I’m re-reading Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (1981).
I’m working on a writing project and am thinking about the connections between the narrative of the Christian story and the love ethic within Christian community. In other words, if humans are story-formed people, how does the particular story of the Gospel shape the ethics and aspirations of followers of Jesus? Where and how does love fit in?
As usual Hauerwas is on the money. Note in the quote below how he connects the cross, discipleship, community and the Gospels. Christians share in Christ’s story – a story of love and self-giving. Such a calling is not to power, coercion or violence. Nor it is motivated by fear and protective self-interest. Nor does it imagine it can or should seek to control the world.
We need Hauerwas more than ever these days. While Trump is no longer President and has again been acquitted by the Senate, forces of Christian nationalism are on the rise. The erection of a cross outside the Capitol on January 6 during a violent and deadly assault represented an idolatrous rejection of the way of Jesus. The symbolism was unambiguous – God blesses our political objectives; God blesses our violence; God blesses our version of America. God’s way of the cross is subverted, the cross instead becomes a weapon of war. God blesses our ‘politics of purity’ by which we are going to ‘cleanse’ America from all who (we believe) are defiling the nation’s God-given calling. This is the politics of exclusion, of fear, of oppression – it belongs to the ‘powers and principalities’ of this age, not to the Kingdom of God.
We’ve seen this before of course. The cross used as a symbol of Empire, a battle standard in Christendom’s wars with Islam. We had our own version here in Ireland with Padraig Pearse’s Easter Rising in 1916 and in Protestant versions of ‘For God and Ulster’. America has long had a corrosive strand of religious nationalism where God’s blessing is routinely invoked on its special destiny as the nation of ‘freedom’. What’s happening now is this form of religious nationalism is ‘heating up’, the fires stoked by Trump – ironically someone for whom ‘Christianity’ is little more than a useful symbol to use for his own political self-interest. Once the fires have been lit, ‘hot’ nationalisms are hard to put out. (Which is why it is Bible-believing devout evangelicals enablers of Trump like Kayleigh McEnany who I think are most culpable).
To be a disciple is to be part of a new community, a new polity, which is formed on Jesus’ obedience to the cross. The constitutions of this new polity are the Gospels. The Gospels are not just the depiction of a man, but they are manuals for the training necessary to be part of the new community. To be a disciple means to share Christ’s story, to participate in the reality of God’s rule.
I have tried to suggest that such a rule is more than the claim that God is Lord of this world. It is the creation of a “world” through a story that teaches us how such a rule is constituted. Christians learn the power of this rule by loving as God has loved through Jesus’ life. That is, they love their “enemies, and do good and lend without expecting return” for, if they do, their “reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and selfish. Be merciful, even as your father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).
It is through such love that Christians learn that they are to serve as he served. Such service is not an end in itself, but reflects the Kingdom into which Christians have been drawn. This means that Christians insist on service which may appear ineffective to the world. For the service that Christians are called upon to provide does not have as its aim to make the world better, but to demonstrate that Jesus has made possible a new world, a new social order.
The death of George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police responding to an alleged minor breach of the law, has revealed, once again, the deep racial fractures that divide America. Cities are under curfew and the police, equipped like an army, look like they are prepared for war with their fellow citizens.
Sin tends to be trivialised and individualised in ‘advanced’ Western culture. It’s a naughty desire that you secretly deserve to have fulfilled; it’s the self-indulgence of having too much cream with your strawberries; or, getting more serious, it’s using privilege and power to shame opponents on Twitter.
Christian theology has a lot to say about sin and its seriousness – and that’s why Christian theology also has a lot to say about racism and violence.
What follows are some theological reflections on what has been happening over the last week. I’m talking about America not because the US somehow has a corner on sin (we are all pretty good at being ‘original sinners’) or out of some crude anti-Americanism, but because of the events unfolding there raise theological questions for Christians everywhere. I’ve travelled quite extensively in the US, have many American friends and keep up to date with American politics – but I don’t naively claim that I, an outsider from Ireland, can arrogantly pronounce judgments (or solutions) from a distance.
1. Sin is a virus that God will eradicate
If you’ve seen previous posts you will have noticed I’m reading Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics. Chapter 5 is ‘Resurrection and Death’, and in it he says some remarkably relevant things to what is unfolding in the States – on both systemic racism and coronavirus.
From Genesis 3 on, death is inextricably connected to sin. One way of looking at this is death as ‘God’s solution to sin’ (102). In other words, sin is so toxic that God will not allow it to survive. It has a death-by date. Sin has no future, it will be destroyed for good and the new creation is virtually unimaginable to us because it is pretty well impossible to imagine a world without sin and death.
