Friday, April 20, 2018

Civil Christianity

We are nicer when we journey together.
In writing about civility, Gil Rendle (Behavioral Covenants in Congregations-A Handbook for
Honoring Differences) cites the work of Yale professor Stephen Carter who argues that riding in a subway, bus, or train full of strangers requires us to understand our obligations to treat one another with due regard.  Carter cites popular guides from the past that counseled people on how to behave well on trains.  Having traveled mostly by train and bus for 10 years while living in Europe, this resonated with me.  You find yourself bumping up against all types of people.  Sometimes you spend the night in a sleeper car with complete strangers.

Most of us travel alone or with a family member in our cars; we are less prone to develop discipline of accommodation.  We see commercials advertising luxury cars where a driver glides through a city isolated from noise, disorder, odors and, of course, other people.  This seems to be our aspiration, to move through the world untouched by others.  This is the radical individualism so prevalent in America.

When we travel together we must make sacrifices for the sake of a pleasant journey.   Carter defines civility as “the sum total of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”

There is a place between law and freedom.

Rendle goes on to draw upon the work of Lord John Fletcher Moulton.  Moulton wrote about three domains of life.  First is the domain of law; this encompasses those things we must do. In this domain we obey.

The other end of the continuum is the domain of free choice.  This is the category that includes all those things over which we claim complete freedom to do or not to do.  We recognize this as personal autonomy.

Moulton posited between the domains of law and freedom the domain of obedience to the unenforceable.  In this domain we comply with obligations and duties to which we cannot be compelled.  Moulton calls them “manners.”  Another word for manners could be civility.  This is the arena in which we sacrifice what we cannot be compelled to give up for the sake of others and the wellbeing of the larger community.  Thus, it is more than simply being polite or pleasant.  This domain has a moral dimension; it trades in the currency of right and wrong, humanity and inhumanity.   This dimension is undercut by our radicalized sense of personal autonomy.

Civility is no stranger to Christian conduct.

The discipline of obeying the unenforceable is at the center of the Christian life. The believers in Corinth were having trouble balancing their freedom with their obligation to the wellbeing of others.  Paul wrote: “’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others [1 Cor. 10:23-24].”  Paul is calling his readers to do what no one can compel them to do—in this case not eating meat that has been offered to idols. This is not a problem we face in our churches, but Paul does hold up sacrificing for others as a higher priority than exercising freedom.  He is asking them to make a sacrifice for the higher purpose of living well together.

Paul admonishes his readers in Colosse to forebear one another (Col. 3:13).  In other words he advises that they put up with each other.  A piece of civility is putting up with others because we know they are putting up with us.  Civility is about giving one another room to breathe and grow.  It is also about creating safe spaces for people to be authentic without fear of rejection, or retribution.

We live in an uncivil time bred of an overwrought sense of freedom and autonomy, and this taints the lives of our congregations.  As believers we can guard ourselves against being conformed to the spirit of our age by deliberately practicing civility in our churches, our families, and our relationships.  We can find that place between law and freedom where we voluntarily sacrifice for the wellbeing of others, where we do good things that no one can compel of us. 

This is a part of loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Matthew reports the following exchange between a Pharisee and Jesus: 
     “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the  
     Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and  with all your mind.’ This is the 
     greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as
     yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (22:36-40).

Jesus takes that middle domain, the domain of obedience to the unenforceable, and makes it a type of law for believers.  He elevates radical civility as an inherent dimension of love of God.  Faith is lived in that middle domain, where we sacrifice for us others, freely doing what no one can compel us to do.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Going Tactical

The powerful strategize; the powerless engage in tactics.  So writes Emmanuel Katongole (Mirror in the Church—Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda, pp. 44ff.).

People in power plan the way they want things to be.  They do research and analyze from a distance.  They employ technology and expertise. They are pragmatic and lay out a set of sequential steps to get to their goal.

The marginalized, on the other hand, employ tactics; they are guerilla fighters, writes Katongole.  This is how people survive in a world they do not own.  The marginalized assume that the world cannot be entirely remade; it will not bend to their will.  Thus, they look for spots of vulnerability and exploit them to subvert the status quo as much as possible.  They do not work at a distance; they are in the midst of things.

Katongole argues that the teachings of Jesus smack more of tactics than strategy.  Jesus showed no indication that he thought that he, or his followers after him, were going to remake the Roman Empire into the Kingdom of God.  Turning the other cheek was not a strategy to break the power of the Roman army.  Settling before you get to court would not make a corrupt and exploitive justice system fair.  But both these acts would disrupt the rhythm of the system.  The early church in Jerusalem knew it could not reform the unjust distribution of wealth in society, but it did subvert the status quo in a small way by sharing all things in common. 
The powerful lobby the legislature to change a law.  The marginalized just sit down in the front of the bus one day.
Perhaps the church in America is still living with a hangover from the days when the church had civic power, when planning strategy was our posture.  We talk about the end of Christendom in America, the passing of the Protestant Franchise.  Yet, we still want to plot strategy, like in the good old days.  We want to be players in the power structure.  One protestant ecumenical organization complains because the State governor won’t meet with them anymore; now he offers to send an aide.  The group refuses to meet with the aide.  They still want their “seat at the table.”

Perhaps it is time for the church in America to return to tactics—find the weak places in the “powers and principalities” of our age and exploit them in whatever ways we can.  We can live our lives in dissonant ways, rattling the cages of those around us.  This is where we began two millennia ago.

“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same [Luke 3:11].”  This is not a plan for a universal redistribution of wealth.  This is an act of insurgency, a solitary act of charity that challenges the way things are.  It is a refusal to go along with the mainstream.

“Even tax collectors came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’  ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.  Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’  He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay [Luke 3:12-14].’”  This is not a strategy to make an unjust system just or to dismantle the military.  Rather, these are tactics to subvert the system where one can.

I heard a man being interviewed on the radio one day.  He was working with a ministry that provided food to hungry people.  The interviewer asked him if he thought he could remake the whole world.  The man replied:  “No, maybe I am simply trying to keep the world from remaking me.”  He had gone tactical.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State