George Herbert Mead and the Social Self

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) is the least known of the American pragmatists. He published numerous articles during his lifetime but not a more extensive work. His classic work On Social Psychology was published after his death as a compilation of his writings. [1] The second reason Meade is not well-known as a pragmatist is that he is better known as a founder of social psychology. Nevertheless, he taught philosophy at the University of Chicago and was a sought-after philosophy teacher there.

Mead is important because he represents a communitarian approach to pragmatism partially in the lineage of Alfred North Whitehead. His approach to social thought is evolutionary and informed by the notion that society is always in process. Thus, he participates in what is sometimes called “constructive postmodernism.”

Mead is finally well known because he was a disciple of perhaps the most influential pragmatist in political theory, John Dewey. Dewey and Mead were close friends, and Dewey considered him one of the brightest people he had ever met.

Mead’s Connection with Peirce

Mead’s understanding of the human self was deeply influenced by the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, particularly his semiotic approach to human thought. Mead developed the term “gesture” to show how language grows out of our human capacity to point and make gestures. Languages are merely “gestures” converted into signs.

Mead believed the human self develops primarily due to its capacity to use human language. He saw the process of language, the ability of human beings to think in signs, as essential to the unique capacity of human beings to have both an ‘I’ and a ‘Me,’ that is, to have a self and a social self. Nevertheless, he also saw human thinking as a social experience. Human beings achieve selfhood through interacting with the social circumstances in which they are born.

Process and Evolution

Like Peirce, Whitehead, Bergson, and others, Mead is influenced by evolutionary theory and its implications for human thought and society. He is also aware of and influenced by Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory and understands impact onns for human thought and social philosophy.

Like the emergence of human society, the emergence of that self is an evolutionary process. The modernist view is that society is simply an amalgamation of self-creating individuals. To Mead, believing the human individual is merely the product of material social forces is simplistic. There is an interaction between human selves and society, out of which, in a dynamic process, human beings and human societies are formed.

Order and Change

The order of society is a constant tension between what might be termed the forces of revolution and the forces of order. Mead put it like this:

That is the problem of society, is it not? How can you present order and structure in society and yet bring about the changes that need to take place, or are taking place? How can you bring about those changes in an orderly fashion yet preserve order? To bring about change is seemingly to destroy the given order, yet society must change. That is the problem of incorporating the method of change into the order of society itself. [2]

Here, we see the impact of evolutionary thinking and the French Revolution on Mead’s thought. Mead considers human society to be a constantly evolving organism, and he is, in this way, influenced by Darwin. He sees that the institutions of any given society must change. In this, Mead is a post-Enlightenment/post-French Revolution thinker.

On the other hand, Mead also sees that change in any given society cannot occur in such a way that it destroys its fundamental order. The results of this way of thinking were evident in the French Revolution and are apparent in our own culture today. There is more to progress than revolutionary change. There is also the preservation of the best ideas of the past. In this sense, Mead is in league with thinkers like Edmund Burke, who see the danger of revolutionary ideologies.

As a pragmatist, Mead is interested in discerning how change can be managed in an orderly process in which human beings can continue to flourish and there can be harmony in an ever-changing social order. In the tradition of Peirce, Mead believes that a scientific way of managing change, that is, an orderly process of investigation, trial and error, hypothesis, experiment, and change, is the best method for societies to move forward. In this sense as well, Mead is anti-ideological. He would be utterly opposed to contemporary ideological politics, left and right.

Finally, Mead distinguishes evolution as it occurs in nature and the kind of evolution one sees in society. Natural evolution is, by its very nature, purposeless. On the other hand, human social evolution can be both orderly and purposeful because it is the product of decisions by rational human beings. Because human beings can reflect, they can adapt to change in an orderly manner that protects the interests of society ividual participants. [3]

Selves and Society

Human beings have a unique reflective capacity to have both an ‘I’ and a ‘Me,’ that is, to have a self (I) and a social self (Me). It is unique to human beings that we can mentally see ourselves as objects of our thought. This is a “reflexive capacity.” We can reflect upon ourselves, our beliefs, actions, successes, failures, character, and lack of character. This reflective capacity is essential to developing the social and individual selves. This reflexive capacity is lacking in lower animals, which means the characteristics of human selves and society are unique. [4]

Humans can see themselves directly and indirectly through human thought, which inevitably involves signs. As a result of their capacity for “self-dialogue,” human beings can see themselves from the viewpoint of others in society. It is that interaction between the “personal self” (I) and the social self (Me), and the reflexive capacity of humans that gives human beings the unique capacity to make moral judgments, to create order or disorder, and to grow.

This kind of thinking is preparatory to social action by any individual and social change. Our ability to have an “inner conversation” about circumstances and decisions inevitably allows us toakind of personal and social dialogue about the desirability of any particular social change.

For Mead, human selves emerge in a kind of dialogue with society. The organization of the human community proceeds the emergence of any particular self. Human beings are born into a social matrix that existed before they were born, before they became conscious, before they began to make decisions, and before they could influence that social matrix. In other words, needs thought is essentially communitarian. Human beings are born into a community, and the nature of that community has powerful influences over what kind of person and what kind of event “I” that person becomes.

Pragmatism and Process

At this point, the process aspect of Mead’s thought becomes important. He puts it like this:

In other words, the organized structure of every individual self within the social process of experience and behavior reflects and is constituted by the organized relational pattern of that process as a whole; but each individual self–structure reflects and is constituted by a different aspect or perspective of this relational pattern, because each reflects this relational pattern from its own unique standpoint so that the common social origin and constitution of individual selves and their structures does not preclude wide individual differences and variations among them, or contradict the peculiar and more less distinctive individuality, which agent of them, in fact possesses. [5]

This characteristic of Mead’s thought is essential to understanding individuals’ capacity to be founded in a specific social context and dynamically change it. While it is true that individual selves emerge from a social context, it is also true thavidual self is a distinctive part of the pattern of society as a whole.

Fiforemostmentally, each human being has a particular genetic Whichc makeup differs from every other human being. Therefore, on a physical levelvidual self has the inevitable result of changing society and the capacity to change that society intentionally.

Second, each self has a different perspective from everyone else in society. Everyone who participates in a large society, such as ours, may not make a tremendous difference, but each individual does make a difference. As human selves emerge through a process of dialogue with society, that is, as the “I” continues to be in dialogue with its social self (Me), that individual self has the inevitable result of changing society and the capacity to change that society intentionally. Participating in a large society like ours may not make a significant difference, but each individual does make a difference.

Selves and Society

As previously indicated, Mead believes that human beings do not make themselves. Instead, they become cells in the context of human society. Human civilization is made possible by the generalized social attitudes of that society, which individuals internalize. Nevertheless, human beings are not Ottomans determined by their society.

Human society, we have insisted, does not merely stamp the pattern of its organized social behavior upon any of its individual members so that this pattern becomes likewise the pattern of the individual self; it also, at the same time, gives him a mind, as the means or ability of consciously conversing with himself in terms of the social attitudes, which constitute the structure of his self and which embodied the pattern of human societies organized behavior, as reflected in that structure. And his mind enables him in turn to stamp the pattern of his further developing self (further developing through his mental capacity), upon the structure or organization or organization of human society, and thus in a degree to reconstruct and modify in terms of his self the general pattern of social or group behavior in terms of which his self was originally constituted. [6]

Thus, society both forms individuals and is formeds by them. Society both molds individuals and is molded by them.

Conclusion

Next week, we will continue to examine the thought of G. H. Mead as it impacts politics and social change. The formation process of human beings, society, and social change is profoundly semiotic. Human beings exist in a constant dialogue internally and between themselves, others, and the culture in which they live. This “triadic dialogue,” first suggested by C. S. Peirce and expanded by Josiah Royce, is not unique to Mead. It is, however, foundational to the kind of abductive, scientific logic view of how society might function.

Such a view undermines any political philosophy based on power. Dialogue is essentially a rational process, not a process of the will. It is essentially anti-Nietzschean. Dialogue presumes human beings can make rational changes as they interact within a social context. It is this aspect of the pragmaticist’s thought that gives hope that our society can overcome its own fascination with power and will to power.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology rev. Ed. (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

[2] Id, at 21.

[3] Id, at 31.

[4] Id, at 201.

[5] Id, at 234-235.

[6] Id, at 251, footnote 2.

Lent 6: By His Stripes, we are Healed

In his great work, Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien describes the return of Aragon, the king of Gondor. Before entering the city, he fights a great battle outside its walls against the servants of the evil Sauron. The weapons of Sauron are incredibly destructive. As the wounded and weary are brought into the city, an old woman cries out,

Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said, in old lore, the hands of the king are the hands of the healer.  And so the rightful king shall be known. [1]

And so as the rightful king, Aragon, enters the city, full of wounded and weary souls, Gandalf, the Wizard, proclaims:

Let us not stay at the door, for the time is urgent. Let us enter! For it is only in the coming of Aragon that any hope remains for the sick that lie in the House. Thus spoke Iorith, the wise woman of Gondor:  The hands of the king are the hands of the healer, and so shall the rightful king be known. [2]

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of The Lord of the Rings, we are introduced to Aragon of Arathorn, a ranger—a solitary soul—a man condemned to work at the fringes of civilization, fighting the forces of Sauron from the shadows in obscurity. Bilbo Baggins is at first afraid of Arathorn. In the end, he is revealed to be a king—the true king of Gondor.

Our Unrecognizable Messiah.

The story the Bible tells is not very much different. There was once a rabbi who had incredible powers of teaching, healing, and exorcism. To those who knew him, to the crowds, he didn’t seem like the Messiah for whom they were looking. He was not from an influential family. He wasn’t a lawyer. He wasn’t a politician. He wasn’t a member of the military establishment. He wasn’t even part of the religious establishment. He was an outsider. Yet, when the people heard him preach and saw his mighty acts, they would exclaim, ‘Who is this man?’ In Mark, the crowds ask

 “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits, and they obey him (Mark 1:27).

They could not recognize this Messiah but knew Jesus of Nazareth was no ordinary person.

The Human Condition

The Jewish people believe that we human beings suffer from poor health and physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional illnesses as a result of sin—as a result of the fact that we are not in a state of peace with God, nature, others, or with ourselves. This lack of shalom infects our happiness and the stability of human society. It is a sickness of the soul.

Jesus warned his disciples,

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 1028).

Jesus’s healings were, as the New Testament reminds us, signs that he is the rightful Messiah, the Anointed One who can and will deliver us from the greater ill of our alienation from God, others, and ourselves. Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophetic voice recorded in Isaiah:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, and there was nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Yet, surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:2-5)

The message that the Messiah will be a healer is part of what scholars call the “Servant Songs.” Over and over, Isaiah refers to one who is to come and who will be a faithful servant of the Most High. Some scholars believe these prophecies were intended to refer to Israel, but the church has always believed they referred to Jesus Christ.

Why is this Jesus of Nazareth our Messiah?

This weekend, we celebrate the central act in the Divine Drama of the Bible, the conclusion of the story of the Messiah God sent not just for the Jews but for all people. It is good to remember the character of this Messiah.

First, the Messiah entered into our human condition. Isaiah says, “He grew up before him like a tender shoot like a root out of dry ground” (53:2). There was an old Jewish proverb, “Can anything could come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Galileans like Jesus, were considered to be uncultured rural hillbillies. Jesus’ father was a carpenter. He was conceived out of wedlock. This is cultural “dry ground” as far as the Jews are concerned. If Jesus had been born in Jerusalem, the son of a high priest or a wealthy family, say the family of Caiphus, the high priest, well, it might have been reasonable to consider him Messiah. But that was not the case.

Second, the Messiah entered our physical limitations. Jesus, Isaiah 53 goes on to say, “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance, that we should desire him (53:2). David, the great king of Israel, is described explicitly to us, is having been handsome. (I Samuel, 16:12). If Jesus had been extraordinarily physically beautiful, it might have been easier to accept him as a Messiah. But he wasn’t. He was just an ordinary looking person—maybe a bit like Jethro Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies.

Third, the Messia experienced all our human problems. Isaiah says, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (53:3). It was the Jewish expectation that the Messiah would go from victory to victory, but this Jesus of Nazareth did not. His life was one of rejection and pain. He was not always victorious, respected, esteemed, and put in leadership positions. He failed, was disrespected by the leaders of the people, and rejected by the nation. It didn’t make any sense to the Jews that God would send such a Messiah. This was Messiah, who identified with ordinary people, with ordinary limitations, abilities, and the ordinary suffering of human life.

Most Americans desire to live in constant health and happiness. As a result, we also don’t want a Messiah who suffers, is rejected, is in pain, and ultimately dies. We want a Messiah born of a fine family who lives a life of glowing popularity and success. If we returned today, we would be just like the Jews of Jesus. We would not want a Messiah without affluence, physical attraction, success, and nobility.

That kind of Messiah is not the Messiah who came to Israel; it is not the kind of Messiah who will come to us. Our Messiah suffers what we suffer. Our Messiah enters our human condition and shares it. Our Messiah suffers with us and with the world. Our Messiah is the one who dies in our dying and rises again in our rising. Fortunately for us, our Messiah assumes our problems, who “is pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and suffers the punishment that we so richly deserve (v. 5).

Our Healing Messiah

Isaiah 53 reveals that the wounds of the true Messiah will heal us. This is the Messiah we so often reject. There in Isaiah, we have, in miniature, written centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the gospel’s message: It is by the life and death of Jesus Christ that our healing can be accomplished. Our sins, shortcomings, and physical and emotional ills can be healed based on his life, death, and resurrection. “By his stripes, we are healed.” Our healing is accomplished based on the work of another – based on the suffering of God in Human Flesh. What we cannot do and never could do, God does.  This is the good news of the gospel.

In Lord of the Rings, Aragon heals the man he will replace as leader of the people. When Faramir awakes, he says, ‘My Lord, you called me. I come. What does the King command?’ Aragon replies, ‘You are weary. Rest a while, and take food, and be ready when I return.” The woman beside Faramir exclaims

 King? Did you hear that? What did I say? ‘The hands of the healer I said.’ And soon the word had gone out from the house that the king was indeed come among them, and after the war he brought healing; and the news ran through the City.[3]

The hands of the king are indeed the hands of a healer. Perhaps you know someone who needs healing. Be of good cheer; the hands of the Messiah are the hands of a healer. Perhaps your family needs healing. Be of good cheer; the hands of the Messiah are the hands of a healer. Perhaps your business or your country needs healing. Be of good cheer; the hands of the Messiah are the hands of the healer.

Let us enter this Easter Season welcoming the one who suffered for our salvation.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York, NY: Ballentine Books, 1965), 166.

[2] Id, at 169.

[3] Return of the King, 173.

Lent 5: Avoiding Blind Eyes and a Hard Heart

People are always intrigued by the prospect of Jesus’s Second Coming. Some groups anticipate that Jesus will return, not unexpectedly but in a way they have already imagined. He will come as the Just Conqueror, riding upon a white steed and triumphing over the enemies of God. This view is widely promoted in popular literature about the Second Coming. Years ago, a popular adult teacher in one of our congregations fervently advocated this view, dedicating many weeks to teaching Revelation and the Second Coming from this perspective. The topic arose in a class I was teaching at the time. I have always believed, and still do that we cannot predict how history will conclude or how Christ will defeat evil. However, his first coming might offer insights into attitudes we should avoid.