God is a trinity of love and justice, the author of love and peace and joy. Sin – hatred, violence, injustice, exploitation, selfishness, greed and so on – is antithetical to God’s being and good purposes. The two co-exist in the present, but only on a temporary basis. This is the fundamental shape of Christian eschatological hope.
In Galatians 5, this antithesis is pictured as the conflict between the flesh (see ‘the present evil age’ 1:4) and the age of the Spirit. They are utterly opposed to one another. Those who belong to the realm of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God.
So Campbell says this
“God absolutely refuses to give life to a cosmos that is contaminated with sin. Its existence must end. Death is God’s judgment on things that have been contaminated by sin. It is the refusal to give life to those things that have turned from life to evil …” 103.
Paul’s Jewish understanding of sin took seriously its deadly effects. Sin contaminates and much temple ritual is about purity and cleansing offending pollution. It is not to be allowed to spread. It must be atoned for and repented from.
We moderns who laugh at the outdated notion of sin should take pause. The Covid-19 crisis is a graphic picture of how sin works. God’s response to sin is like human response to a deadly virus (Campbell wrote this before Covid-19 – talk about a prescient illustration). Drastic measures are needed to contain it – and one day eradicate it from the world.
And in just this sense, God is implacably committed to the containment of sin within this world and this age, and to its ultimate termination, in death. The crippling and deadly virus of sin cannot be allowed to spread. Indeed, we are fortunate that God is so resolute in this opposition to something that we tend to treat rather too lightly. (103)
2. We are all under the power of sin – and all of us face death
One of the many myths of modern capitalism is that individuals can exist in a nice consumer bubble, having their dreams and wishes fulfilled with no cost to the planet and in complete detachment from the anonymous and distant people who made those designer jeans somewhere far away and who may, or may not, be working in a sweatshop.
Likewise, some myths about sin insulate us from its reality in a comforting cocoon of private piety.
(i) it does not exist
(ii) if it does exist, it is little more than a euphemism for a poor personal choice that we will regret
(iii) or perhaps if you are a Christian, sin is a wrong action or attitude for which we need confess to God and repent from.
While (iii) is partially true, it fails to take seriously the power and systemic reach of sin. Every one of us is implicated in it. Every one of us is under its power. Every one of us faces death as a result.
What is happening in America shows that sin is real, powerful, destructive and deadly. It is not a myth or a primitive outdated idea. People who experience systemic injustice on an everyday basis know this first-hand.
And those who don’t have this everyday experience (generally those with White privilege) tend to resist systemic analysis of sin – they tend to limit sin to the individual sphere.
In contrast to this, listen to what Campbell says about sin – and I agree with him completely
Sin extends all the way across and all the way down. We are saturated with it – soaked in it. (104)
3. Racism is one form of sin: it has a long history in America and has spread for generations, deeply contaminating American public life
The diagnosis of sin as a virus reminds us that it’s highly infectious; it spreads death and once unleashed, it can’t easily be reined-in again.
Racism is inextricably connected to slavery; it is in other words a sin with a long history. It’s one of the great sins of the modern era, perpetrated by White colonial powers to prop up their expanding global economies.
You don’t need to be an expert on the history of slavery and race relations in the US (and I make no claim to be) to know that this original ‘great sin’ has shaped American history in all sorts of destructive ways and poisoned public life. (Again, this is not limited to America but takes a very particular form in the US).
4. The calling of the church of Jesus Christ is to bear witness to ‘death of sin’ in the present
The only ‘solution’ to the problem of sin for each one of us is to die – and somehow come out the other side of death, free of the power of sin. This is precisely what the good news of the gospel announces has happened. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has atoned for sin and defeated death. In this sense, sin has been quarantined – dealt with for good.
But here is one of the New Testament’s most surprising twists – this quarantining of sin and death is not only in the future. The future has already arrived. Believers are already ‘raised’ to new life through the Spirit; they are already ‘new creations’. This is technically called ‘inaugurated eschatology’ and is everywhere in Paul and the other writers of the NT.
If those ‘in Christ’ share in his resurrection life now, then the mission of the church is to bear witness to this reality. By its life, words and deeds, the church is to embody an alternative politics to that of the world. A politics of peace; justice; love; joy; of a self-giving community, transcending all racial and ethnic distinctions; of sharing burdens and resources; of together being conformed to the image of her Lord.
All while awaiting in hope the ‘Day of the Lord’, God’s final defeat of sin, death and all powers that oppose his good purposes, resurrection and the launch of his new creation.
5. Particular challenges for the church in America
If the above is the case – and I think this is a fair description of what orthodox Christianity believes – then this means at least three things for brothers and sisters in America, particularly predominantly White churches.
Again I offer these as observations, simply as a Christian looking on with grief at the suffering, pain and injustice experienced by so many black men and women – many of them brothers and sisters in Christ.
