After 3 years and 100,000 years the following paragraph may well end up being the closest thing to my conclusion. (Why write it if it is already written you ask? Let's not talk about that right now). Here it is, from Yoder's essay called "Binding and Loosing":

"The free church is not simply an assembly of individuals with a common spiritual experience of personal forgiveness received directly from God; nor is it merely a kind of working committee, a tool to get certain kinds of work carried out. The church is also, as a social reality right in the midst of the world, that people through whose relationships God makes forgiveness visible."


Anonymous said...

The Yoder quote reminds me of Bonhoeffer's Sanctorum Communio:

“ . . . in the assembly I am not the one speaking and listening at the same time, as happens when I read the word of scripture on my own; rather, it is another who speaks, and this becomes an incomparable assurance for me. Total strangers proclaim God’s grace and forgiveness to me, not as their own experience, but as God’s will. It is in the others that I can grasp in concrete form the church-community and its Lord as the guarantors of my confidence in God’s grace. The fact that others assure me of God’s grace makes the church-community real for me; it rules out any danger or hope that I might have fallen prey to an illusion. The confidence of faith arises not only out of solitude, but also out of the assembly.”

Tony Tanti said...

great quote, the next natural question for me: is the church accomplishing this?

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks for that Josh, that book is on my to do list this fall. Barth called it unsurpassable.

Tony: well, my gut answer is, yes: of course the church is "accomplishing" this. not everywhere by everyone at everytime. not by a long shot. but this isn't meant as a proclamation of its own perfection, it is a statement of its identification marks. where it isn't doing this, it is not living up to what it is that makes it church.

and to me the more pressing question is whether it happens anywhere else?

depends how you define forgiveness, of course. letting bygones be bygones, or holding to a vague kind of tolerance happens often enough, but what is that? It isn't "forgiveness made visible" the way Yoder means it, anyway (i.e., naming sin and then forgiving it based on what God has done and promises to do). Or if is, it may be forgiveness but only lit up by Christ is it visible for what it really is.

I know what you are saying Tanti, and certainly half the reason for projects like this (and quotes like Yoder's) is to remind the church of what it is to be. But the fact that it has to be called again and again to be what it is doesn't necessarily undermine what it is, it just tells us again how central grace and mutual forgiveness is to what it is.

happy for your pushback on that, hope i'm making sense.

Tony Tanti said...

makes sense, I flip back and forth on this one.

There have been some profound examples of Christians and churches showing public forgiveness such as this family that forgave the murderer of their dad: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=7924847&page=1

On the other hand the general impression I get of the church is that it is a group with some of the most judgmental and least forgiving people around - being fully aware of media tendency to only report the bad and that the least representative voices are often the loudest.

Letting bygones be bygones and giving tolerance would be a good start for the western Evangelical church that has become more political than spiritual in many places.

I don't know, I hate to be so cynical. I think you're absolutely right that making forgiveness visible should be a hallmark of the church, and in some places I'm sure it is being displayed. I guess a great story of forgiveness just doesn't make the evening news as easily as a Quran burning.

Jon Coutts said...


Tony Tanti said...

And to comment further, I was actually encouraged by the massive amount of unity in the criticism of the Quran burning idiot. Even some of the far right US evangelicals were calling that guy out for it.

Jon Coutts said...

you can't get your view of what Christianity or church IS from the examples that you see. This is especially so when what you see is provided by ignoramusse (ignorami?) like Dawkins or the media. That's not to say the Church is not accountable for how it presents itself. It is. Incredibly so. But what it IS is defined by Jesus Christ, and where the people are assembling to be defined by Him (even in their mistakes and outright evil ways), well, there you have a Church, probably.

I don't know if Terry Jones is a Christian. It is not anyone's place to say. But the actions were not Christian and don't belong in the Church. That's the source of my outrage. I'm not sure what everyone else was upset about. You can burn flags can't you? Freedom of expression is exalted in other cases, even when it is vehemently disagreed with. Richard Dawkins is potentially more bigoted than Terry Jones, but he gets plenty of face-time.