Missing the Messiah

The Jewish leaders of the day “missed” the coming of the Messiah because he did not meet their expectations as to what the Messiah must be like and must do. Jesus constantly taught the people and did what John calls “signs,” visible evidence of his divine nature. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and changed lives that could not be changed otherwise. However, he did not raise an army. He did not support the religious status quo. He did not preach rebellion against Rome and any other Gentile rulers. Most importantly, he did not physically attempt to create an earthly kingdom of David. All in all, the leaders of the Jews and most citizens did not think of him as the expected Messiah.

After his triumphant entry, John records an exchange between Jesus and the people’s rulers, who were already plotting to kill him. Judas had already determined that Jesus did not meet his expectations and was becoming willing to betray him (12:4). The chief priests were also plotting against him and Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead (v. 10). Then, Jesus entered the city on a donkey as had Solomon the Son of David years earlier as the crowds cheered him (v. v. 12-18). This solidified in the minds of the leaders of the people their desire to get rid of Jesus (v. 19). It was near Passover, and Jesus’ fame was such that even Greek-speaking Jews had heard of him and wanted to meet him (v. 22). Jesus responds by prophesying his death (v. 24-28). None of this endeared Jesus to the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the teachers of the law, or the Priests.

            It is in this context that John records the following:

Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: “Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

For this reason, they could not believe because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”

Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him (John 12:37-41, emphasis added).

In other words, the false expectations of the leaders of the people left them blind to who Jesus was and what Jesus was doing in their midst. Their expectations had hardened their hearts to the Good News that the Kingdom of God was at hand.

Missing the Messiah Today

When asked about the signs of the Messianic Kingdom by a class member that day in the 1980s, I disappointed their expectations that I would talk about the Anti-Christ, the European Union as the New Roman Empire, the locusts as helicopters, and the rivers of blood at Armageddon, Christ coming in Clouds of Glory and the like. I responded that we should be careful about our expectations so that we do not mess up the Second Coming, just like the Jews missed the First Coming. Given all we know about Christ, I expect the Prince of Peace to come in Peace. If he has an “Army of Angels,” I suspect there will be no violence. I suspect that the God who is love will end history just as he has promised—by a victory of love over hate, peace over violence, reason over chaos and terrorism, justice over tyranny, and goodness over evil. In other words, I suspect without knowing that God will act as God often acts: in a way we can only imagine and could easily miss or misinterpret unless we are careful.

Conclusion

The Philosopher Charles Peirce, whose work I have reviewed in the past in these blogs, did not like the Revelation of St. John. He thought it an angry and bloodthirsty book describing a God in complete disparity with the God of Love found in the Gospel and Letters. [1] There is a point to what Peirce, who was reasonably devout, says. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the point is based on the same misreading of Revelation that I find in other writers: A failure to take seriously the symbolic nature of the book and the likely true meaning of the symbols.

As an example, the Robe dipped in Blood has on it the blood of the cross, and the sword coming from the mouth of the victorious Messiah is most likely the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Spirit of Love, for God is Love (Revelation 19:13-15). One day, I would like to write a complete piece on Revelation and the true meaning of the symbols used in the book to show people why we should not look for a “Warrior King” at the end who will reveal a God different from the God already disclosed to us as Jesus Christ. This underscores the need for open-mindedness and respect when interpreting the book of Revelation, as it is a complex and symbolic text that requires careful study and reflection—a reflection that cannot ignore who Jesus was and how Jesus acted and encouraged us to act.

As we come to Easter 2024, we might ask God to remove our false ideas of who God is and how God should act in history. During an election year, perhaps it is even more than ordinarily crucial for Christians to think clearly about the phrase “God is love” and its meaning. No one of us (certainly not me) knows “the times and the seasons” of God. Jesus tells us that there are some things known only to the Father.  “No one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. (Matthew 24:36). Our job is not to know what God will do but to live with Faith, Hope, and Love amidst what God is doing now (v. 36). Lent is the season in which we take time to contemplate just how far short we fall of the Faith, Hope, and Love Jesus embodied.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Edward C. Moore, “Evolutionary Love” in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings (New York, Harper & Row, 1972), 237.

Lent No. 4: On A Mission of Love

My devotions this Lent have centered on the Kingdom of God and the surprising nature of the Messiah when he appeared. His ministry began like this: Early on, Jesus went home to visit his native city of Nazareth, where he attended the local synagogue, as was his custom. In Jesus’s day and time, when a visiting Rabbi came to a local synagogue, it was common to ask the visitor to read from the Torah and say a few words.

Jesus was on a Mission of Love

After being asked to read, Jesus opened the books of the Torah and read from the Prophet Isaiah, where it says:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the Year of the Lord’s Favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Then, he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the person who handed it to him, and in front of everyone, said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21b). Here, in just a few words, Jesus summarized why he came and what he intended to do:

  1. He intended to proclaim the good news of God’s love; and
  2. He intended to demonstrate the Gospel by caring for the needy, freeing people from spiritual bondage, and showing people the light of God’s wisdom. And that is precisely what Jesus did. He preached and taught the good news. He proclaimed with words of power a release for those in captivity to powers and principalities. He taught and demonstrated the secret wisdom of God.

The text Jesus read that day is part of a more significant passage from Isaiah 61—a passage that happens to be the passage I was reading on the day I began this series of blogs, now four years long, on political theology and philosophy. It begins:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and open the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

Then comes the verse that began my labors of the past years:

They shall build up the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations (Isaiah 61:1-4).

Christians do this by building God’s Kingdom of love in their lives and the lives of others.

The Kingdom Program of Jesus

How is the Kingdom of God to come into the world? How are we to repair the ruins and devastations of our society? As Jesus said goodbye to his disciples at the end of his ministry and the end of his last meal, he shared what they were to do: “Love one another as I have loved you,” and he described for them the content of that love, “Greater love has no one than this, that he give up his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13). The method (the “how”) by which we accomplish the mission and ministry of Jesus is to demonstrate sacrificial love to others. The church of Jesus Christ is on a mission—and that mission is a mission of love shared with the world. That is the simple key to reconstructing our families, neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, and nations.

The key to accomplishing Jesus’ mission of love is pretty simple: We have to learn to love the way Jesus loved, and that means we need to practice loving God and others.

This brings us to the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31). The “alls” in all this scare us. How can I love God with “all my heart,” “all my soul,” and “all my mind,” and how can I love my neighbor, whom I barely know, more than I love myself? We all sense that we can’t accomplish all this under our power, no matter how hard we try. That is where Grace and the Holy Spirit come into play.

Finally, there is this Great Commission: “Go you therefore into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 26:18-19). Our first thought is, “You mean God wants you and me to go everywhere in the world, live as itinerant evangelists, and preach?” That seems too much.

A former pastor of my former church, Bob Crumpton, whose funeral was Saturday, when he preached on this text, was helpful when he reminded us that in Greek, the form is a participle and that an equally good translation is, “As you are going….” In other words, “As you are going about your day-to-day life wherever I take you, make disciples.”) [1]Being on God’s mission of love is mainly being open to God’s leading and sharing God’s love as we follow God wherever we are and wherever we are going. It is a lifestyle.

How to Love the Way Jesus Loved

In this blog, I want to share some simple, practical things we can do to sense the love of God in our lives and reach out to others as part of God’s mission of love. First, let’s look at the big picture. There are three things we need to do to be about God’s mission:

  1. The first thing is to develop a deep love relationship with God.
  2. The second is to develop deep love relationships with others.
  3. The third thing is to put the love of God to work in our day-to-day lives.

Love God; Love Others; Put that love to work in our day-to-day lives: This is the key to sharing the love of God with others as we have seen it in Jesus Christ.

Practical Ways We Can Be a Part of God’s Kingdom Mission

            Once we have the big picture in mind, the next question is, “What concrete things can we do to be about this mission?” There are a lot of things we might do, but here are just a few: [2]

First, Have a Daily Meditation Time. If you want to grow in Christ-likeness, the first thing to do each day is to set aside no less than fifteen minutes, and possibly thirty minutes or more, to study scripture personally and pray for others. If you go to any Christian bookstore, there are many devotional guides that you can use to develop the habit of a quiet time. Secular bookstores have many such devotional guides.

Over the years, many people have begun by using Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest as their first guide. [3] The best way to begin praying daily is to make a prayer list and begin praying the names of the persons and needs on the list. After a time, you will add your names, and you may begin to listen to God silently, allowing God’s love to fill your heart.

Second, Grow Closer to those Closest to You. It is really hard to have a good relationship with God if you don’t have good relationships with those closest to you. Parents, spouses, children, and family are the closest people to us. And they are worth some time and energy so that we can develop better relationships with them.

Third, Be Regular in Worship. In most churches, on an average week, just over half of Church members attend. Worship is a weekly discipline that empowers us to continue in the Christian life. I liken it to filling up my car. About once a week, I fill up my car. It won’t run forever on that one tank, but it will run for a while. We need weekly communal encouragement in the Christian life and a weekly infilling of the Holy Spirit to keep going. If you want to be filled with God’s love, come to worship and participate with all your heart.

Fourth, Participate in a Smaller Group. As I mentioned a minute ago, we all need relationships to grow. We need relationships with spouses, children, parents, and extended family. We also need small group relationships. We need relationships of Agape Love with other men and women, other young people, and people with whom we can share our Christian walk, hopes, dreams, successes, failures, temptations, and the rustling of the Spirit in our souls. In many of my churches, we had Circles of Concern, Presbyterian Women’s Circles, a Men’s Group, small group Bible Studies, DiscipleBible Study classes, Reunion Groups, Life Groups, Prayer Groups, and other small groups.

Frankly, what small group or groups you are in is not important. What is important is that you are in one where you can share God’s love with other people.

Fifth, Participate in a Ministry within the Local Church. Those who have done The Purpose Driven Life study know that one essential of Christian growth is to have some ministry with others inside the local church. [4] It is in the local church, as we share God’s love with others, that our faith takes a big step forward. When we minister to others, we reach beyond the people we are like. In small groups, in family, and in Bible studies, we choose with whom we share God’s love. But, when we move out into ministry, we enter that time when God decides, and we have to love those whom God puts in our path – even if we don’t like them.

Finally, Be a part of Some Mission Outreach. Many mission opportunities are available to Christians to share God’s love outside the local church. My former church was a part of Soup Kitchens, the Memphis Interfaith Hospitality Network, Memphis Union Mission, and a ministry to children in schools and apartments near our congregation. We were part of Living Waters for the World and had active mission programs in Honduras, Ghana, Mexico, and the Philippines. We are part of the founding group for Casa Mami, an orphanage in Mexico.

Mission is where we reach out beyond the walls of our local church and share God’s love with those in need in some way. Mission is where we share Christ beyond the walls of Advent to touch lives with the gospel of life and with the love of God in Christ. I don’t know how many of our members are engaged in a mission beyond the walls of Advent, but it is a pretty large number, indeed a couple of hundred people. But that is not enough. Mission – reaching out to others in the name of Christ – is one more step in being a part of God’s Mission of Love to the world.

Conclusion

There is a lot more to building the Kingdom of God than one short blog can capture, and there is also more to building the Kingdom than any one person can do. That is why the church and real, authentic Christian community are so essential. Jesus did not try to live the Christian life alone. He lived in a community with the disciples. We are not Jesus, and we need the constant challenge, love, support, and encouragement of the Body of Christ even more.

Jesus went to the Cross as an act of love. He did so to offer a way for the human race to restore its broken relationship with God, other people, and the world. His chosen vehicle is finite, limited, and sometimes selfish people, just like you and me. His structure for accomplishing this mission is the church. As we enter the final two weeks of Lent, let us ponder the concrete things we can do to be more effective and open disciples of the one who gave himself for us.

Copyright, 2007, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] In Greek, a participle, which is the form used, can be an imperative (“Go!), but it can also be temporal (“As you are going”). That is the point that Dr. Crumpton liked to make. I develop this quotation from Robert  in Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making (Richmond, VA: Living Dialog Ministries, 2024).

[2] Of course, there are many important things disciples of Jesus do. This is not an exhaustive list; it is just a beginning. I dealt with this in Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making (Richmond, VA: Living Dialog Ministries, 2024).

[3] Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for his Highest Orig. copyright, (Westwood, N.J.: Dodd, Mead and Co/ Barbour and Company), 1935).

[4] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002)

The Danbury Letter, Freedom of Religion and Speech, and Dialogue

This week, I decided to leave Lent for just a moment and return to a prior blog on the subject of Church and State separation. The origin of the expression “separation of church and state” derives from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association. In 1802, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote a letter to Jefferson voicing concern that their state constitution lacked specific protections for religious freedom.

In the letter, they wrote, “What religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights. And these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”

Background to the Letter

To fully understand the concern of the Danbury Baptist Association, it’s important to go back into history. The concept of freedom of religion that we Americans take for granted much of the time, did not exist in Europe of their day. Originally, all of Europe was Roman Catholic. The state and the church existed in a symbiotic relationship. Neither was inclined to allow challenges to its authority.

The Protestant Reformation shattered the religious unity of Europe, leading to the emergence of two powerful groups: the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches existing within the boundaries of the various European States. Within the Protestant movement, there were divisions, one of which was the Baptist, a minority in Europe and the United States at the time, and often persecuted. Virginia, originally a crowned colony, had the church of England as the established church.

Religious Freedom. All Protestant groups feared that the United States would emulate Europe and create an established church. The Anglican church, of which leaders like Washington were members and which was powerful in Virginia, was a prime candidate. These Protestant groups were adamant that the United States did not have an established church.

Political Involvement. Of equal importance is the fact that the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church and the various kingdoms of Europe often resulted in the suppression of opposing opinions, religious and secular. The church in the state often worked in tandem to be certain that opinions of which one of them did not agree, were suppressed. In England, where many of the colonists were from, the Church of England took the place of the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation. There were strong connections between the church of England and the king. Views that were unacceptable to either were suppressed. The Baptist had been one of those groups. In other European countries, for example, France, protestant groups were also persecuted.

In the colonies, the churches enjoyed a remarkable degree of freedom. Pastors from the pulpit would criticize governments, policies, and other matters. They defended their own theological positions, often using words that were extremely critical of their opponents. In particular, many of the protestant groups, criticize the Roman Catholic Church and any established church. Naturally, they did not want to give up this freedom.