1. The primary calling for brothers and sisters in America is to embody a different story to the story of racial division, hatred, violence, suspicion and fear that is tearing the country apart. The church is to be a ‘window’ into God’s new creation, not a mirror reflecting back the sins of the world.
2. The first response then is not ‘outward’, locating fault in others, it is inward, involving difficult and searching self-critical reflection:
– How in our own contexts, can we actively seek to be agents of love, hope, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation in a broken and divided world?
– Where do we need to acknowledge our failures to act – especially where our ‘Whiteness’ has insulated us from the realities of the sin of racism?
– Where have we mirrored the world?
– Where have we failed to be communities where all are one in Christ, of equal worth and standing in God’s kingdom – regardless of skin colour, qualifications, nationality, gender, social status and where you live?
– How can we take steps to become such communities?
– Where have we mirrored the fears of our culture and its frequent trust in force and violence as a means to ‘solve’ issues of difference?
– How can we build understanding and listen to the experiences of brother and sisters who are suffering daily because of the colour of their skin?
3. Only from such self-reflection, might steps become clear as to what acting for justice might look like locally and nationally. But the primary calling of the church is to be the church, not to be a political lobby group to fix the world.
So how does a kingdom-shaped approach
to the world work out in the political sphere?
To try to answer this, I’m continuing to engage with John Nugent’s The Endangered Gospel: how fixing the world is killing the Church.
part of his book deals with applied theology – what does a kingdom-centred view
look like in practice across themes like discipleship, leadership, fellowship,
family, friendship, vocation (work), mission and politics.
So we are only engaging with the last of these, and again I’d recommend the book if you want to read about the others
1. To Recap
kingdom of God, the church is called to be the better place within the world
rather than, mistakenly, to attempt to make the world a better place. The
church is a ‘showcase’ for justice (p. 166) rather
than an organisation that demands justice from the world.
is a gift, it is God’s initiative all the way down.
“Our job is to embrace the gift, display it, and proclaim its availability to others.” p. 166.
This where Anabaptism gets accused of quietism, an inward-looking withdrawal from the injustice and pain of the world. (As far I can see Nugent never uses the word ‘Anabaptist’ in the book, but it is clear where he is coming from).
It is a vision of world-involvement – just not one that believes it is the job of the church to attempt to shape society to its beliefs, even if it could. It is not about trying to pull levers of power in order to protect or advance the kingdom.
2. The Temptation of Christendom
modern period, the state has become humanity’s most potent form of
organisational control. It governs the affairs of a particular group of people
within a national boundary. It commands the right to use force to do so. It has
at its disposal the ability to tax its citizens, and has forces like the law,
the police, the army to rule and (hopefully) protect its citizens. These are considerable powers – there are no
greater human powers in our world. It is for good reason that many states are
feared by their citizens when such power is misused.
So there is good reason why we are
obsessed with the drama that is Brexit – it has sucked in the most powerful national institutions
of the UK, Ireland and Europe into a morass from which, three years in, only
promises to deepen in the years ahead – whatever Boris Johnston says about
‘getting it done’.
Christendom temptation for the church was to look upon such power and believe
that if the right people (Christians, the church, politicians sharing some
Christian values) were in power, then that power could be used to do
And so the
church moved into partnership with the state – a marriage of convenience in
which the state also benefitted from having ‘God on our side’ to legitimise and
validate the state and its policies.
That way lies corruption of the church. It naively imagines that Christians, who are fallen human beings, will somehow be able to harness the power of the state for ‘pure’ ends. In Ireland we don’t have to look far to see how well that’s worked out.
3. The Kingdom of God versus the State
temptation can’t be squared with the New Testament. Nugent has a compelling
series of contrasts between the kingdom of God in the NT and the state. These
are just some of them and I have organised them in table form. (The wording are
quotes from Nugent pp. 184-85).
KINGDOM OF GOD
God’s kingdom takes precedence over
all other loyalties
The state asks for allegiance and a willingness to kill and die for it
God’s kingdom flees from and repents
The state tolerates most forms of
immorality that don’t immediately hurt others
God’s kingdom shows equality to all
The state discriminates against
citizens of other states, especially those with significantly different
God’s kingdom loves without partiality
The state favors the wealthy and
God’s kingdom seeks peace in all
The state wages war whenever it’s
politically and economically expedient
God’s kingdom welcomes the undeserving
The state considers them a problem to
be dealt with and protected against
God’s kingdom assimilates the poor
more easily than the wealthy
The state esteems the accumulation of
wealth and property as one of the highest ideals
God’s kingdom infiltrates the entire
The state is concerned primarily with
its own territory and invests elsewhere only where positive returns are
God’s kingdom is guided by God’s
The state does not understand God’s
Spirit and is guided by the power of the air and the spirit of disobedience
God’s kingdom triumphs over
persecution, bondage, suffering and death
The state perpetrates these atrocities
when individuals and groups stand in its way
God’s kingdom raises people to eternal
The state focuses exclusively on this
God’s kingdom entails a restoration of
The state exploits the earth’s
resources as much as public opinion will allow
God’s kingdom judges all powers and
personalities counter to God’s kingdom
The state is one of these powers and
is destined for divine judgment
put in all Nugent’s contrasts and I am sure nuances of some can be debated. Nor
does this mean that the state does not have many positive functions. But the
overall point, I think, is unassailable: God’s
kingdom is of a fundamentally different character and nature to that of the
that disciples are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is
God’s. This saying can be paralleled
with his statement that disciples cannot serve both God and money. Both
examples illustrate that disciples have one master to whom they are to be
The Bible has a word for when God’s people commit their allegiance to anything alongside or above God – idolatry.