That whole thing was a joke, from start to finish. I'm impressed that Jones backed off. That may be the one sign of his humanity, maybe even his Christianity. But even then I say maybe because it may well have been due to public pressure rather than humble contrition that led him to it.

Again, we don't know. We can only speak about what the Church and Christianity ought to be, and ought to be doing, and not from a place of superiority, but from a desire mutually to be defined by the true human, the true God, Jesus Christ.

Where Christians and media and atheists judged Terry Jones from a place of superiority I suggest they had their heads only slightly less up their own arses than Jones himself.

Tony Tanti said...

You're right about flags, and certainly Jones had the "right" to do what he eventually didn't do, the problem is in the hypocrisy not the act. No matter how much Christians are shot down in our culture there is still more expected of them with Christianity comes an implied (or outright in some cases) claim of superiority.

My theory is media and public revel in high profile Christian failures not primarily out of bigotry (though there may be a bit there) but because it makes them feel better to see the self appointed morality police knocked down a peg.

Jon Coutts said...

Yeah, I don't know if I used the word bigot properly there. Calling out hypocrisy is a good point.

"with Christianity comes an implied (or outright in some cases) claim of superiority"

"the self appointed morality police"

These are both unfortunate.

I guess I see plenty of moral policing going on everywhere, even on Jon Stewart there is moral policing going on, it is hard to see the church as presenting itself as that publicly. But then again I have been out of the country for awhile and don't watch cable news.

Tony Tanti said...

Yeah, again it's likely just a case of the loudest voices being the ones being heard. I'm also mainly thinking of US evangelicals who've blurred the lines between the Christianity and Politics and are some of the most judgmental people around. (Dobson, Robertson etc..)

I see this happen within the church too which is in some ways more disturbing. I recently read a bit of Mark Driscoll just to see what all the fuss was about (he's got a lot of fans). A couple paragraphs into a short essay of his I was pretty deeply offended. He accuses people who disagree with him as having a "low view of scripture" which is such a lame way to claim superiority while refusing to have a discussion all in one breath.

I'm getting sidetracked though and I have been outside of church attendance for a while. Have you experienced this type of forgiveness displayed in churches you've been a part of?

Jon Coutts said...

I have no defence of Driscoll to offer you.

As for your closing question: Its a very good one. Personally: yes I have. But frankly, you don't often see forgiveness displayed, you know what I mean?

But where else you would have people confronting each other, pointing to a commonly believed Right (person not a rule), not overlooking or excusing or denying or relativising the Wrong, but actually forgiving it because of a common faith in the triumph of God's grace? I guess you might see echoes of it, and where you did you'd celebrate it and not deny it, but to me that's exactly what they'd be: echoes of God's grace the full sound of which we have in Christ. That's not to say that the church has the monopoly on this or always gets it right, but that the church ought to be and is the proper Home for this, because of whose Body it is. And therein is its witness and identity, as Yoder is putting it.

To me the place where church people probably fail the most is actually in the confrontation part. We aren't good at confronting sin. We either do it from the safe-distance of finger pointing and shunning or we do it from the safe-distance of talking behind backs and avoiding.

But where I have seen two or three gather for a reconciliation that transcends them and yet comes into their midst when they are open to speak truth in love and to receive it too---there I have seen what can almost be called miracles. Not overnight fix-alls, but in-breakings of the kingdom of heaven on earth; the city of God among humanity; the true human dwelling in our midst; the bringing of a peace that passes understanding; and a communion that overcomes all bounds.

Tony Tanti said...

Inspiring words, I have seen that in my life in and outside of the church, you might be right about echoes too. I'm reading Pinnock right now and I really like how he talks about God working in and through people outside of the "chosen ones". But the idea of the church being the home for the full sound of Christ is a beautiful thought.

I think you're right about confrontation too, the ways people get it wrong.

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on Driscoll, maybe in another setting.

Jon Coutts said...

Driscoll. Yeah I should probably put together a blog post about him, but I want to do him better justice than he does others, and that will require actually sitting down and reading/listening to some of his stuff full length--which I have yet to do. Snippets I've seen have made it hard for me to have a good attitude.