One example is the American Revolution. Pastors played an important role in the lead up to the revolution, and many served in Washington’s army. As an example, in 1774, wto full years before the Declaration of Independence, the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts stated:

…we cannot but acknowledge the goodness of Heaven in constantly supplying us with preachers of the Gospel whose concern has been the temporal and spiritual happiness of this people…and do therefore recommend…that they assist us in avoiding that dreadful slavery with which we are now threatened…[1]

Jonas Clark, Pastor of the Church in Lexington, Massachusetts, was a case in point.  He actively authored many papers recording the town’s position on liberty.  Without him, there may have been no “shot heard round the world!” [2]

The point is not to argue the precise details of the causes of the American Revolution or its support. Economic, political, religious, social, cultural, and other factors at work in the American Revolution. Nevertheless, churches played a role with other institutions in the circumstances surrounding the American Revolution.

Jefferson’s Response

Jefferson, who was by no means the most religious of the Founders, himself a deist, responded to the letter defending religious liberty:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. [3]

Several things about this response are immediately evident. First, Jefferson speaks of “natural rights.” He believed that freedom of speech was an inherent natural right of people that should not be interfered with by the government. Second, as a result, the government should not suppress matters of faith and worship or the public expression of views. Third, the government retains the right to enact laws and compel compliance for the benefit of society.

The Purpose of the Phrase “Wall of Separation”

Contrary to much current opinion, the phrase “a wall of separation” was not intended to indicate that religion should not influence opinion on issues. Instead, it was used to affirm free religious practice for citizens. In our society, the phrase is too often used to deny religious people the right to speak about their views in public life. It’s a mistake. One good example has to do with the run-up to the American Civil War in the North; pastors were among those most urgent about ending slavery. Another good example is the Civil Rights Movement in the South during the 1960s. Many Civil Rights Movement leaders were pastors who voiced their religious convictions about segregation.

This week, I wrote an old friend about a personal story related to these events. Not many years ago, one of those pastors, who was quite elderly, broke down in tears during a Presbyterian meeting. He had lost his job during the 1960s supporting segregation and couldn’t understand why people would not allow him to express his views on other public matters in our day and age. It was pretty touching. This pastor was accused of being a racist on the floor of the Presbytery over a matter unrelated to race. I was present that day and saw that pastor and others of his generation bow their heads in anguish.

The Practical Purpose of the Blog

We live in times of social unrest about many issues. There are divisions between secular people and among Christians concerning many matters of public importance. Abortion, sexuality, war, capital punishment, and many other issues divide us. I’ve argued in different places that the solution to this problem does not lie within our current method of handling conflict. Currently, we fight battles in government and media, elect the majority, and they oppose their views upon society. This is only the end of a wise process of public decision-making.

Over the last four years, I have been trying to promote what I call a sophio-agapic, or “love and wisdom,” pragmaticist approach that uses dialogue as a foundation for decision-making. In an unpublished book I am writing, I make the following point:

Many commentators have written on the lack of effective dialogue in Western Society today. In Congress and State Legislatures the degree of open hostility and unwillingness to compromise and dialogue about serious problems are endemic. More concerning is the fact that dialogue has become increasingly impossible in families, neighborhood associations, churches, and other mediating institutions and organizations. Even debate is ineffective if either no one is listening or, as is increasingly the case, everyone has made up their mind before the debate begins. A lack of authentic community dialogue results in poor decision-making and gridlock. It is also responsible for the increasing alienation of many people from the values of a democratic society. [4]

I might easily be wrong, but I believe that our democracy’s health requires that we return to the process of building community, discussing issues with respect for the opinions of others, allowing minorities to express their views freely, and seeking compromise. Public debate seeks a vote to finally determine an issue. Dialogue involves a conversation to bring clarity and a complete understanding of the options to the parties to a dispute. This consists of the potential for compromise among alternatives.

I had lunch this week with a friend who has different political and religious beliefs from my own. We were able to discuss some pretty significant issues. Neither of us was convinced of the position of the others. We did, however, come to some understanding and even drew closer in our evaluation of a political situation. This is the benefit of dialogue. Dialogue cannot wholly replace the give-and-take, the push-and-shove, the policy decisions, and the reversal of policy decisions that characterize politics. It’s not even a guarantee of decision-making. It’s simply a guarantee of a better decision-making mode and a better chance of avoiding policy errors.

In our nation, such dialogue will be between secular people and religious people and among various religions and sects within religious groups. Both secular and religious people will be convinced of the truth of their ultimate opinions about reality. They will also be confident of the truth about many views on social issues. As the philosopher Michael Polanyi reminds us, the search for truth always involves a public declaration of what one believes and the willingness to defend one’s intuition.  It also comes with the desire to examine one’s position and its factual and theoretical support and be willing to modify one position based upon new information. The purpose of dialogue is to facilitate that process.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Verna M. Hall, Christian History of the American Revolution, (Chesapeake VA: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1976), 402 found at https://heritageministriesky.com/2019/01/17/pastors-inspired-the-american-revolution-3/ (downloaded March 7, 2024).

[2] Id.

[3] Thomas Jefferson, “Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists The Final Letter as Sent” (January 1, 1802), downloeaded from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html (March 7, 2024).

[4] G. Christopher Scruggs., A “Sophia-Agapic” Approach to Political Philosophy:  Essays on a Constructive Post-Ideological Politics (Unpublished Manuscript, 2024).

 

Lent No. 3: The Just and Gentle Servant

One considerable problem with coordinating the Messiahship of Jesus with contemporary political life is the kind of leadership Jesus embodied and the difference between that leadership and the kind of leadership prevalent in business and government, then and now. When Jesus says, “You have heard how the leaders of the Gentiles lord it over them,” he is not just speaking of Greece or Rome but of all political systems then and now. And, by defining the Kingdom of God by the leadership it will possess, he establishes new criteria for Kingdom leadership—service to others.

Force and Leadership

From the beginning of time until now, leadership has involved a certain amount of force. One cannot be certain, but it is likely that human political organization evolved initially as a matter of self-defense. Human beings, social by nature, realized that there was strength in numbers. Predators, human and otherwise, were best deterred, not by single individuals acting alone, although that helped, but by the human capacity for organizing itself. Human beings, social by nature, quickly realized that there was strength in numbers. Predators, human and otherwise, were best deterred, not by single individuals, although that helped, but by the human capacity for organizing itself.

The biblical story does not hide the human descent into violence. It is an integral part of the story of the fall, as told in Genesis. The world’s leadership evolved upon those most capable of employing violence to achieve their ends. Only at the beginning of Western civilization did the notion of law, peaceful arbitration of disputes, and limitations on the powers of leaders begin to develop. The difference between Tubal Cain, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar is not as significant as we imagine. The difference between Julius Caesar and Napoleon is hardly worth discussing. The difference between Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin is a matter of degree and technology.

The Good News

The Gospel According to Matthew contains alternating sections, some focusing on Jesus’s teaching and others on his mighty deeds of healing, exorcism, and the like. According to Matthew, somewhere in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, he went on a preaching tour, during which he performed many miracles. This, of course, provoked opposition from the Pharisees scribes and teachers of the law. In particular, the Jewish leadership focused on Jesus’s lax attitude toward Sabbath-keeping when it came to providing for human needs, the need of his disciples for food, or the need of the sick for healing. Jesus withdrew with such opposition, but the crowds still followed him. It is at this point that Matthew has the following commentary.

Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:15-21).

I suspect that Isaiah and Jesus knew the nature of leadership in their day. The day’s leaders were not above quarreling, screaming, or violence. There were wars and rumors of wars. Leaders engaged in all sorts of schemes to gain power. Lenin’s famous quote in justification of his murderous regime, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg,” is a memorable description of power politics at every age.

It is a characteristic of contemporary democracies that they are filled with public quarreling. The entire process of modern democratic political leadership relies upon constant conflict and quarreling in a bid for votes. The term “negative politics” describes the fact that in democratic societies, demonizing your enemies gets more votes than anything you might say positively about yourself. Jesus and Isaiah had other ideas about leadership and politics in the Kingdom of God.

 Isaiah 42:1-4 and Jesus

The Spirit of Servant Leadership. Isaiah begins this poem with these words: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold,my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).  Here we have four words that describe the nature of Christian leadership and therefore of the Christian kingdom: The Messiah will be:

  • A servant,
  • Chosen by God,
  • Empowered by the Spirit of God, and
  • His leadership will be focused on justice within his Kingdom.

Then, the focus on power, the will to power, the acquisition of power, and the use of power are absent from this description. As modern political science textbooks continuously proclaim, if politics is about the acquisition and use of power, the kingdom of God is entirely different. The kingdom of God is not focused on power but on justice. The justice that the Messiah will bring flows from the spirit of God, the election of God, and the spirit of a servant.

The Gentleness of Servant Leadership. After introducing the character of the servant leader, Isaiah goes on to describe the behavior of the messianic leader: He will not cry aloud or lift his voice, or make it heard in the street;  a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice (vv. 2-3). The Messiah will be:

  • Quiet in his approach to the give and take of politics,
  • Gentle in the application of power,
  • Faithful to his calling to achieve a just order

Once again, the kind of self-promotion, constant arguing, negative characterization of opponents, and other noisy elements of our contemporary politics are absent from the description of the politics of the kingdom of God. The behavior we have seen in the past, where the party and power run over its opponents, is inconsistent with one who is gentle in applying power and hesitant even to put out the slightest glimmer of light in the candle of a human soul. And finally, once again, the Messianic leader is focused on justice.

The Endurance of the Messianic Leader. Finally, Isaiah realizes that the Messianic Kingdom will not be easy to create. He reminds us that the Messiah “will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth, and the coastlands wait for his law” (v. 4). It will take physical and emotional endurance for the kingdom of God to be established. Interestingly, leadership theories often consider the necessity of high energy levels and emotional stability to achieve excellence in leadership and any organization. The Messianic Kingdom is not for the faint of heart, nor can it be created by the faint of heart.

Conclusion

When I was in seminary, the professors were anxious to impress upon us that the original meaning of the servant psalms in Isaiah was related to the nation of Israel and its status as a servant people. When the disciples looked back at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesu, they saw in him the fulfillment of these prophecies in a marvelous and unexpected way. This week’s blog focuses on leadership as much as on political organization. This should not hide from us that Jesus, the suffering servant, immediately created an alternative political organization. We call it “the church.” He named it “my disciples.” He called the twelve disciples and others into a community that was to be governed by messianic principles. This community did not exist separately from Greco-Roman or contemporary Jewish society. It existed within that society as a servant. Christians and the Christian church do not exist as separate from the societies in which they are located. Instead, the church exists within and is part of every society. Like Jesus, it exists not as a secular power but as a servant power. This power cannot be exercised otherwise than by Christians and their churches serving the needs of a broken world.

Mathetes describes the unique character of the Christians of the early centuries in his letter to Diogenetus:

Christians are distinguished from other men by country, language, or the customs they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive people, nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according to the lot each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their excellent and confessedly striking method of life.

They dwell in their own countries but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth is a land of strangers. They marry, as do all human beings; they beget children but do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.

They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws and, at the same time, surpass the laws in their lives. They love all human beings but are persecuted nevertheless. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death yet restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they lack all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and glorified in their very dishonor. People speak evil of them, yet they are justified; they are reviled, yet they bless others; they are insulted, repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks, yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.[1]

Contemporary Christians probably need to internalize the message of this letter. Christians are not called to be the rulers of a society but servants. The greatest service that can be done is to simply live in a community of faith (a church) according to the standards of the Christian faith. This message has been the subject of prior blogs. It is the message that Stanley Hoss tries so desperately to communicate to contemporary churches. On the left and the right of the Christian community, the supposition that Christians should somehow be transforming society using the tools of society is a mistake. Instead, the spirit of Christ itself transforms society as a servant people go about their day-to-day business. Some of them may be leaders in government and culture. Others may never be known. All are important.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Mathetes, “Letter to Diogenetus” https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0101.htm (downloaded February 27, 2024). The term “Mathetes” is Greek for Disciple, and the author does not identify himself. He was an early Christian (circa 130-200) who describes himself as having studied under the apostles. I have undertaken a slight paraphrase for contemporary readability.

Lent 2: A Kingdom of Servants

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all(Mark 10:43b-44).

This Lenten season, I am going to expand upon the meditation of last week. If Jesus did not intend to institute a kingdom like the secular kingdom we know, then what Kind of a kingdom did he intend to establish? How does that kingdom and its citizens relate to the “Kingdoms of the Gentiles? Before Easter arrives, I hope to have a better handle on the Kingdom of God and how it interacts with Human Kingdoms. The intention is to be devotional rather than scholarly.

Luke on Leadership in the Kingdom

As Luke tells the story of the dispute among the disciples concerning who was to be the greatest among them, we are given a clue.  The scene is the last week of Jesus’ life. It is nearly Passover. The disciples have experienced Jesus’ triumphal entry with the crowds shouting out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38). He has been in constant disputations with the Scribes, Pharisees and other leaders of the Jewish people (Luke 19:46-22). There are, however, storm clouds on the horizon. Judas has already agreed to betray him (Luke 22:1-6). Jesus has arranged a last dinner with his disciples, though they did not know this (Luke 22:7-13). He has already instituted the Lord’s supper (Luke 22:14-20).

It is at this place in his narrative that Luke places the following teaching:

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:24-30).

Luke places this teaching near the end of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew and Mark place the teaching on the journey to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45). Luke places the teaching at the Last Supper (Luke 22:24-23). The equivalent teaching in John is at the Last Supper as Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-16). Given human nature, it is quite likely that Jesus had to impress on his disciples many times the difference between his kingdom and leadership in that kingdom and the leadership they were accustomed to in secular Greco-Roman society.  We needed to be continually reminded of the difference between human kingdoms and the Kingdom of God.

The gospels agree that that the disciples did not understand Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God. They listened and heard the teaching through the lens of their own expectations of a military and political Messiah who would reestablish David’s kingdom and rule a united Israel from the traditional site of Jerusalem. We are much the same.

If we listen to the voice of Jesus in the text, we learn several things:

  1. There is a difference between the Kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms, and it shows in the differences in leadership styles. (v. 25).
  2. Leadership in the Kingdom of God is very different than leadership in secular fields. Jesus’ leadership involves servanthood (v.26).
  3. Jesus bestowed (gave) the Kingdom of God to his disciples (v. 9).
  4. This Kingdom of God is related to Israel and its Twelve tribes. This kingdom is in some way a continuation of Israel, not its replacement, as some theologies profess.

 The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of God’s chosen people who have responded to him in faith as believers and disciples of the King (v. 30). It is my view this means that the Kingdom of God is first comprised of the synagogue and church—a religious, not an earthly kingdom.

A Message for Today

The message, “It shall not be so among you,” is a message churches and pastors need to hear in a society that values large corporate churches and where much money is spent in leadership development using the insights of secular leadership culture. An occasional reminder about the nature of servant leadership in a kingdom of love is needed. One of the things I have noticed in myself and in others is a desire to “explain away” the notion of servant leadership. When I wrote on leadership, I called my theory “Servant/Shepherd Leadership” partially because of the antagonism some pastors and church leaders have to some interpretations of “Servant Leadership.” I think that this is a mistaken worry. Jesus was not a doormat. On the other hand, he did die for the world and for me as a servant of the Father.