4. What then is a Christian attitude to the state?
Distance and Belonging
Now this may all sound like I’m advocating a hostile rejection of the state. Things are not so simple.
Maybe this image will help. In my book on evangelicalism and politics in Northern Ireland, I used the idea of ‘Distance and Belonging’ to describe a Christian attitude to the culture in which they live. This was developed from Miroslav Volf’s brilliant Exclusion and Embrace. It captures how Christians are to have a dual approach to their culture – of which the state is one expression.
has valuable God-given role, if one that is temporary and belonging to an old order
which is passing away. The state is about ‘this world’, and a healthy state
does a good job in organising practical aspects of life for its citizens –
healthcare, local government, infrastructure, providing stability and justice and
In this sense
Christians ‘belong’ to the particular state in which they happen to live and
recognise its God-given role. They should be praying for the state, especially
that its considerable power is used for the good of all its citizens and not
twisted to serve the agendas of the powerful.
At a local level, churches will be positively
impacting wider society through good citizenship. This is influencing the world
from the ‘bottom up’ rather than trying to control it from the ‘top down’.
Nugent gives some examples:
those in need within and around the local church. It was in meeting such needs
rather than waiting for the state that the church was instrumental in starting
hospitals and schools.
fellow citizens of the kingdom financially afloat and being less of a drain on
good citizens and employees in paying taxes, working, helping others and
generally contributing to the common good.
this sense the church exists for the
“This is part of what it means to be salt, light and leaven. We do what we do because God has called us to it. We serve with the bottom-up power that Christ has infused in us, and we trust in God to grow the seeds that we plant.” (p. 189).
But, as I
read the NT, its emphasis is more on ‘distance’
than belonging. Nugent calls this ‘respectful disentanglement’ (p. 186).
is required in that, as we have just unpacked, the depth of the differences
should mean that Christians have a profound caution about the state, especially
the Christendom temptation to use the power and resources of the state to
advance the kingdom of God.
means that Christians are simply not convinced by the false promises of the
state to deliver a future utopia. They belong to a different narrative – the
unfolding story of God’s kingdom with Jesus as ruling King. It creates a
different community to that of the state, organised by different values and
shaped by a different eschatological goal.
We see distance at work in the NT in
its overwhelming disregard for the
power and relevance of the Roman empire.
For example, New Testament scholar
John Barclay has convincingly argued that what is remarkable is just how insignificant the Roman Empire is in the
thinking of Paul (Pauline Churches and
Diaspora Jews, 2016). For the first Christians, the might of Rome was
simply not relevant to kingdom life within the community of the people of God. The
politics of Empire pale into insignificance compared to presence of God made
manifest in the world through his Son Jesus Christ and the gift of the Spirit
who forms the new community of the king.
We see this in 1 Peter which most
explicitly describes the pilgrim, exilic calling of the church in the world.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:9-12)
In this vein Scot McKnight argues that
the church is to be an ‘alternative politic’ to the politics of the world by
being ‘a witness to the world of a new worship, a new law, a new king, a new
social order, a new peace, a new justice, a new economics, and a new way of
life’ (Kingdom Conspiracy, p. 101).
This means that the church’s calling
is not to get entangled in the ‘top-down’ power politics of the world, as if it
is the key to making this world a better place. Creating ‘distance’ means that
Christians can bear witness from the ‘bottom up’ to a different kingdom that is
present here and now within the world, and which will, one day, come in full.
It also means, the church should expect opposition from the state when there is a clash of kingdoms. After all, Christians follow a Messiah who was crucified by the state.
5. Back to Brexit
brings us (finally!) back to Brexit.
those who belong to a different kingdom to respond to the political dramas, Machiavellian
plots, lies, fears, power-plays and complexity motives behind Brexit?
some thoughts shaped around distance and belonging .. and these are very much
an ongoing thought experiment, so please to feel welcome to add your own to the
‘Distance’ means a healthy detachment and scepticism about the rhetoric and promises of Brexit. It means to trust in a very different kingdom.
