The massive storm we have witnessed here in Philadelphia on the last day of our holiday is nothing compared to the storm of violence now raining down on Tripoli as the battle for freedom from Gaddafi’s rule enters it’s endgame. As with other similar struggles in the Middle East in the last six months, however, the question will soon move from ‘What do we want to be freed from?’ to ‘What have we been freed for?’
The distinction is important. It is easier to unite against a common enemy (or evil) than to unite for a common goal. It is easier (and more therapeutic) to pull down than it is to build up. Yet, we human beings seem to find it hard to learn the lessons of history that destruction is easier than construction.
Which is not to criticise the rebels in Libya – they have shown extraordinary courage, backed by NATO bombs, in challenging the regime’s brutality. A similar respect is due in Syria. But, the courage of the present will need to be re-energised and re-directed for building the post-conflict peace that lies ahead. If we are praying now, God knows we must pray even harder in the months and years to come – especially when our attention (and that of a hungry media) has moved on.
For the purposes of this post, however, the point is not primarily about uprisings; rather, it is about the distinction between ‘from’ and ‘for’. In fact, the thought was sparked by an excellent article by Bishop Tom Wright in today’s Spectator online magazine: http://www.spectator.co.uk/essays/7174863/keep-the-faith.thtml.
Defending the Church of England against the uncritical media mantra of decline and extinction, he summarises the role of the Church as follows:
“It exists, in other words, to do and be for the world what Jesus had been for his contemporaries: to bring healing and hope, to rescue people trapped in their own folly and sin, to straighten out the distorted pictures of reality that every age manages to produce, and to enable people to live by, and in, God’s true reality. It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world: to see lives transformed by the gospel so that people can discover a new depth and resonance of what it means to be human, precisely by looking beyond themselves to God, to the beauties and glories of his creation, and to their neighbours, particularly those in need. The Church does this through liturgy and laughter; through music and drug-rehabilitation programmes; through prayer and protest marches; through preaching and campaigning; through soaking itself in the Bible and immersing itself in the needs of the world. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks (as many, including many critics, think he should). He sends in the meek; and by the time the world realises what’s going on, the meek have set up clinics and schools, taught people to read and to sing, and given them a hope, meaning and purpose which secular modernism (which gave us, after all, Passchendaele and Auschwitz as well as modern medicine and space travel) has failed to provide.”
I have offered a summary elsewhere as: “The Church is called to look and feel and sound like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. If we don’t, we are a fraud.”
But the key point in Tom’s piece (also picking up nicely on David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Atheist Delusions’, which I am reading here) is that “It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world”. A popular critique of the church is that it indulges itself in some otherworldly preoccupations while the real (material) world deals with the real business. Yet, the Incarnation itself is about God opting into the world and not exempting himself from it. You can’t get more material – or less superspiritual – than that.
Christians do not seek escape from the world and all it’s complexities, but commit consciously to engage with it in all it’s messy contradictoriness. It might not be comfortable, but neither was the cross.
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