Luke’s telling of the dispute about greatness among the disciples is preceded by a series of teachings. One is of special interest in understanding the meaning of the Kingdom of God and its relevance today. It is the confrontation between Jesus and the leaders of the people concerning taxes. No one likes paying taxes. This was as true in Jesus’ day as in our day. The teachers of the law and chief priests were desperate to put an end to Jesus’ ministry, so thy sought to trap him on the delicate issue of payment of taxes. Here is how Luke records it:

Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Luke 20:20-25).

Nothing is more fundamental to any secular government than the power of taxation. When Jesus tells the people to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, he is drawing a comparison between the kingdom he intends to establish and the kingdom of Rome and every human kingdom. In every era, the people of God will be subject to earthly kingdoms and their varying laws. Within these kingdoms, we are called to reach out in love to be salt and light, transforming that small part of the earthly kingdom under our care into some slight semblance of the Heavenly Kingdom to which we also belong.

Conclusion

It would seem that, as Luke tells the story of the last week of Jesus’ life, he is at pains to remind his readers that the Kingdom of God is nothing like the Kingdom of David, Rome, or any earthly kingdom. It is first and foremost a spiritual kingdom. Its king does not rule like an earthly king, and those who rule in his name and under his authority as leaders of the church and other Christian organizations must lead as servants.

For those who believe that there must be a more definite connection between faith and politics, let us wait and see what we learn over the next six weeks or so. I think that we will see how it is the Kingdom of God and our Human Kingdoms interact and relate, perhaps in a way we had not previously considered—at least that is my own hope.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Starting Place for Christian Public Theology

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).

For Christians, any public philosophy begins with the figure of Jesus bar Joseph, hanging on a cross upon which are written the words, “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). The death of Jesus Christ was the most horrible and demeaning Roman justice could inflict—a sign of humiliation and defeat. He died with the words, “It is finished” on his lips (John 19:30). His life was over. His disciples fled, fearing for their lives (Mark 14:50; Matthew 26:56). In the hours that followed his death, the Jewish Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, was buried in a borrowed tomb (Matthew 27:57-59; Mark 15:43-46: Luke 2350-53; John 19:38-40). Remarkably, three days later, his disciples began proclaiming his resurrection from the dead and status as the long-expected Messiah of Israel—the true successor of King David. Rome was a great power, but it turned out that a greater power was manifested in Christ.

Only a week earlier, Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey, as had Solomon and other kings of Israel, a symbol of his intention to serve ordinary people. The crowds enthusiastically welcomed him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). This directly threatened the religious establishment of his day. They wanted to find a way to do away with Jesus but feared the common people (Mark 14:37;). As the week progressed, Jesus disappointed his followers and the crowd as it became increasingly apparent that he did not intend to raise an army and defeat the Romans. He even referred to his immanent death (Mark 14:3-9). Eventually, Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples closest to Jesus, went to the authorities and offered to betray him (Matthew 26:14-16; Mark 14:10; Luke 22:2.).

On Thursday evening, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, he had a final supper with his disciples (v. 12). During the meal, Judas left early to arrange Jesus’ arrest (John 13:30). After the meal, in which Jesus again referred to his death (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20; I Corinthians 11:23-25), he instituted a rite his followers would continue to observe—what we call “the Lord’s Supper.” After dinner, he and his remaining followers went to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 32-42; Luke 22:39-41; John 18:1). After his time of prayer, soldiers arrived with Judas, and he was betrayed and arrested (Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14-43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-12).

The scene moved to a secret nighttime preliminary hearing at the home of Caiaphas, a former High Priest and father of the current high priest. At this preliminary trial, the religious authorities declare that Jesus is guilty of heresy—the heresy of declaring himself to be the Son of God—and determine that he must die (Matthew 26: 66; Mark 14:64; Luke 71). As soon as daylight appeared, the Sanhedrin, the highest body the Romans permitted the Jews to have, was called into session. He was again convicted (Matthew 27:1-2; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66-71). The religious rulers of the people of God had spoken; now, it was time for the worldly powers themselves to speak.

Jesus was led to Pontius Pilate, the representative of the Roman Empire. Initially, Pilate seems to have wanted to avoid having to pass judgment upon Jesus. He viewed the problem as a strictly Jewish religious problem. Recognizing that Jesus was a Galilean, he initially sent Jesus to King Herod, hoping to read himself of the problem (Luke 23:6-12). It did not work. Jesus was returned to Pilate, who interrogated Jesus and found no civil crime for which he could be convicted (Luke 23:13-16).

As far as Pilate was concerned, when Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), he removed himself from the jurisdiction and practical interests of the Roman Empire—and also from contemporary categories of political theology interested in political power and the application of Christian faith and theology to the realm of practical politics. [1] Rome cared less about any ideal otherworldly eschatological kingdom, and neither did Pontius Pilate. Pilate cared less about heavenly kingdoms; he cared about Rome, its empire, and his own position and power.

Ultimately, Pilate bowed to the desires of the religious authorities and the crowd they gathered to condemn Jesus. Reluctantly, he has Jesus scourged and crucified. He dies a terrible death and is buried. It would seem that the story is over. However, it was not. On the third day, women visited the tomb to embalm the body further and discover that Jesus was no longer dead. He has risen from the dead (Matthew 28-1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-13; John 20:1-13). A new age has begun, the Messianic age, but it is not the age his disciples expected. It is also not the Messianic age for which we long a good bit of the time. Jesus’s messianic age involves his followers experiencing what he experienced in sharing God’s love with others.

The difference between how Jesus acted before the Pilate and the Sanhedrin reflects his understanding that his kingdom was not to be in the earthly kingdom (John 18). The difference in Jesus’ behavior before Pilate compared to before the priests and Sanhedrin should cause those interested in political theology to be sensitive to the potential that political theology conflates two different kingdoms. Jesus defers to Pilate, but he confronts the religious leaders.

Apostolic Realization

As the Apostles, New Testament writers, and early Christians meditated on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they came to understand Jesus not as a worldly messiah but as God in human form—embodied Divine Love. One of the earliest names for Christians was “those who belong to the ‘Way'” (Acts 9:2). Jesus showed his disciples both a way to fellowship with God and a way of life. The Beatitudes are a beautiful description of that Way. This Way of Jesus involves serving and leading others with a gentle, other-centered, sacrificial love. There is a technical word for God’s willingness to serve creation at its deepest point of need. The word is kenosis, which means “to empty.” It comes from the words of Paul:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11).

The phrase “emptied himself or “made himself nothing” (ekenosen) reflects the reality that when God reveals the nature of a perfect ruler, he chooses to reveal it through one who, though above all things, is willing to empty himself of power, take on humanity, live in obscurity, and die a terrible and lonely death on behalf of not just his friends and followers, but also for his enemies.

After the crucifixion, disciples came to terms with the fact that the messianic hope of Judaism was misplaced. Their messianic hope was always of a true son of David, who would reestablish the kingdom of Israel and defeat its enemies. That is why Acts records them asking, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom? (Acts 1:6). The disciples, like us, had to accept that God does not act according to our presuppositions about how he should act. In particular, they had to come to grips with the fact that God did not intend to reestablish David’s kingdom militarily.

The Old Testament gave clues to the potential that the Jewish messianic hope of the kingdom of God was, in fact, a vision of an earthly kingdom led by an earthly ruler who would use worldly means to seek, acquire, and gain power. It was not a vision of a “New Heaven and A New Earth” in which peace reigned. Their misunderstanding drove the disciples to ask Jesus if now was the time he would reestablish David’s kingdom.  This misunderstanding is why at least one of his disciples (Peter?) carried a sword on the night that Jesus was betrayed: He still thought in a traditional way about the Messiah and his kingdom (Matthew 26:51-52; Mark14:47; Luke 22:49-50; John 18:10—11).

Jesus, on the other hand, constantly warned the disciples against their culturally induced presuppositions about what the Messiah would be like and what his kingdom would be like. Luke, on several occasions, Jesus says something like the following: “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26). Over and over until the very end of his time with the disciples, he reiterates that he is a suffering messiahship. [2] The Son of God had to be rejected, turned over to authorities, and crucified so that a kingdom entirely different from the material kingdom with which they (and we) are familiar could be transformed by means entirely divorced from power as we (and they) conceive it.

Conclusion

Christ reveals the limitless, vulnerable, self-giving love of God. In Christ, God serves the greatest need of human beings and creation by emptying himself of overt power to redeem them. The message of the Cross is that God is the One who gives himself without limit, without restriction, without any holding back for the sake of his broken creation and his sinful people.[3] This is what Christians mean when we say, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The love of God patiently bears with us, even as we presume upon the mercy of God. The love of God endures our sins, shortcomings, and brokenness as the Spirit works patiently and in love to redeem and restore. The love of God forgoes all power, becoming powerless in the ultimate act of saving love.

As Christians confront contemporary society and the gradual replacement of enlightenment culture by what we sometimes call postmodernism, it is essential to remember the self-giving love that Christ showed on the cross. Why? Because in a world dominated by the search for power and influence, Christians will be gradually seduced by the of our time if they do not center themselves upon the core revelation that God is a kind of self, giving love. When the Messiah appeared on the scene, he embodied the same self, giving love.

This means there may not really be a Christian public philosophy as it is so often practiced. [4] If political science is nothing more than the search for, acquisition of, and exercise of power, then it is clear that there cannot be a Christian public philosophy or public theology. A God who gives up power is not a hopeful role model for those who crave it.

Christians are committed to the notion that there is a greater, eternal, and uncreated power of which our human expressions are only a poor reflection. Christians believe the true reflection of how power should be acquired and exercised is found at the cross, where God in human form disclaimed any earthly, physical, political, military, or economic power and instead suffered and died for the human race. It isn’t easy to bring this revelation into harmony with any search for earthly political power. This is the beginning of all Christian reflection on public theology.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs,

All Rights Reserved

[1] The importance of Jesus’ reply to Pilate’s inquiry, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36) cannot be overestimated. How exactly this works out in practical theology will be a subject to be covered in this year’s essays.

[2] The number of incidents that support this is so numerous that they cannot be put in the body of the text. For a few examples, see Matthew 16:21-28, 17: 22-23, Mark 8:31-33; 9:30;1032-33; Luke 9:22-27, 24:6-8, 25-27, 46-47. It is a central teaching of Jesus that the Messiah had to suffer, be crucified, die, and rise from the dead.

[3] See W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense the Response of Being to the Love of God (London, UK: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977). See also John Polkinghorne, ed, The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2001) for a deep analysis of how creation reflects the One who is love and became love incarnate to redeem and restores his handiwork.

[4] I have in mind here the kind of political theology recommended by Reinhold Niebuhr and by many liberation theologians of various stripes. The strategy of both schools seems to be “grasping earthly power for heavenly purposes.” This does not, however, mean that these theologians are completely misguided for many of their recommendations can and should inform Christian thinking about politics. This will become clearer as these blogs evolve.

The Four Freedoms and America Today

Last week, Kathy and I traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana, to spend two days at the World War II Museum. It was quite an experience. It is impossible to go through the museum without pondering the application of the lessons of World War II to our times. In my case, outside the museum. As we arrived, our cab driver let us off near a bench upon which a bronze statue of Franklin Roosevelt was sitting. Just next to him were engraved these words:

We have faith that future generations will know here, in the middle of the twentieth century, there came a time when men of good will found a way to unite, and produce, and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war. (February 12, 1943)

The quotation followed me through the entire tour. It was the first great lesson of the trip: Victory against tyranny is not automatic. Human beings of goodwill must find a way to unite to overcome the forces of ignorance, tyranny, prejudice, and war. It was not easy for the West to win that victory. Significant players did not always agree. There was prejudice, pride, and other temptations to be overcome. But they overcame them, and freedom was preserved.

As I pondered Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Chester Nimitz, Dwight Eisenhower, and other leaders during the tour, and as I watched the faces of hundreds of unheralded young men and women caught up in an unimaginable cataclysm, I wondered if we do not need to be such people and elect such leaders in our day and time. We face a resurgence of the same evils they fought so hard to eliminate.

The Second World War ended in 1945, nearly eighty years ago, and the world order the victors created, partially to ensure that an evil alliance like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo did not threaten freedom again, is in great disarray. We see another “axis” emerging, an axis determined to undermine freedom, subvert Western Democracy, and gain control of vast populations, which will end in slavery for much of the world. Terrorism and its sponsors are as significant a danger in our day as Hitler was at the beginning of 1941. The institutions created to prevent tyranny too often are run by tyrants. Worst of all, the West has lost its sense of the reality of justice and the importance of human freedom except in matters like sex that do not seriously challenge elites.

Four Freedoms

A part of the Museum featured and was organized around FDR’s famous “Four Freedoms Speech” in part because America’s participation in the war was motivated by these “four freedoms:

  • freedom of speech,
  • freedom of worship,
  • freedom from want, and
  • the freedom from fear.

As one writer put it, these “Four Freedoms gave a moral structure and symbolized America’s war aims and gave hope in the following years to a war-wearied people because they knew they were fighting for freedom.” [1]

The pertinent part of Roosevelt’s reads:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world. [2]

During our visit, I wondered if we do not need something like the Four Freedoms to guide our response to the challenges of our day. There is plenty of negative politics, but no leader has emerged to plot a course to a brighter future.

Context of Challenge

In this speech, Roosevelt, right at the beginning, faced the realities of the situation:

  1. Freedom is Being Challenged. “Every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being’ directly assailed in every part of the world–assailed either by arms, or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace.” [3]
  2. Appeasement of Dictators is Foolish. “No realistic American can expect from a dictator’s peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion -or even good business. Such a peace would bring no security for us or for our neighbors. “Those, who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
  3. Subversion Endangers Democracy. “The first phase of the invasion of this Hemisphere would not be the landing of regular troops. The necessary strategic points would be occupied by secret agents and their dupes- and great numbers of them are already here, and in Latin America.”
  4. Maintain Core Values. “Just as our national policy in internal affairs has been based upon a decent respect for the rights and the dignity of all our fellow men within our gates, so our national policy in foreign affairs has been based on a decent respect for the rights and dignity of all nations, large and small. And the justice of morality must and will win in the end.”
  5. Defend our Nation and its Values. “First, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to all-inclusive national defense.”
  6. Support Freedom Loving Nations. “Second, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to full support of all those resolute peoples, everywhere, who are resisting aggression and are thereby keeping war away from our Hemisphere. By this support, we express our determination that the democratic cause shall prevail; and we strengthen the defense and the security of our own nation.”
  7. Move Forward in a Non-Partisan Manner. “Third, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to the proposition that principles of morality and considerations for our own security will never permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers. We know that enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people’s freedom.”

There is more to dsay and o, but these seven principles might be a place to begin.

Conclusion

It is easy for older men to worry too much about their children and grandchildren. But I do worry. It seems that our nation is threatened, and like the comic book character, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The generation that fought the Second World War bequeathed to us a hard-won peace, unparalleled opportunity, economic and political freedom, and a position of power from which it would be difficult for an enemy to dislodge us from those freedoms and opportunities. Unfortunately, beginning with Vietnam, elites and others began to doubt the value of our way of life. Today, we see the unfortunate consequences. Some of the prescriptions we hear from political, economic, and entertainment leaders and in the media are genuinely frightening in their totalitarian and foolish disregard for the past. I am afraid, my generation and those that followed us will have some explaining to do.