1. Disbelief in empty promises
centres of Westminster, Dublin, Brussels (and Washington, Bejing or Moscow for
that matter) are not where the future of the world will be decided. That future
is already decided in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who is the risen
like Boris Johnston, Leo Varadkar, Jeremy Corbyn, Jean Claude Juncker et al do not rule the world – thank God!
If Brexit has shown us anything, it has revealed the powerlessness of
politicians to deliver on grand promises of making the world a better place. I
have lost count of the number of empty promises made about Brexit.
Those in power tend to believe their own hype that history revolves around them. It does not. As Nugent comments, this does not mean their rule is a complete sham, “but they control a diminishing realm with little future” (p. 190). Political power is on loan from God, it has limited power for a limited time.
2. Humble confidence rather than apocalyptic fears
also been surrounded by apocalyptic language of a dark future.
On the pro-Brexit side, the future of the British state rests
on a great reversal; liberation from the clutches of the EU that would lead to
a utopian future in which control of borders would be regained, true British identity
‘restored’ and economic sovereignty reclaimed. This is a sort of ‘salvation
narrative’ and would be a source of amusement if it was not so passionately
believed. It is doomed to failure – even if a ‘clean’ Brexit were achieved it
will never deliver what its proponents dream of.
On the anti-Brexit side, Brexit itself presages a xenophobic
future of ethnic tension, narrow nationalism and economic stagnation. Defeating
it becomes a mission of decisive significance.
come wrapped in fear and use language of ultimate purpose. Both talk in apocalyptic
terms of what will happen if Brexit goes the wrong way. Both seek to mobilise
their supporters to give their all for the cause.
This means what
side you are on becomes a matter of great significance. Families are divided
and friendships are destroyed.
Citizens of the kingdom of God are
called not be captured by such narratives of fear.
is in someone else, regardless of what European politics gets up to. I don’t say
that glibly. People’s jobs and livelihoods are at stake. Major political
instability may well lead to the break-up of the UK and Northern Ireland could
easily erupt in violence.
church has always had to negotiate a precarious path of faith in Jesus within a
violent and unjust world. Stability, security, comfort and certainty are hardly
descriptions of the life of first Christians. Perhaps we have become so used to
life within a stable Western democracy that we are especially shocked when our
unexamined assumptions are suddenly challenged.
In such a
climate of fear where politics becomes a game of ultimate significance, the Church
needs to be preaching and teaching its message of hope, trust and humble
confidence in God’s future.
I don’t know about you, but it is so easy to fall into the trap of ‘Brexit fear’ – you know those dinner table conversations that descend into gloomy incredulity about the stupidity and unnecessary destructiveness of British politics around Brexit. But fretting about the actions of politicians, their false promises and threats that may or may not materialise is not consistent with faith in a risen Messiah who holds the keys to all our futures.
Belonging: an alternative kingdom within the world
positively, it seems to me that the calling of the church regarding Brexit
looks more like this:
The church cannot and should not try to control or influence Brexit. It is not the church’s remit. Nor is it simple to say Leave or Remain is ‘the’ Christian position. As I said in the first post in this series, whether you agree with them or not Christian arguments can be made both ways for Leave and Remain.
The church’s calling is to be a new humanity in the midst of the old order, especially in how the kingdom of God is for all people, regardless of what ethnicity, passport or qualifications they have.
To reflect something of God’s radical impartiality for all, just as Israel was to love and care for the alien and the stranger in her midst because YHWH her God loved them first (Deut 10:18-19). The church recognises no national borders in who can enter the kingdom of God.
To be a place of unity in Christ where political affiliation and national identity is of relatively little importance.
To be kingdom communities that are not primarily concerned for ourselves (our own economic well-being, our own political self-determination, our own security, our own comfort) but in which love ‘spills over’ into our local communities.
To have a global perspective rather than obsessing over Brexit, borders and national identity by praying for, helping and learning from brothers and sisters across the world who are facing far greater threats and fears than we do.
The B word. It didn’t even exist a short while ago and now apparently it’s one of the most spoken words in the English language. It’s pretty well impossible to get through a day without it intruding. And as we approach 31 October that cacophony will rise to a crescendo.
I haven’t said much on this blog about Brexit (in fact I haven’t
had time to say much on this blog full stop). It’s not because I’ve got my head
stuck in the sand and don’t follow the news (I do – rather too much probably,
it is an addictive soap-opera-horror-show on both sides of the Atlantic).
The reality is that it is not obvious how to articulate a ‘Christian’
response to Brexit.
