This is Part 2 of a series on “church” vs. “policing” as different ways of organizing the world. Part 1 discussed how the church can understand itself as God’s covenantal people, and give shape to a gospel in which God confronts humanity with its true identity as chosen and beloved.
Much of the conflict which the church encounters today can be seen as the evidence of the claim of God on humanity confronting humanity in its fallenness. This conflict can either be pushed outside the borders of the church (or the self, or the community) and only serve to reinforce prior claims of identity. But if we understand ourselves as those who are being saved, and thus those who are in struggle, then we are able to welcome this conflict, realizing that the victory God over death is working itself out in the process of history, and the church can be the place where that victory is revealed. The deliverance of God happens not above human history and flesh, but through it.
The people of God are constantly witnessing to the nature and the commands of God, in ways that are accessible for the social situations in which they find themselves. Peter could speak of a new kind of identity in Christ which reconfigured the social categories of “clean” and “profane.” Paul could speak liberation to the men and women who were suffering under the false order of patriarchy and imperialism. The people of God do transform the world. They do this only inasmuch as they themselves are being transformed into the image of Christ. This is how the church is able to “be faithful to the story of God that makes intelligible the divided nature of the world.” As the enfleshed church becomes the locus of supernatural struggle, it attests to the story of Israel’s God. As men and women are turning from the kingdom of light to the kingdom of darkness, they become a people “sufficient to acknowledge the divided character of the world and thus necessarily ready to offer hospitality to the stranger.” Our identity as those whose God’s grace is saving and transforming leads to deep humility and radical openness to others, who are recognized as those whom God is also working to save and transform. The evidence for this is the transformation that is taking place in our own selves and communities.
Our openness to strangers, and to those of different traditions and stories, is an openness to the transformative work of Christ. The diversity of the global church breaks up fallow ground, as communities unsettle one another, and in so doing create opportunities for the work of the Spirit. This is why Jurgen Moltmann says “the church’s first word is not “church,” but “Christ.”1 This view is a welcome corrective to an over-realized ecclesiology that sees the church as a monolithic entity doing the work of God upon the unsaved outsiders, and to the view of human salvation that in a similar manner expects the individual believer to act upon the outside world on behalf of God. That is a Christianity where the struggle happens only at the borders, a Christianity that claims in itself unity and autonomy. That is a Christianity in which mission and outreach are an attempt to reinforce its own identity. But the church, like Israel in the Bible, cannot exist for itself. We will encounter Christ in the lives of our neighbors and continually be issued a challenge to discern, and when necessary, to humble ourselves and be transformed. These encounters can be ontologically catastrophic, terrifying crises of identity. A willingness to enter into these encounters, and to insist on being a people for and with the others, is what it means to be the church.
The relationship of this church to “culture” must necessarily be one reflecting its own values of discernment, humility and openness. First it will discern that culture as a production of humanity will reflect humanity’s divided nature. The communal structures of the church, the language with which we tell God’s story, and the music with which we worship are all “cultural” and are open to critique but not reflexive rejection. Attributing destructive forces to “culture” and not to the fallenness of man avoids the incisive discernment of the Spirit. It avoids the trouble of having to call ourselves into question.
A community that understands itself in the context of Israel’s story is fundamentally open to transformation, and this first level of openness is how through it Christ transforms the world. This is a community that “expects Spirit-given newness to suggest answers previously not perceived.”2 This Spirit is what allows the church to be more aware of its own vulnerability and fallenness, and thus even more decisive in judgment. Judgment here is not an ad hoc, disembodied claim but something worked out in the life of the community. As conflicts erupt, the community sees them as the sites of Christ’s saving work, and discerns together what sense can be made of them. The church is a place of both openness and discernment: openness to Christ and to the people in whom Christ can and will be encountered, and discernment between good and evil, between humanity and inhumanity. A Manichean view of the church as already transformed, exerting authority on the kingdom of darkness outside its walls, makes Jesus a tool of coercion. If Jesus is to be the true center of community, then the church is not those who claim him but those who are revealed through communal practice to be in the process of being transformed by him.
People of God are people in tension. The dichotomy of discrimination and openness parallels the dialogical relationship in Scripture between purity and hospitality. The nuances of an open community of witness allow the church to live out this tension faithfully. In this community, some will be tempted to abdicate the responsibility for either discernment or openness. If problems arise, they will be either artificially resolved or pushed to the margins. In these times, the rest of the church must be faithful to discern the dynamics at work, and to locate themselves, and Christ, in conflict. This is a political view of the church as a place where redemption occurs in real time, and where salvation is worked out in struggle.
1. Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977), 19.
2. John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), 35.