A good friend and fellow retiree wrote a blog the other day, an excellent reflection on the fundamental values that characterized the American Revolution. I have written today about the Four Freedoms. I believe they are foundational and can be the foundation of a movement for freedom in our day. We need a renewed commitment to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, economic freedom from want, and an international commitment to freedom from tyranny, political, economic, and legal. At the current time, the need to defeat terrorism and hatred stands right before our eyes.

Near the end of the tour, we saw pictures of the liberation of the Nazi Concentration camps and the terrible suffering of the Jewish Holocaust. Every General and every person who saw those camps was horrified by what had been done. The sufferings of the war were justified if for no other reason than to eliminate the evil of Nazi antisemitism. Today, in other countries and in our own we see the reemergence of exactly the kind of rhetoric and behavior that allowed the Holocaust to happen. We cannot and should not permit this to happen—and we need to remember that it was not only Jews that suffered. All those who had the temerity to stand up for freedom were at risk in Nazi Germany, as the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others demonstrates. At this time we need to remember the words of Martin Niemöller:

First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then, they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then, they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. [4]

We all need to speak and act to maintain the Four Freedoms in our own day and time.

Copyright 2024,  G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved, 

[1] “FDR and the Four Freedoms Speech” FDR Library and Museum https://www.fdrlibrary.org/four-freedoms (Downloaded February 2, 2024).

[2] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, State of the Union Message 1941 National Archives https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/president-franklin-roosevelts-annual-message-to-congress (Downloaded February 2, 2024).

[3] Id. The seven points below are quotes from Roosevelt’s speech.

[4] Martin Niemöller made the comment, which has been reported in many different forms. The quotation I have given is from the “Holocaust Encyclopedia,” the United States Holocaust Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/martin-niemoeller-first-they-came-for-the-socialists (Downloaded February 5, 2024).

Announcing a Revised and Expanded Crisis of Discipleship!

This week, my blog introduces the just-published revised and expanded version of Crisis of Discipleship. I became a Christian in 1977 in a small group in Houston, Texas. At the time, I was a young corporate attorney. During those years, I was an active layperson and small group leader of one kind or another while trying to put my faith at work in a secular calling. In 1991, Kathy and I left Houston and the practice of law and attended seminary. While in seminary, we were active in small group discipling. From 1994 until 2019, I pastored three congregations ranging from relatively small to large. Each congregation had a small group discipling ministry. The practical suggestions of Crisis of Discipleship flow from all those years of work and ministry.

Preparing a New Version of Crisis of Discipleship

Since 2017, I have been writing, publishing, and revising my reflections on making disciples in the challenging environment of contemporary culture. The results of this work are embodied in Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple Making in a revised and expanded format published by Living Dialog Ministries.

The book is available at https://livingdialog.org/product/crisis and other venues. Living Dialog has sacrificially assisted in this reprint, and I hope you will attempt to buy them directly from Living Dialog. I have included the new cover so that you will be able to purchase the latest version. You can see the book at LivingDialog.org. The book is also available on Amazon and other sources. Be sure to purchase the Revised and Expanded Version. The older version with a different cover is still available from some sources.

A set of editable PowerPoint slides is available for pastors and teachers free of charge, enabling leaders to teach this as a series of lessons with minimal preparation. I am also most willing to create a Study Guide for anyone who needs it. The editability of the slides assures that teachers can customize the lessons for their congregation.

I hope that Crisis of Discipleship will help leaders of local congregations take practical steps to prioritize disciple-making in local churches. A pastor, friend, and mentor constantly reminded me that the church is never more than a generation from extinction. Making disciples in the challenging environment of post-Enlightenment America and Europe will take the concerted effort of many people. I hope you will read this book and consider giving it to your local church leadership.

The Material Covered

The book is both theoretical and practical, with the practical aspect predominant. It begins with an analysis of our culture. It ends with a glimpse into the future, reflecting upon why we must develop a relational discipleship strategy. The book does not take sides regarding various theological or denominational differences, trying to be fair to everyone and valuable to any congregation that would like to develop a better strategy for discipling people.

I have reproduced the Table of Contents below so that you can easily see what is to be learned through studying the book:

Part 1: Come and Follow Me

Chapter 1: The Blessed Life

Chapter 2: Life in the Ruins

Chapter 3: Costly Discipleship

Chapter 4: The Way of a Christ-Follower

Chapter 5: The Way of Relationship

Part 2: Live and Love Like Christ

Chapter 6: Sharing Christ’s Life

Chapter 7: Sharing Good News

Chapter 8: Sharing Your Testimony

Chapter 9: Sharing in Dialogue

Chapter 10: Living a Different Way of Life

Part 3 Being a Disciple in a Fragmented Age

Chapter 11: The Way of Prayer

Chapter 12: The Way of the Word

Chapter 13: The Way of Service

Chapter 14: Growing in Transformational Community

Chapter 15: Discipleship in an Age of Fragmentation

Conclusion

Crisis of Discipleship represents the lessons of almost fifty years of Christian discipleship as a lay leader and pastor. As the “Boomers” (my generation) move to the sidelines, a new generation of leadership is emerging. Crisis of Discipleship hopes to help those in active ministry and those emerging into leadership as they seek to find ways to meet the challenges of our culture. No one, least of all me, has all the answers. Nevertheless, many people have found ways to reach out to American and Western cultures—and many new ideas have been proposed. I hope that many leaders and laypersons will find a way to begin thinking through their own response to our culture in Crisis of Discipleship.

This has been a labor of love and, hopefully, a way to share my walk with Christ with others in a helpful way. I hope friends, pastors, church leaders, and others will appreciate it.

God bless you all,

Chris

Marshand and Ultimate Reality

In 2023 I published a novel, Marshland, which is a murder mystery, a story of the Texas Savings and Loan Crisis, and a spiritual mystery all rolled into one. [1] My friends (and the publisher) tell me that to create and maintain interest, it is necessary to occasionally publish an excerpt and perhaps give some insight into the background of the book. As I work on a more Christian and Biblical blog intended to become the second of the blogs on public theology, I decided that this week, I would publish an excerpt from near the end of Marshland. Next week, I think I am going to be publishing a bit of the newly published revised and expanded version of Crisis of Discipleship, which was also published last year and is now out in a new edition. [2]

For now, here is the excerpt from Marshland:

 

One night we spent together remains vivid in my memory. My father, brother, and I were alone after dinner. They asked me to recount the events of the past months, which I did. When I got to the dark figure and strange lights, Dad and my brother got very quiet. Finally, they asked me what I thought my experiences meant. I had a hard time answering.

“I don’t really know what to think. I make my living not believing what people say unless it can be proven in court. However, that kind of proof is unavailable when it comes to personal perceptions of a spiritual reality. I know what I experienced. I know what I saw or dreamed. I know what happened as a result. I do not think it was simply an illusion or false delusion. I am not sure I need to know more.”

My father seemed to think that was a pretty good answer.

“In the ministry, I have seen a lot of things that an unbeliever might explain as a coincidence, supernatural answers to prayers, the intervention of God, or chance. I have always thought of them as something spiritual. I never felt it necessary to know or understand more. In the end, it is a matter of faith how one interprets experiences like those you recently had. Personally, however, I also think the experiences were real.”

My brother listened carefully, then gave his take on what had occurred.

“When I was in seminary, I had a class on, of all people, John Calvin. One day, as we were discussing Calvin’s views about angels, someone in the class spoke dismissively about Calvin’s premodern worldview. The professor, who was by no means a fundamentalist, paused thoughtfully and then said, ‘I think it is a great mistake not to believe in angels.’ He never explained his meaning, but I have always remembered that class.

“During my seminary days, I was often asked to preach in churches with which the seminary wanted to sustain a relationship. During those times, I habitually asked pastors what they thought about angels and demons and whether they had ever experienced things that seemed mystical in origin. The answers were interesting. Across various theological orientations, the answer was almost invariably that they believed in the demonic and in the angelic in some form. They had seen and experienced things in ministry that were difficult to explain on any basis other than supernaturally. They did not agree on the explanation, but they did agree on the existence of what I would call a trans-material dimension to the universe. I have experienced things as a pastor that are hard to explain without postulating an element of the divine or demonic.

“Art, it seems to me you have had such an experience. Your visions could just be dreams, but in the case of the angelic lights, your experiences were shared by others who saw the strange pillars of light. These experiences do not seem to be some kind of mass delusion. You will have to decide for yourself what you believe. As for me, I believe the world is stranger than we know.”

My father chimed in. “One interesting development in philosophy in recent years has been recognizing that reality is multilayered. At the bottom of material reality lies the principles of physics, from which chemistry and biology emerge as independent areas of reality. The human race emerged in a long process of biological and social development, with the result that religion, psychology, sociology, law, and other disciplines also developed, due to the capacity of human beings to create human societies and institutions. Each level of reality depends on others, yet has its own degree of independence. While other levels are relevant and may impact higher levels, they do not determine them. In my view, beyond the created order, there is a vast, invisible order of spiritual reality. This order may well include an angelic order of being. You may have had some kind of contact with that reality.”

Our conversation shifted to the wedding and the excitement it generated in the family. We never returned to the subject of angels. In the intervening years, until recently, I rarely encountered anything like what I experienced during the final days of the Marshland transaction. As the years passed, the vividness of my experience faded, and with it, my curiosity and interest. I was busy as a lawyer, husband, and father. Yet it was in those days that I found my true vocation, the great love of my life, and a kind of center from which I have lived since.

This week, I ran across a quotation from Thomas Torrance, whose theological writings have meant a lot to me over the course of the years. It is from an essay entitled “Christianity and Scientific Change.” When I wrote Marshland, in my mind I attributed the words of Arthur Stone’s father to what I learned studying John Polkinghorne, the British physicist and theologian, whose work has also been important to me and who makes a similar observation in his many books. Arthur Peacocke and Ian Barbour also influenced my understanding of the multi-layered nature of reality. It is actually an important idea to get in one’s mind.

In Torrance’s essay, he makes the point:

“Scientific knowledge embodies layers of coherent comprehension which answer to and are affected by the coordinated layers of orderly relations, in reality itself. This integrated complex structure in reality and in our corresponding knowledge of it forms an ascending hierarchy of orderly relations which prove to be open upward in ever wider, comprehensiveness and profounder ranges of intelligibility, but which cannot be flattened down word by being reduced to homeomorphic relations on one and the same level.

As these different levels of reality become disclosed through our inquiries, together with the corresponding levels of our explanatory accounts of them, they combine with one another, in such a hierarchical way, as to constitute a vast semantic focus of meaning.” [3]

A lot rides on understanding this quotation and the point I am making in Marshland. If I could summarize what Torrance is saying it is this:

  1. Every level of reality exists dependent upon other levels but independent of them.
  2. Reality has a hierarchical structure, from basic physics to chemistry to biology to psychology to sociology to theology.
  3. In reality, there is an upward openness to emerging novelty, which means that the higher levels are not fully reducible to the lower levels.
  4. Through science, mathematics, words, and other symbols human beings discover the structure and meaning of this multi-layered reality.

Because there are different levels of reality, it is not appropriate to try to understand one level of reality on the basis of lower levels alone. For example, one cannot understand the functioning of the human spirit solely on the basis of physics, chemistry, or even biology. The existence of the human mind creates an entirely different level of reality that must be understood on its own terms. Similarly, spiritual realities, such as the angels in Marshland, exist on a different level than material realities.

Modern science and much modern philosophy tend to dismiss religious views and experiences as not “scientific,” at least as the speaker understands science. Torrance and I would disagree with this.

On the spiritual level, we are dealing with the person of God. Like all personal relations, we cannot understand this God, unless God chooses to communicate himself to us. Of course, God can be expected to communicate to us on the basis of our human abilities to perceive, which is why religious people experience visions and dreams. It’s also why the religious truths of every religion are embodied in people and in books.

Jesus told parables. Mohammed wrote the Koran. The sayings of Buddha have been passed down to us. Confucius wrote the Analects. We can read, understand, and grow closer to understanding Ultimate Reality in our study of them.

As a Christian, I read my Bible daily as one of the ways God communicates with me. Prayer, worship, and service to others are other ways God communicates. I study the Old and New Testaments because I believe they render a true vision of the nature of the infinite, personal God, a God finally revealed to us in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, there is always an irreducible mystery to any such communication for the reality being communicated is at a different level of reality than we human beings inhabit. This is why God chose to give us the name “I am” or “I Am that I Am,” or, as I sometimes refer to God in my writings, “I Am what I Am and will be what I Will Be.” God loves us. We know that from Christ. God wishes us the best. We know that from Scripture. But God will not be fully understood by us. Like Arthur Stone, we have to be content with what we know and can know within our human limits.

Copyright 2024, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alystair West, Marshland (Bloomington, ID: Westbow Press, 2023).

[2] G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciplemaking (Richmond, VA: 2024).

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, Christian Theology and Scientific Culture “Christianity and Scientific Change” (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 1998), 37, 39

Where Love and Wisdom Meet

The End of the Intellectual Search for Wisdom

Wisdom literature is committed to an unflinching search for truth and an understanding of the reality of human life, squarely facing the problems inherent in a simple equation of blessings, success, and meaning with the wise life. [1] Job, Ecclesiastes, and Daniel, each in their own way, address the reality that good people suffer, much suffering does not make sense, and wisdom does not prevent a wise person from experiencing injustice and meaninglessness inherent to much of human life.

In Job and Ecclesiastes, one senses the conviction that any explanation of the human condition must finally come through a personal revelation. This is why Job is so insistent that he achieve a personal interview with God. His friends are not adequate mediators of reasons for his suffering. He wants his case, and by extrapolation, the case of every sufferer, to be personally heard by God and answered by God. You see, the character of God is at stake in the problems of meaningless and undeserved suffering. To a person who suffers undeservedly or loses a sense that life has meaning, God often seems strangely silent.

Near the end of Proverbs, a passage speaks of the ultimate helplessness of human reason in the face of the most profound questions of life. It is as if, in frustration, the wisdom writers finally confess the futility of trying to understand the ways of God:

I am weary, O God; I am weary and worn out, O God. I am too stupid to be human, and I lack common sense. I have not mastered human wisdom, nor do I know the Holy One. Who but God goes up to heaven and comes back down? Who holds the wind in his fists? Who wraps up the oceans in his cloak? Who has created the whole wide world? What is his name—and his son’s name? Tell me if you know! (Proverbs 30:1-4, NLT).