If you were to preach
or teach about Brexit, what would you say?
confidently pronounce judgement that leaving is a disaster or mock the
stupidity of the entire Brexit fiasco sure have plenty of ammunition, but such
responses don’t take us very far apart from maybe feeling better about
ourselves. I freely confess that much of my response to the unfolding ‘debate’ in
London and the catastrophic ‘leadership’ from the Conservative Party from
Cameron, to May to Johnston is a gut reaction to an entitled, arrogant, destructive,
narrow sort of English nationalism that, as an Irish observer, presses every one
of my red buttons. But that isn’t a very good basis for a mature theological reflection!
It is no good misusing the pulpit as a platform for one’s own political
opinions and prejudices.
approach is to step back from partisan politics and issue general appeals
for tolerance and civility in public life and particularly against whipping up
fears for populist political ends. While important in our increasingly fragile
political environment, there is nothing particularly Christian in this. Indeed,
there is little distinctively Christian in most arguments I’ve heard from Christians
and church leaders either for or against Brexit. This isn’t a criticism, just
an observation. The debate revolves around complex issues of economics, national
sovereignty, trade, immigration and law, untangling those is proving to be well-on-nigh-impossible
practically, let alone theologically. Reasoned Christian responses to Brexit tend
to revolve around analysis of such issues and therefore largely mirror
reactions in the media and wider society.
A digression – I’m reminded here of this exchange in between
Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carroll’s, Through
the Looking Glass (p. 364.) A key reason behind the fiasco is that over
three years after the Referendum, no-one is still sure what the word ‘Brexit’
actually means. Different factions fill the word with whatever meaning that
best suits their interests.
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
A third response is to say nothing. Now I have some sympathy with church leaders who have not preached about Brexit (and I have not heard a sermon addressing Brexit – have you?). What do you say, for example, if your congregation in England or Northern Ireland is split down the middle just as the Conservative and Labour parties are?
But saying nothing is inadequate. Like it or not, Brexit has become a defining moment that will shape politics and society in the UK, Ireland and Europe for the foreseeable future. It requires theological engagement, so what follows is some ‘thinking out loud’ towards that goal.
The title of this post asks what is an Anabaptist view of Brexit. As I have often said on this blog over the years, I am an Anabaptist at heart. Researching, writing about and teaching the New Testament only continues to confirm those sympathies. So the next post will try to sketch some principles for thinking about Brexit through an Anabaptist lens.
Built with all the resources available to King Gustavus II Adolphus, this magnificent ship made it about 1800 metres before it toppled over and sank in Stockholm harbour where it lay largely undisturbed for over 300 years.
It was overladen with canons and elaborate carvings celebrating the king’s power and status. No-one dared question the orders to build another row of canons. This was to be the most powerful and intimidating warship on the seas. And it is magnificent to see today. The photograph cannot capture its scale.
No-one was found to blame by the subsequent 17th Century inquiry – funny that.
Some photos showing that ‘religious nationalism’ of ‘God and nation’ is nothing new. And how war, sanctified in the name of God, acts to reinforce national identity and the power of the ruling elite.
I couldn’t help but think of America and this book – but the same dyanmic has been, and continues to be, played out across the globe.
The cross of Christ proclaims that there are few worse heresies than “peace requires war”.
The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.
Hauerwas’ critique of Christian just war theory (eg Reinhold Niebhur) is a defining mark of his public persona – even if his work extends far beyond pacifism and just war. Brock elicits some very interesting responses in this chapter, not least on the actual details of what pacifism might look like in practice for a Christian.
But before we get there, what emerges is Hauerwas’ main concern – to attempt to get followers of a crucified Lord who rejected violence to at least have a major ethical and theological problem with going to war.
Christians belong to a different story to that of the modern nation-state. Theirs is a much older and deeper story; the story of God’s redemptive work in the world through his Son. They belong to his ‘peaceable kingdom’ which has arrived with the coming of the King. We live in the overlap of the ages as people of his kingdom and are called to humility, peacemaking, justice and love.
Hauerwas has tough words for American exceptionalism that has led to the hubris of multiple disastrous and unnecessary wars.
Well I think America hasn’t come to terms with being a genocidal nation, in relationship to Native Americans. We don’t tell that as a part of the story. I don’t think we’ve come to terms, still, with being a slave nation. Basically, we’re caught on the presumption that slavery has been defeated by the Civil War and by later developments that challenged segregation. Martin Luther King won. The radical implications of the fact that you are a slave nation and how to make that part of the story is just very difficult in America. Often I say: if Americans had taken seriously that we were a slave nation, would we be in Iraq and Afghanistan now? The kind of humility that enables the historical acknowledgment that in turn funds a humble posture toward the contemporary world would give you a very different kind of foreign policy than we currently enact. (161)
And later on in a long and detailed discussion he explains his goal this way,
People oftentimes, as I’ve said earlier, ask “What about Hitler? Wouldn’t have you been a soldier in World War II?” I’m sure I would have been. It’s not like the position is saying, “You fought. You didn’t. The one that fought is wrong. The one that didn’t is right.” Those kinds of retrospective judgments do no one any good. The question is not, “Did someone, by being one of Caesar’s Legions become less Christian?” The question is, “What are we to do?” I’m just trying to help us recover why those that fought in Hitler’s Legions might have been better off if Christians had offered them a different life. I’m sure we could have! And what now, do we do, as Christians? I just want Christians to be able to say “no.” They probably won’t do it on just war grounds, but they should be a people who can maintain the kind of critical edge toward the nation- state that helps us keep the war- making potential of those states limited. (174)
I found this helpful. Christian pacifism is a minority pursuit historically. The predictable ‘What about Hitler?’ question is thrown out routinely as an obvious one-line defeater of the impracticability of non-violence. It blithely assumes that there are no other alternatives; it precludes critical analysis of nationalist narratives of war; it stunts the imagination of asking what does it mean to follow Jesus in a violent world; and it all too easily gives a ‘free pass’ to the inevitable unjustpractices of war – since pretty well NO war ever matches up to the idealistic and impractical criteria of Christian Just War Theory.
Brian Brock pushes Hauerwas to spell out what he means in practice it means to be a Christian committed to non-violence. It means a basic unwillingness to kill.
BB I think it will be very helpful to continue to probe a little bit more around the edges of this position. For instance, could a Christian be a law enforcement officer if they had to train on the gun range, shooting at human-shaped targets?
BB: So they couldn’t really be trained on guns?
SH: They couldn’t really be trained on guns. They could be trained on certain kinds of physical response to people threatening violence that would look coercive. A kind of judo? I think that’s pretty interesting; that they learn to use the violence of the attacker against themselves. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
BB: And, as you suggest in that passage, a Christian who was a prison warden or a cop and was in a police force where they were trained for choke holds should quit?
SH: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. No question.
BB: That’s a pretty robust hermeneutic for thinking these things through. But you haven’t really laid it out in this type of detail before. (178)
What do you think of these practical positions?
Towards the end of the chapter the conversation switches to discussion of the revelations that have emerged over the sexual misbehaviour of Hauerwas’s friend and theological mentor John Howard Yoder.
Brock asks a fascinating and disturbing question – how is it that people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Yoder, all deeply committed to peaceful revolution and justice for the disempowered, were all implicated in blatant unjust exploitation of women? They misused their power and prestige over the powerless by ‘cashing in their fame by taking sexual liberties with women.’
Hauerwas has been criticised for too quickly ‘closing the case’ on Yoder’s misdeeds, after a church disciplinary process and failing to acknowledge just how damaging his actions had been. Here, he admits he hadn’t appreciated the ‘violence’ done by Yoder and how that process had not been complete.
But it shows that men have been socialized in ways that are destructive for us and clearly are destructive for women. I myself think that I did not appropriately appreciate the damage that John was doing to women, in terms of my own involvement in that situation, which was clearly on the side. But I don’t think that the disciplinary process was as successful as I thought it had been. (184)
Hauerwas also comments that
SH: It’s called self-deception, isn’t it? I mean, who knows what kind of stories Martin Luther King was telling himself. Yoder had this stupid theory. Gandhi was a Hindu so in terms like this, who am I to speak? I don’t know how to account for them. (185)
I think some more could be said on how to account for King and Yoder’s hypocrisy, self-deception or double-standards as Christian men, but the conversation moves on.
There is a paradox here is there not? On the one hand Christians are called, and enabled, to live a new life, pleasing to God. A life of service, care for others, love, kindness, and covenant obedience to God within an accountable community. As Paul says, we are to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’. Sin is not to be accepted as inevitable.
Yet, on the other hand, Christians should also know better than anyone else, that the heart is deceitful and wicked. Leaders fail – rare is the leader who does not. As people of the cross we should know about the power and presence of sin. As pastors and pilgrims, we should also know people and all their frailties and contradictions.
So, we should be disappointed and surprised by the infidelities and failures of King and Yoder. But not shocked.
Comments, as ever, welcome.
PS there is also a long discussion on gender and sexuality, so I will do a second post on this chapter.
2016 was, in many ways, a brutal, ugly and unsettling sort of year.
This pair of goldfinches visited our garden (I’ll come back to the goldfinches)
2016 was especially unsettling for us in the West, I think, because it was also a year that saw rising threats to the future stability and security of our Western way of life.
In no particular order, some of these threats include (and I am sure you can add your own):
The devastation of Syria – but also within Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere – and its unimaginable associated human cost, have left many looking on feeling both helpless and angry. On top of this, the conflict has exposed the West’s impotence to oust Assad and has hugely bolstered Putin’s influence in the region.