This passage expresses a fundamental problem with the human search for wisdom: We are not God. We cannot ascend to heaven and check our earthly conclusions with the Almighty. The search for God and for human wisdom concerning the most critical questions of life ultimately reaches the end of human understanding. More arguments will not suffice—a revelation is needed. One is tempted to quote the modern philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” [2]

Humans must live within the limits of human understanding. The ways of God are beyond our understanding. If humans are to find answers to life’s most troubling questions, God must reveal them. We cannot ascend to God or investigate God and find our answers. Since our deepest need for a sense of the presence of God, and not simply a word from God, the revelation we need must be personal, not merely verbal. [3]

One Greater than Solomon

New Testament writers would agree for a surprising reason: They had seen the mysterious, inscrutable God revealed in human flesh. When they saw Jesus, they saw revealed a kind of wisdom so different from their expectations that it initially seemed foolish. As they reflected on the revelation of Christ, they came to understand it as foundational to any rational understanding of God and the universe.

In Matthew 12, Jesus alludes to his special status. The Scribes and the Pharisees have been challenging Jesus because he seems not to follow the wisdom of the Jewish tradition as they understand it. Finally, Jesus responds. Here is how Matthew relates the story:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said, “Master, we want to see a sign from you.” But Jesus told them, “It is an evil and unfaithful generation that craves for a sign, and no sign will be given to it—except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was in the belly of that great sea-monster for three days and nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation in the judgment and will condemn it. For they did repent when Jonah preached to them, and you have more than Jonah’s preaching with you now! The Queen of the South will stand up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it. For she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and you have more than the wisdom of Solomon with you now! (Matthew 12:33-42, J.B. Philips [emphasis added]).

The Scribes and the Pharisees wanted a sign that Jesus was an authentic teacher of the wisdom of God, which they could fit into their pre-existing worldview. They wanted a Messiah that fit their expectations. Jesus refused their request, telling them they would indeed get a sign—but not one that they could accept. Although in Jesus, one greater than Solomon is present, they will have to change their expectations in the face of the reality of the Messiah God has sent to them. [4]

Greater than Solomon? Who among the teachers of Israel could be greater than the patron saint of the wisdom tradition, the Son of David? Here, Jesus is making his case that, as “one has come down from heaven,” he is the authentic and reliable guide to the wise life. However, this is not a wisdom the world will easily recognize or accept. In fact, the very people who might have been expected to acknowledge Jesus as the bearer of true wisdom reject and crucify him.

 The Word Made Flesh

It is not just the spoken words of Jesus that are important. In his very being, the Word and Wisdom of God are revealed. John begins his gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-8, 14, NIV).

In Christ, God has chosen to make a personal appearance in human history. In Jesus, the wisdom that was with the Father in the beginning as a master craftsman of creation (Proverbs 8) came to dwell in history in human form and is now revealed not just in words but also in a human being whose character is “full of Grace and Truth” (John 1:14).

Despite the presence of the True Light of God’s wisdom in Jesus, the True Light was not easy to recognize (John 1:9). In fact, “…though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10, NIV). When John says that the world did not receive him, he does not just mean the gentile nations who might be expected to miss the purpose and meaning of his life. Not even his own people, who had been prepared for his coming throughout their long history, understood. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11, NIV).

The New Testament is replete with indications that even those closest to Jesus, the disciples, were often puzzled by Jesus and his teachings. [5] They did not always understand his parables and frequently had to have them explained to them (See Mark 4:13). In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a series of parables that his followers have difficulty understanding. Then, the reason is given:

Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world” (Matthew 13:34-35, NIV).

Jesus’ teachings were difficult to understand, and his wisdom was often confusing because he revealed a hidden wisdom from God (I Corinthians 1:18-19). This wisdom can only be recognized based on the revelation God is making through Jesus.

The core misunderstanding of the disciples concerned the character of Jesus and God. Jesus revealed a wisdom that does not necessarily breed success or victory. It is not a wisdom that brings with it adulation of the crowds or political or economic power. It is not a wisdom that the best and the brightest of the academy will necessarily applaud. It is a wisdom that leads to a cross. It is wisdom shown by submitting to injustice. It is a wisdom symbolized by a cross. In other words, human wisdom formed by the notion that wisdom brings success and adulation is no kind of wisdom at all.

The Wisdom of the Cross

The apostle Paul expresses the surprise the apostles felt at Christ’s incomprehensible self-disclosure of God’s self-giving wisdom:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (I Corinthians 1:18-25, NIV).

The wisdom Christ revealed is so unimaginable that no form of human understanding could have foreseen its character. The Jews rejected it because it defied their messianic expectations of a military and political deliverer. The Greeks rejected it because their ideas of divinity postulated an impassible God who could not suffer, a God beyond the misery of this world and its bondage to sin, suffering, and death.

Thus, the wisdom of God is paradoxical—a wisdom that must be accepted by faith before it makes sense. It is a wisdom that no person wise by Jewish or Greek standards would have predicted. It is a wisdom revealed not in strength but in weakness and suffering love. It is a wisdom that does not fit into the categories of thought prevalent in Jesus’ day or our own. It cannot be assimilated into any human wisdom other than by making it the foundation of a new kind of wisdom. [6]

The reality and power of God’s wisdom can only be known in the person of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Messiah (I Corinthians 2:2). It can only be understood in humble reliance upon God’s mercy, which is its basis and foundation (I Corinthians 2:3). It cannot be known with the wisest and most persuasive arguments (I Corinthians 2:4-5). It can only be understood in the experience of personal forgiveness and restoration by the power of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 2:4-5).

This is a wisdom that cannot be known by the rulers and authorities of “this age” because it is a hidden wisdom:

But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,  nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God (I Corinthians 2:7-9, NRSV).

The ultimate expression of wisdom cannot be expressed in words. It had to be expressed on a cross and can only be appropriated in a personal relationship with God as revealed on the Cross. Those who understand this wisdom must have their minds transformed so they have the mind of Christ, the mind of the One who revealed this wisdom, this hidden word of God (I Corinthians 2:13-16).

This wisdom of the Cross reflects the true nature of the One who created the heavens and the earth. The world cannot understand this wisdom because its truth finally must be revealed to us by God. C. S. Lewis captures this mystery in his book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the book, Edmund betrays his brother and sisters, the people of Narnia, and even Aslan, the true king of Narnia. He deserves to die—and the White Witch demands that he do so. Aslan strikes a bargain with the White Witch to substitute himself for Edmund. The Witch accepts, and Aslan is sacrificed only to be resurrected. When Lucy and Susan cannot understand what has happened, Aslan replies:

It means, said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But, if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in the traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.” [7]

The wisdom of the Cross is the Deeper Magic, the most profound wisdom that underlies and supports all human attempts to live and order their lives. On the Cross the limitations of a human notion of justice is demonstrated and a deeper wisdom, what we might call a “Wisdom of Grace,” is revealed. This wisdom is present in life and death, in success and failure, in deserved blessing and undeserved suffering, and in times of radiant meaning and purpose in the dark times when meaning and purpose seem absent.

The Way of Wisdom and New Testament Faith

Contemporary people sometimes consider “faith and knowledge” and “theory and practice” as categories. We often think of “faith” as a kind of incomplete knowledge, or worse, something people choose to believe in the face of contrary facts. [8] Critics of Christianity often describe faith as irrational – a flight from reason. For these people, “faith” means holding to a belief despite the absence of evidence, or worse, against clear evidence. Even Christians can fall into thinking that faith is something alien to reason or, in some ways, opposed to reason. Much harmful debate between science and religion stems from this way of thinking.

The false dichotomy between faith and reason is foreign to the spirit of the Christian Bible and the early Church’s writers. For early Christians, the revelation of Christ was a moment of deepened understanding of God and the universe God created. The early Church saw the incarnation as a physical revelation – a personal revealing inside of creation of the invisible wisdom of God (Colossians 1:15-17). This same divine wisdom was also revealed in nature (Romans 1:20). For these writers, practical wisdom, understanding reality, and moral knowledge come from the same source – the uncreated wisdom of God.

For those who accept this ancient way of wisdom, scientific understanding, faith, and moral insight are parts of a seamless web of created rationality binding the physical, ethical, and intellectual universe together. Eugene Peterson captures this notion in his paraphrase when he says, “…God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within … that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong” (Romans 2:14, Message).

For early Christians, the revelation embodied in Jesus was not a flight into the irrational or a subjective world of metaphor. Instead, Christ provided a revelatory insight into the deepest rationality of the world. This is why an early Christian could say:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17, NRSV).

For the writer of Colossians and early Christians generally, the revelation of Christ was a revelation of the ultimate rationality of the universe, the principle of reconciliation between the physical and moral universes. On the cross, God revealed the ultimate nature of the deity. He revealed God as Self-Giving Love—a love present in the meaningless parts of life and in the undeserved suffering we sometimes endure. In the resurrection of Jesus, God was revealing at the very boundaries of human reason the ultimate ground for our hope.

A Life Reordered by Transformational Insight

James Loder speaks of the importance of transformational knowing—a kind of knowing that re-orders all that we have previously known into a new order—an order that explains what was once inexplicable and makes rational what was once irrational. [9] Transformational knowledge results from a convictional insight that transforms understanding and reorders the human psyche. [10] The revelation of Christ is such a transformational insight. By faith, new understanding is created. This new understanding is not irrational. It is more profound than human rationality. It is not a form of foolishness. It is a wisdom that renders lesser insights foolish. This is the wisdom to which the New Testament writers bore witness.

The Old Testament wisdom writers were searching for truth—for a true way to find happiness and fulfillment. They did so in the context of their faith and God’s revelation to Israel. Their quest was confronted with difficulties that they wrestled with and sought to resolve. They sensed a deep conflict between the fundamental premises of the wisdom tradition and reality as they knew and experienced it.

They saw much-undeserved suffering in the world and understood a wise life does not guarantee happiness, fulfillment, or meaning. Over long centuries, wisdom writers struggled with these problems as they relate to their understanding of God, wisdom, morals, and the rationality of the world. Then, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the disciples experienced a complete reorienting of their ideas about God, the Law, and the Prophets.

The revelation they received made sense of what had previously been difficult, if not impossible, to understand. But that revelation required a rethinking and reenacting of the entire history of Israel, so surprising and revolutionary was its impact. In the figure of Christ, they saw revealed a wisdom of one greater than Solomon (Matthew 12:42), a prophet greater than Moses (Hebrews 3:3). They saw revealed in Christ the character of one who fulfilled the Law and Prophets (Matthew 5:17). In the crucified and risen Messiah, they received the clue to the mystery their tradition had so long pondered. In the one life of Jesus of Nazareth, they saw the wisdom of God revealed in the most unexpected yet undeniable way. It was for them and us to work out the implications of that revelation. [11]

Because of the personal nature of the revelation of Christ, no purely mental, cognitive response can ever be sufficient. The proper response of faith is to not simply cognitively accept what God has done in Christ. The word for faith connotes more than acceptance. It also connotes trust, and trust requires an act of personal commitment and will. To trust in Christ and to receive his wisdom is to be converted in our minds (what we think), in our bodies (what we do), and in our hearts (what we feel and will do). A personal revelation demands a personal response from the whole human person. Wisdom is never a matter of abstract cognitive knowing. Wisdom is practical. It is a matter of knowing and doing in a concrete human life formed in a relationship with God, a concrete community, and the world.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This entire essay is a revision of chapter 14 of my book, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 195ff.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London, ENG: Kegan Paul, Trench, Turner & Co, 1922), 90.

[3] This is one reason pastors and other caregivers quickly learn that our presence with people who are suffering is far more important than anything we may say. In fact, as Job’s friends illustrate, what we say may interfere with the comfort of our presence!

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Theological Science (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1969). In scientific, religious, and other thinking there can only be real knowledge when an investigator adjusts his or her view of reality to the nature of the subject matter. “[In] Jesus Christ God has broken into the closed circle of our inability and adequacy, and estrangement and self-will, and within our alien condition has achieved and established real knowledge of Himself.” Id, at 51.

[5] One of the motifs of the Gospel of Mark is the incomprehension of the disciples despite their constant contact with Jesus.

[6] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks:  The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1986).

[7] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1950, renewed 1978), 74.

[8] This section contains ideas first presented in Centered Living, Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love for Christ-Followers previously cited.

[9] See, James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1989).

[10] Id, at 33.

[11] In this section, I use Loder’s notion of “convictional knowing” and its stages of: conflict, scanning, revelation (what he calls “imagination”), release, and interpretation to express the way in which the revelation of Christ impacted the disciples’ (and our) expectation of the Messiah. See, Loder, Transforming Moment, at 35-44.

From a Naked to an Illumined Public Square

In 1984, author and social commentator, Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book that had a profound impact on American public life, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. [1] This book, and Neuhaus’ work editing First Things, widely regarded as one of the most influential journals on religion and public life, had a deep impact during the following years. [2] I remember reading the book in the late 1980’s and admiring his scholarship. During the 1990s while in seminary, I developed the habit of reading First Things our seminary library. Later for some years, I subscribed until I concluded that the money of a local pastor might be better spent on his family. However, during all those years I was not comfortable with all the conclusions of  The Naked Public Square or the tone of the work in a few places.

The book was written during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, to some people a kind of golden age of evangelical witness in the political arena. During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, evangelical Christians emerged as a force in American politics. The emerging alliance of evangelicals with a Democratic administration was ultimately not successful. The deep feelings of many evangelicals on the subject of abortion, and the perceived ineptitude of the administration in handling the Iranian Crisis, resulted in a massive shift of evangelical support to the Republican Party in the 1980 election, where, until recently, it has resided. It is too early to tell whether the Trump Administration and the reaction of some evangelical leaders to his style and perceived immorality have resulted in a permanent change of this alliance in the future. In any case, many prominent evangelical pastors and intellectuals have distanced themselves from the Republican Party. In my view, this is also a positive development.

Perhaps more central to the hope of this book is the fact that at the time the basic contest in the area of public theology among evangelicals, Catholics, and mainline protestants and what was sometimes termed the “Religious Right” concerned the question of which group’s basic theological and social views should Christians adopt. Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square, and the Mainline Protestants came down on the side of themselves. Having spent a good bit of my life in academia (undergraduate, law, and seminary), I was not certain this was the right question. In my mind, the question is whether or not Christianity will have any important voice in political affairs under the current dominant way of thinking. Will the light of Christ in any way impact public life.”

The Short-Sighted Public Square

One weakness of contemporary Christian witness in public life is that it too often focuses on “hot button” issues, such as abortion, or personalities, such as Donald Trump’s or Joe Biden’s moral character. While character is important, and a focus on moral issues certainly has a place in Christian views on public life, single-minded or overly-moralistic approaches inhibit the development of discussion and reason concerning Christian faith and its fundamental message to Christians and others in complex areas of our national political life. This particular feature of Christian participation in public life has many consequences, none of which are positive. First, it often results in the demonization of other sides of the political debate. Second, it diverts attention from issues that are important to human flourishing and the stability of our democracy. Third, it creates a kind of “winner take all” moral enthusiasm related to issues that can prevent the proper functioning of our democracy and its fundamental institutions.

Finally, and most destructively, excessive negative focus on the most dangerous proposals of our opponents creates a demand for a kind of messianic leader who will establish the policies that various supporting groups desire. The results of political messianism are both inevitable disappointment and the creation of a kind of misplaced moral outrage that hinders wise and fair decision-making. Christians of all stripes believe in the doctrine of the fall, one particular result of which is we cannot expect a level of moral purity from our leaders that we regularly admit we do not possess.

Our national elites find it relatively easy to allow public debate to occur on two levels. First, there is the vulgar level of social media, broadcast media, and the like. Anyone who has read the comment sections of any version of social media regularly reads comments that are either inane or violently rude. It is amazing to me how many people when faced with a problem like the Middle East or the Deficit react by posting “Bomb them into oblivion” or “Tax the rich” or “Fire all federal employees.” There is not much light to be gained by reading the comment section in media.

Illumined by Wisdom and Love

I sometimes call my approach to political philosophy and theology “sophia-agapic.” The Greek word “Sophia” is the word for wisdom in the New Testament. The Greek word “Agape” is the word Christians use for the self-giving love of God. In Christ, Christians believe that the love of God became human and “dwelt among us full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Christians also believe that God possesses all wisdom, which wisdom also became human in Christ and its implications revealed for the human race (John 1:4). This has implications in every area of Christian life and activity, two of which are important in any discussion of political theology:

First, God is Love and exists in a loving family-like relationship, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Christian faith will seek mutuality and self-giving relationships as a characteristic of its involvement in public life. This includes recognizing the limitations of force, physical, mental, emotional, and otherwise in public affairs.

Second, God is Light, which is to say that God is completely, wise, completely pure, completely rational, completely good, and completely beautiful. This includes the importance of approaching public policy wisely and with and informed discretion.

Most people tend to think of power as a primary quality and important for one to possess. One of my professors in undergraduate school commented that “politics is just about power, getting it, using it, and losing it.” At the time, I agreed. Now, I do not. Political power is both profoundly interpersonal and depends on numerous factors, some of which are moral and psychological.

The philosopher Nietzsche instituted a program of seeing all moral claims, and all truth claims as simple bids for power, a program that finds its current home in deconstructive social theory. Nietzsche effectively “deconstructed” the foundations of Enlightenment liberalism, reducing all truth claims, all moral claims, and all aesthetic claims to bids for power. Nietzsche’s hostility towards Christianity as a “slave religion,” reflecting an attempt by the weak to gain power over the strong, the “Ubermensch” (“overman” or “superman,” who has the vitality to impose his or her will on others) is well known. In practice, the result of Nietzschean thought has inevitably been some kind of totalitarianism. [3] This Nietzschean notion of the will to power embeds in contemporary politics an innate tenancy toward violence. [4] The truth and reality of this observation are seen in the events in major U.S. cities over the past several weeks.

If you are like me, you watch the nightly news with a sense of horror and foreboding. The riots on the streets, the antics of nihilist anarchists, the tactics of the Marxist left seeking the ever illusive “end of history” and institution of a proletarian dictatorship, the complicity of left-wing politicians, and worst of all, the egging-on by the liberal media, without the slightest reflection on where this is all heading. For those who want to know the end game of all this, my suggestion is that the end game will not be pretty—or what its proponents desire.

The Enlightenment, with its hostility to religion, began in France among a group of philosophers who were anti-Catholic, the most famous of whom was Voltaire. They envisioned a perfect, humanistic state. They created a dictatorship in which thousands died in an orgy of madness. The result was not a perfect state, but a perfectly demonic state. What finally emerged was not a paradise of reason, but Napoleon.

If American intellectuals, left-wing politicians, and the plutocrats who control much of our wealth are wise, they will take a break from radical politics, political calculations, and cultural accommodation and study the French Revolution. Those who egged on the French mob were ultimately destroyed by the mob. This same kind of senseless evil was characteristic of the 20th century, from Lenin to Hitler, Mao, Pot Pol, and beyond.

There is a kind of naïve utopianism that discounts human brokenness and our capacity for evil, that believes that a different sort of ruler (me or my group) would mean change for the better, and that impatient for change. In the case of modern revolutions, people seek a secular Messiah who will usher in a golden age of peace and plenty, but most often get Stalin. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must need to be those offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” (Matthew 18:7, KJV).

Will to Healthy Relationality

Over and against the Nietzschean notion of the “Will to Power” as ultimate, Christians posit that the universe is communal, flowing from the communal nature of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christians fundamentally disagree with the modern worldview that “All that exists are objects and forces.” While we confess the reality of the objective world outside of us, we also believe that there is a noetic or spiritual world in which words like “Freedom” and “Justice” have a real though not physical existence.

Conclusion

On and off this year, I am going to take a leisurely blogging trip through some fundamental ways  Christian faith  can guide Christians in bringing wisdom and love into American public life. This is an important undertaking because our public culture is without question experiencing an unprecedented decay into a kind of nihilistic “winner take all” game in which the Christian virtues of reason, compassion, justice, and love are inevitably lost. The propensity impacts Christians and non-Christians alike. The result is an impoverishment of our public discourse on important issues.

Neuhaus was aware that Christian engagement with political life includes the danger of Christian thinking about matters of public life degenerating into a “Church of What Is Happening Now” response. [5] One blessing of religious faith is that it involves internalizing an eternal perspective on current events that allows a kind of disengagement with the pressure of the currently urgent and allows focus on important things. Hopefully, the result is that Christians can engage others in the public arena with the wisdom and love that God has asked all his disciples to demonstrate.

Neuhaus also believed that the emergence of the Evangelical Right was an event that required examination. He was concerned to illuminate the errors of the Moral Majority and similar movements. From the perspective of 2024, it would seem to me that his concern was overdone. The Moral Majority has disappeared from public life. What has emerged in its place is a kind of disconnected dislike of the current regime without a philosophical basis or a well-thought-out policy alternative. We do not need more buzzwords.

The cultural changes of the 1960’s were, perhaps, slowed by the Reagan Presidency but they were not by any means without continuing impact. On college campuses, in the media, and in other cultural settings, the forces unleashed by the decay of modernity continue to impact public life in powerful ways. The world of 2024 is almost unrecognizable from the perspective of 1984. America was becoming more secular in the late 20th century. It is secular in the early 21stcentury.

While religious faith is a factor for people of faith in their making of public decisions, faith is not a factor for non-religious people. In addition, while religion is important to people of faith, it is by no means the only or often primary consideration in their political views or actions once in office. About many matters of public life, it may not even be arguably the most important matter. For example, I am a member of a local neighborhood association that deals with issues like, where should boundary signs be located and what height of the wall should be permitted in a particular lot. Hopefully, my religious faith causes me to be loving, kind, and concerned with the people involved and just, but Christian faith does not determine my vote on the height of privacy fences. Finally, religious and other factors will impact a Christian response to any public policy issue, and as to some issues, Christians may well have to weigh their faith with other factors.

Cultural forces are not easily overcome as the massive change in sexual morals among religious and non-religious people in early 21st-century America clearly shows. Cultural change involves creating cultural artifacts (art, literature, movies, music, and institutions) that capture the imagination of people and hold their loyalty beyond the passing emotion of a political movement or reaction. Christians, and especially more conservative Christians have not been particularly good at the creation of a cultural response to late modernity that is both compelling and energizing to contemporary Americans. A deep and deeply rational public policy is one of those artifacts that Christians need to develop.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, a bipartisan non-profit corporation headquartered in New York, NY. On its cover on the internet it describes itself as “América’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life.” See https://www.firstthings.com/current-edition.

[3] In my view, contemporary Communist China is a national socialist state masquerading as a communist state. Modern Russia under Putin is clearly a kind of national socialist state, in which very wealthy oligarchs and the state control every element of human life. Milbank believes as do I that Nietzschean nihilism always leads to some form of Nazism. Unfortunately, we see elements of this kind of government in American and Western European society.

[4] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK.: Blackwell, 2006), at xiii, and chapter 10, “Ontological Violence or the Postmodern Problematic” pp. 278-326

[5] The Naked Public Square, 3ff.

Willimon/Hauerwas: Resident Aliens

Resident Aliens is an important analysis of how Christians should interact with late 20th-century and early 21st-century culture. [1] The book’s primary argument is that churches should focus on developing Christian life and community rather than attempting to reform secular culture. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon reject the idea that America is a Christian nation; instead, Christians should see themselves as “resident aliens” in a foreign land.

For those familiar with Stanley Hauerwas’s work, the book’s theme is no surprise. He has long been of the view that (1) the “Constantinian” merger of the Christian faith with the Roman Empire and (2) the identification of Christian faith with some idealized form of the “American Way of Life” were great mistakes that can only be remedied by the church recovering its identity as the body of Christ.

When I was in seminary, like most seminarians, one of the required courses was “Christian Ethics,” by which our professor meant “public ethics” since there was no interest in personal ethics. After many weeks of reading liberation theology, Reinhold Niebuhr, and a host of academic theologians, most of whom were uninterpretable, we read Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom. [2] Finally, a book that seemed more or less biblical, understandable, and applicable to ordinary Christian life and ministry. I read A Community of Character and After Christendom in rapid succession. [3]. When Resident Aliens was published, I bought it, read it briefly, and forgot all about it. Only when I realized it was a necessary part of this series did I get a copy and read it again, this time more closely.

The authors are two of the most prominent figures in Methodism over the past many years. Hauerwas was a distinguished professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University. Willimon was a pastor, Chaplain at Duke, and later a Methodist Bishop. Together, they wrote Resident Aliens as a book for laypersons and pastors with chapters relevant to Christian ethics, public ethics, and pastoral ministry. Willimon also happened to be a college friend of a fellow church member, elder, and leader in our church in Houston.

The Constantinian Church

I’m sure many lay people get confused by terms like “Constantinian” and church by people like me. Just to be sure we understand what is meant, in the years between 303 and 313, Emperor Constantine defeated his enemies, became the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire, declared himself to be a Christian, and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before that time, the Christian church had, at best, been tolerated and persecuted many times, including in the recent history before 310. Until modern times, beginning about 300 years ago, the Christian faith was the official religion in all parts of Europe. Although other groups were tolerated, they were not the official religion. Occasionally, as with the Jews, they were persecuted. Even the protestant reformation did not change the Christian nature of Europe and its colonies. Although they were now both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and the official state church was not always Roman Catholic, Europe was still Christian.

In such a situation, the church had a privileged position in society. In the United States, that privilege position continued until relatively recently. For example, even as late as the 1990s, in small towns in the rural south of North America, the pastors of the local churches were part of the leadership of the community. This leadership was not merely spiritual but included many things like fundraising for community projects, supporting the local government in its initiatives, and providing a spiritual gloss to government and business activities in the community. In such a situation, it was relatively easy to blur the distinction between what characterized American values, including American political values, and what might constitute a Christian view of the world.

The End of the Constantinian World

Europe became secular after World War I and even more remarkably after World War II. The vast majority of people never attend church, the church has lost its privileged position in society, and an enormous number of immigrants, primarily of the Muslim or Hindu faiths, began a process in which those states were no longer Christian. [4] During the 1950s and early 1960s, the United States was more or less exempt from the process. However, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, a variety of Supreme Court decisions, and other actions that the center of the church in America all have produced a current situation in which the Christian church in the United States is in nearly the same circumstances as the Christian churches in Europe today. In other words, the “Constantinian Settlement” is over.

To their credit, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon were early to understand the changes coming to the American church and American society. In particular, Hauerwas was an early advocate that the church had to learn how to be the church in an era vastly different than anything experienced in the West in 2000 years and anything that the Christian church in America had ever experienced. Today, Christian leaders can look back on the last 30 years and wish they had paid closer attention to the warnings and advice people like Hauerwas and Willimon are giving.

Similarities Betweem the Religious Left and Right

When Hauerwas and Willimon began writing, they had to be careful what they said so that the religious and political left would not misunderstand them. While they were critical of the religious left, they were also critical of the religious right. In fact, Hauerwas and Willimon believed that these two groups were just two sides of the same mistake: They were trying to maintain the alliance between the powers of this world and the Christian message that would continue the church’s importance in modern secular democracy. Their difference was not in their strategy but in their tactics. Underneath both was the desire to maintain the alliance between the government and the church.

For the religious left, what is sometimes called liberal Christianity was obviously true. The social policies of the left that favored the United States academia were obviously true, and the proper course of action for Christians was to support liberal Christianity and left-wing politics. For the religious right, it was obvious that the prescriptions of the Religious Right were true. The religious beliefs of conservative Christians were true; therefore, it was obvious that the Christian church should support traditional Christianity and right-wing politics.

Hauerwas and Willimon believe that both approaches are profoundly mistaken and misguided. The two positions are heads and tails of the same religious coin. Both liberal and conservative Christianity are incorrect about the implications of Christianity for public life, and the actions were compromised by their pretensions to favor the secular leadership of the nation. In both cases, their error made them susceptible to manipulation by those in or seeking power. We can now see clearly that Hauerwas and Willimon were onto something.

Resident Aliens

Resident Aliens’s title catches the reader’s immediate attention and incorporates the book’s primary message. In the author’s view, Christians in America and the West need to become accustomed to being resident aliens. Christians live in our society, but they are citizens of another kingdom. [5] The biblical basis for this is the biblical notion that Abraham and the patriarchs were led to the promised land but never received that land. They wandered as resident aliens among the peoples of the land. As the author of Hebrews puts it:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from afar, admitting they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had the opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

The patriarchs were aliens in the lands through which they traveled and lived. Similarly, the early church was ostracized from various aspects of Roman society and maintained its presence as “resident aliens.” They were in the Roman Empire but citizens of the Kingdom of God. This passage and others like it constitute the Biblical foundation for the proposal made in Resident Aliens.

Hauerwas and Willimon also use the phrase “colony’ to describe the church’s situation in Western culture. [6] The church is like a colony of heaven planted within the societies of the world, colonies populated by resident aliens. As the authors put it:

We hope to recover the sense that we try to live the Sermon on the Mount because this is the nature of our God, and it is our destination that we should be such people. The colony is the vessel that carries us there. It is not apart from the vessel but within this vessel that we not only know the truth but are carried along with it. [7]

In these two metaphors, “resident aliens’ and the church as a “colony” lie the book’s strengths and limitations.

Resident Aliens. Let’s take the term resident aliens first. A resident alien is a citizen of one nation who resides in another country. For example, my wife and I lived in Scotland for a short time. We resided in Scotland for an entire summer. I was still a citizen of the United States of America. I was resident in Scotland. I couldn’t vote in Scotland. I was not a member of the national health or retirement schemes. I was living in one place but a citizen of somewhere else.

It’s beguiling to think this is an adequate description of the church. But the question is raised, “To what extent is it? “I am a Christian, a church member, and a resident of Texas in the United States. I’m not completely an “alien” in any of those roles. Compelling sermons can be given to Christian audiences saying we should be resident aliens in our culture. Still, in reality, to some degree or another, the description is incomplete. In reality, Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God and citizens of the United States at the same time.

In another context, I’ve pointed out that when I travel abroad, particularly in Third World countries, I am very aware that I am an American. I’m not a citizen of the country I am in, a part of their culture, or, in most cases, a full participant in the life of their churches. I am a guest. In Scotland, even though I was preaching regularly in a Scottish church, I was a resident alien. In Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines, I am even more aware of my status as a foreigner. In America, I’m a citizen and a Christian.

This is not just an academic point. It’s a point of life and ministry. It’s not that we can or should learn to be full citizens of the kingdom of God who happen to be residents of the United States. The reality is that we have an even more difficult job than being resident aliens. Western Christians must learn to be citizens of their nation and love and serve it as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

A reason why this is important has to do with its implications for our citizenship in both worlds. If I am fully a citizen of the kingdom of God and fully a citizen of the United States, then I must find a way to be loyal to both of my citizenships. I have to struggle and make decisions with loyalty to both my citizenships. As a Christian, it seems to me that the binding requirement is self-giving love. My citizenship in the United States does not eliminate my duty to act in love toward my fellow citizens—even if they’re not Christians. My citizenship in the kingdom of God demands that I love others—even if they’re my enemies.

This situation can put Christians in some difficult situations. As the life of Dietrich, Bonhoeffer illustrates, one can be a citizen of a nation whose actions and values put one in tension with the values and intentions of the kingdom of God. [8] When that happens, we have to decide what we will do. We must find a way to be loyal as best we can to both. It may even be impossible to make a wholly moral and Christian response as with Bonhoeffer. I might have to make a choice that is either contrary to the values of the kingdom, the values of the kingdom of God, or both. A good deal of the scholarship concerning Dietrich. Bonhoeffer ignores that Bonhoeffer was committing treason under German law in choosing to join the conspiracy against Hitler. He also potentially violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Bonhoeffer was very aware of his dilemma and the compromise he was making. He knew that if captured, he would be lawfully executed as a traitor. He felt he must take that action as a German and Christian. He died as a result. Even today, many people do not consider him a martyr for that reason. That’s human life as it really lived.

An implication of the duty to be fully resident in both kingdoms and bring God’s love to bear in our Christian roles is that Christian faith cannot justify my being “subversive.” This is a popular word in academia today and very popular among certain Christians, but it’s the wrong way of looking at our duties as Christians. When confronted with aspects of my society that are wrong, my duty is not to subvert that society. I must love it in such a way that it changes. That love might even require a cross. It did for Jesus. His enemies saw Jesus as subversive, but he was not. He loved his enemies enough to oppose the injustice and lack of faith that prevented them from also enjoying their status as creatures made in God’s image.

Colony. The authors also employ the metaphor of the church as a “colony” of heaven located on earth. This metaphor is also helpful but ultimately of limited utility. First of all, what a colony! The apostle Paul and others in the ancient world would have been familiar with what a colony was. For example, the nation-state of Greece had colonies in what is today part of Italy. The people there were Greek. They spoke Greek. Their social institutions were Greek. Their culture was Greek. The colony was an outpost of Greece in Sicily and southern Italy.

Now, there is a part of this metaphor that is true. The church, as it exists in any culture, is, to some degree, to be seen as a colony of the kingdom of God planted amid another culture. But it’s different. The people in my church are primarily Americans, but we have a few members and regular attendees from elsewhere in the world. We are all Texans, the number of them or imports from the northern part of the United States in California. We live in America, in Texas, and San Antonio. We are subject to the laws of each of these jurisdictions. We participate in the culture of our home. We are also gathered as a colony of heaven. We are that, but we are more. We are the family of God, the household of God, and the people of God, also Biblical metaphors that point to the full reality of the church.

Conclusion

In my former church, I had a friend who went to college with Willimon and often spoke admiringly of him as a person and thinker. While at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, I got to hear Stanley Hauerwas in person for some reason. As mentioned, Hauerwas’s work was and is crucial for me as a pastor and thinker. They are two great leaders of the Wesleyan tradition with an impact on many Christian groups. I would not want any of my little criticism to indicate that their insights have not taught and continue to teach me. They do. Before the series is over, I will have the opportunity to talk about what I call “just war pacifism.” In thinking about Hauerwas’s defense of pacifism and pondering the example of Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, and others, I began to see the dangers of an unmodified form of just war theory. (I am very confident that Hauerwas would never agree with my conclusions and would mount a devastating critique of my ideas! That is part of my reluctance to share my thoughts. The other is the comments of a young philosopher with whom I talked about the idea years ago.)

In the meantime, Resident Aliens is a wonderful and informative book that all pastors and laypersons should read in considering their ideas about faith and politics.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014).

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer on Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983),

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) and After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave is Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991)

[4] France is often used as a poster child for this phenomenon. France entered the 20th Century as a secular state with a strong Christian, primarily Catholic presence. Since World War II, it has become an almost militant secular state with a limited Christian presence. Recently, the government has taken measures to secure its “secularity” because of the enormous Muslim population, a population that is growing much faster than the secular French population. It has also suffered social unrest as a result of the activities of more radical Muslim groups.

[5] Resident Aliens, at 49.

[6] Id, at 50.

[7] Id, at 91.

[8] Hauerwas and Willimon use Bonhoeffer as an example, and Hauerwas has written on Bonhoeffer. Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Non-Violence (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015).

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day “A Longing for Justice”

When I was in undergraduate school, I took a class in Political Philosophy. We discussed a big question: “Is there really any such thing as justice?” Interestingly, Many people think power is the only thing that really exists. Later, in law school, I trained to be an officer of the court system, which theoretically seeks justice. Interestingly, we never had a single discussion about the subject. We were preparing to win cases and assumed that justice would happen if we all played by the Rules of Civil Procedure. Every so often throughout the years, I would wonder, “Is there anything called ‘justice,’ or is justice the name we give to the opinions of whoever wins in a social or legal conflict?”

This Christmas, our mediations have centered around Isaiah and the verses of a chosen Christmas Carol. Without a doubt, my favorite carol is “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written during the American Civil War, a time that bears some resemblance to our own. Here are the Poet Laruate’s lyrics:

I heard the bells on Christmas day/Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,/ There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”

I thought how, as the day had come,/The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song/ Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

And in despair, I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
[1]

The Carol speaks for many of us this Christmas Season.

Our Innate Sense of Justice

When Kathy and I had children, the subject of justice never came up so long as we had one child, the apple of our eyes and the eyes of her grandparents. Our lucky first child got pretty much whatever she wanted. Then came our second child, and when they got old enough, we would hear one or the other claim, “That is not fair. _____ got more than I did.” By the time we had four children, we heard this complaint a lot. For a time, we tried to be fair about everything, but no matter what we did, someone would think that someone else got a better present, a bigger room, or whatever.

At some point, every parent has experienced the claim that what they are doing is unfair. What interests me about the claim is not whether it is true or false but the fact that children and adults seem to have a kind of natural idea of justice and fairness, and we complain when we are not treated as we believe we deserve or when we feel that we have not received what we deserve. In other words, the idea of justice seems to be an innate part of human nature.

The Jewish People and Injustice

Humans do not necessarily agree about what justice is, but we long for justice. We want ourselves, our people, our family, our religion, and our friends to be treated fairly. People have always had such a longing. On the other hand, injustice is a fact of human existence. The Jews had a heightened sense of injustice. The history of the Jewish people is filled with instances of great injustice. After being invited to enter Egypt, they were enslaved for over 400 years. After they escaped that captivity, they were frequently attacked by neighboring tribes and nations. After the kingdom of David was divided, the ten northern tribes were subjected to dispersion and terrible treatment by the Assyrians. After Judea was captured, it was subjected to captivity by the Babylonians. The Greeks and Romans mistreated the Jews. Throughout history, anti-Semitism has been a terrible problem. The Jews have been mistreated in the 20th century, especially in Germany under Hitler. Today, we see the reemergence of anti-Semitism in the West, even in our own country.

Isaiah and the Just King

The prophet Isaiah longed for a just society. One central theme of Isaiah is the theme of justice and injustice. Isaiah believed that the punishment of God was coming upon Judah partially because of social injustice (See Isaiah 1:21 and 59:4-8). Repeatedly, the prophet speaks of the injustice of Jewish society. Here is a vision from Isaiah:

See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear. No longer will the fool be called noble nor the scoundrel be highly respected. For fools speak folly, their hearts are bent on evil: They practice ungodliness and spread error concerning the Lord; the hungry they leave empty, and from the thirsty they withhold water. Scoundrels use wicked methods, they make up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just. But the noble make noble plans, and by noble deeds, they stand (Isaiah 32:1-8).

A Cold and Unjust World.

Several years ago, the Christmas theme came from movies made from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia novels. [2] In the first book, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie are magically transported into the world of Narnia. It turns out that Narnia is ruled by an evil witch who has arranged for Narnia to be frozen in winter. It is always winter and never spring, and Christmas never comes. The witch is cruel and powerful, and her magic wand immediately freezes everyone who opposes her. There is no justice in Narnia.

Of course, Narnia is meant to be a magical rendition of the Planet Earth. Just as Narnia is under the rule of the White Witch, our world is often under the domination of evil rulers, including that spiritual reality or person we sometimes call “Satan.” Just as the White Witch has made Narnia a cold place, our world is not as intended. Just as there is no justice in Narnia, there is a lot of injustice in our world. There is social injustice, racial injustice, prejudice against all sorts of people, including Christians and Jews, laws that discriminate, judges that do not do justice, and a host of other kinds of injustices. We  easily join the poet in saying, “there is no peace on earth.” None of this makes God happy.

The same thing was true in the time of Isaiah. Here is how he describes his day and time:

No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments; they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched. Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their deeds are evil, and acts of violence are in their hands. Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. They pursue malicious schemes; acts of violence mark their ways. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths (Isaiah 59:4-8).

The situation, as Isaiah saw it, was just as complex as the situation we sometimes see around us. And, just as our own prophets foresee trouble if we do not change our national ways, Isaiah predicted suffering if the Jews did not change their national behavior. Sin, it seems, has consequences—something we sometimes forget.

The World We Long For.

In the Narnia books, the true King of Narnia, Aslan—a Christ figure—is coming. One indication that Aslan is coming is that the long Narnia winter is ending, and Spring is finally coming. Even Santa Claus appears to give the children gifts before Spring arrives. In Isaiah, the prophet also uses an image of nature being changed because of what the Messiah will do when he comes as a symbol of the spiritual healing of the land of his people. In Isaiah 11, after speaking of the supernatural justice of the expected Anointed One, the prophet has the following vision:

Righteousness will be his belt, and faithfulness will be the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11: 5-9).

The idea is that nature is impacted by justice and injustice. Human beings and human life are changed for the better when we seek justice and live peacefully with others. [3]

Whether or not we visualize the future in poetic terms, we all long for a just world and believe that a just and peaceful world would be happier than the world we live in. Unfortunately, almost all of us also desire our injustice to remain in that world. We want the injustice that impacts us removed, but we do not feel so strongly about the injustice we inflict on others. God will not have it this way. God wants to get rid of all injustice, the injustice of the rich and the poor, of the powerful and the powerless, of the insiders and the outsiders. God desires a perfectly just world.

The Work We Do in the Meantime.

Of course, we will not have a perfect world, at least not for the foreseeable future. This world will always be imperfect. Just as the Bible gives us a humanly unreachable standard for leadership, the Bible also gives us an unattainable standard for justice. We are not God, and we are not gods and goddesses. Therefore, we will never have a perfectly just world or society on this earth. This does not mean we should not work towards one.

Not so many years ago, Kathy and I had the opportunity to meet the singer Sarah Groves. She sang for a retreat we were on. I learned that she donates a bit of her time to an organization called “International Justice Mission” or “IJM.” IJM is an international justice mission dedicated to eradicating slavery worldwide. We do not like to think about it, but there are more slaves today than ever before in history. In particular, many women are essentially enslaved in the prostitution industry. Some of these women are kidnapped, drugged, and sold into the trade. In poorer countries, families may sell one member into slavery to provide for the rest of the family. IJM attempts to expose, halt, and assist in the prosecution of this kind of slavery.

One of our elders and a few others visited Thailand to visit a mission for such women. They had a week or so of helping and learning about this serious problem. Kathy has been involved with Casa Mami, an orphanage in Mexico. At least some girls Casa Mami helps would otherwise be on the streets of Reynosa and other cities. We help in a lot of ways.

I do not want to continue to go on and on with examples. Instead, I want to point out some things we can all do to bring peace and justice into the world as we await the time in which God will act to bring justice in the form of  a “New Heaven and New Earth.” Each of us, in our hearts, knows of some area in which there is an injustice that we would like to overcome or help others to overcome. None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something. Here are some ideas:

  • Invite the Risen Lord into the situation. We can pray that God will intervene and that God’s wisdom and love will come into situations of injustice.
  • Resist the temptation to defeatism and negativity. It is easy to complain. It is hard to do something positive.
  • Study the Bible and the specific injustice you are interested in. Gaining a Godly perspective and a worldly understanding is a part of learning to overcome injustice.
  • Act. A true disciple of Christ worships God, grows in Christ-likeness, and serves others as three pegs of the Christian life. Doing something is important.
  • Be patient. No problem, especially no serious one, is quickly or painlessly overcome. We must hang in there.

It is a strength of Christianity that we look forward to God’s help overcoming injustice. We need to hold onto our need for God’s help. Nevertheless, we cannot give up on working for justice because that is what God would have us do in the meantime.

The One Hope We Have.

We cannot be entirely sure of what justice is in this world. We also cannot know completely that our actions are bringing about justice. Often, in liberal churches, sight is lost of the fact that we cannot bring the Kingdom of God upon the earth solely by our actions. Often, in conservative churches, we forget that God has created his church upon the earth to bring a foreshadowing of the kingdom until Christ returns.

The cross is a great reminder that God suffers injustice with everyone who suffers injustice. Christ was arrested unjustly, tried unjustly, and crucified unjustly. God knows and understands the reality and power of injustice. The cross is where the mercy and justice of God meet—and it is a reminder that God is with us when we suffer injustice. The resurrection is a reminder that God will ultimately win over injustice.

Christmas is our reminder that the King has come. Winter may not be over, and it may get colder before Spring, but spring is coming.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” ends with this Word of hope:

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/“God is not dead, nor does He sleep,/ For Christ is here; His Spirit near/ Brings peace on earth, goodwill to men.” [4]

 

This is my final post of 2023. I hope that 2024 will bring an end to this long series of posts on Justice. For whatever it is worth, I also hope that 2024 produces the sequel to Marshland. Merry Christmas Season and a very Happy New Year!

Copyright 2024, G.  Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (I864). This blog is not original, but is based on two sermons I preached at Christmas in my former Church. I am a great fan of the Casting Crowns Version of this hymn, which we sang every year!

[2] The Chronicles of Narnia are published by Harper Trophy, A Division of Harper Collins, New York, New York. The first book in the series is The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

[3] I have more than once noted in the past that we modern people too often discount and fail to recognize the impact of sin on the world we inhabit and its consequences, even upon those with whom we have no direct impact. Just as in the physical world, there can be “spooky action at a distance” in the subatomic world, in the macro world, I am convinced that spiritual realities “act at a distance.” I have seen the phenomena with my own eyes.

[4] “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” previously cited.

Christian wisdom for abundant living