The West continues to reap what was sown by Bush and Blair’s reckless and arrogant invasion of Iraq. Western hubris to imagine that Western democracy could be catalysed in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has been shown to be just that.
Putin’s latest ‘victory’ in Aleppo is part of his agenda of regaining Russian self-respect and influence in the world. Annexing Crimea, partial invasion of Eastern Ukraine, new balances of power with Turkey, cyber-hacking the USA and ruthless crushing of dissent at home – are all part of Putin’s gangsterism and empire-building strategy demonstrating his contempt for the weak West.
European elites seem to have no coherent answer to either the refugee crisis or the very real chance of the break up of the Euro. Italy could enter a fiscal crisis in 2017. Risks to the viability of the Euro appear to be relentlessly rising despite continual firefighting by European policy makers. After years, it is pretty clear that there is neither the political cohesion or creativity to ‘re-imagine’ a different structure for Europe that can actually work.
That scepticism towards Europe as an idea is shared by more and more within Europe. Brexit might be only the first step.
Liberal Westerners are aghast at the potential ending (or at least a serious threats to) of the onward ‘civilising’ march of liberal secular democracy in Europe and the USA. Trump and Putin (and their mutual admiration society) pose the nightmare scenario of the rise of autocratic right-wing nationalism. I mean by this a form of nationalism that goes back to a myth of ‘our origins’ and seeks to ‘recover’ who we ‘truly’ are while simultaneously finding scapegoats blame for the ‘decline of our once great nation’.
The nihilistic brutality of ISIS / Daesh and its sporadic, unpredictable and ruthless violence within European cities is designed not for military victory but to spread fear and catalyse division within the enemy. One desired outcome is to sow seeds of enmity and distrust within European multiculturalist pluralist societies that can grow into ugly plants of xenophobia, racism and exclusion – to undermine Europe from within. So far, quite a lot of progress made on this front.
The fear and uncertainty felt by many in the West today is not because uncertainty, violence, mass immigration and nationalism are new but because they are hitting close to home.
These are some impressionistic descriptions – some may be more accurate than others. The real point is not the detail but a question:
What is a response for a disciple of Jesus to living in times of deep uncertainty?
Some possible responses:
Be consumed by fear at threats to our ‘Western way of life.’
There is an incomparable richness with living in the West – the freedoms and opportunities that we take for granted are all around us. It is an astonishing privilege to live in a culture that has a democratic government (and only partially corrupt form of politics). Heck, even the trains nearly run on time some of the time. These freedoms should be supported and defended as that which gives maximum freedom to most people.
But, Christians should be well aware that these gifts are not guaranteed and are certainly not an indispensable part of being a follower of Jesus. A Christian’s source of identity, security and hope does not derive from living in an unheralded time (historically speaking) of prosperity, political stability and access to infinite information.
So we are not to be people of fear, but of hope. Our ‘salvation’ does not rest on the fortunes of liberal secular democracy. Christians in the West are, after all, called to be NOT good Westerners – whether Irish, American, British or German etc. They ARE called to be faithful disciples of Jesus their Lord.
2. Live by the sword
Up there with ‘love your enemies’, perhaps one of the most ignored teachings of Jesus is that “those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52)
Christians are not to be uncritical supporters of the West or of their particular state. A role of the church (however unpopular) is to call the state to account before God – and take the consequences (ask John the Baptist).
It is the West’s arrogance and militarism that has helped create the disaster of the contemporary Middle East. Rather than respond the catastrophic mess with support for more violence, it is Christians who are called to be peacemakers; people of prayer; compassion; of reconciliation and mercy.
An illustration from the radio this morning: Lyse Doucet is a superb international correspondent for the BBC. She was talking of why she risked her life reporting from Aleppo. Her reply was unescapably moral: it was a privilege to see what was happening and tell the human story of suffering. She recalled her Catholic upbringing and that she had been taught to be ‘my brother’s keeper’. She was there to use her training and experience to help give a voice to those without a voice. Her actions are a fantastic model for Christians. Non-violence is not passive, it is courageous and bold on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. It speaks of risky love at cost to ourselves. It speaks of a radically different narrative to the men of war.
3. Accept the fate of the world
The brilliant atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (with impressive moustache) talked of amor fati – love of fate. By this he meant that we should overcome our weakness of trying to seek salvation or moral perfection in this world. Rather we should grow up and say YES to all that exists; embrace all of life, both its miseries and joys. There is nothing else higher or better than life as it is. It is Christian weakness and illusion to believe that there is – and Nietzsche hated such weakness. He believed in strength and power rather than perverse ideas of pity and compassion.
Nietzsche was absolutely right – if God is dead. For without God all we do face is a pitiless world where the will to power wins out and compassion is mere stupidity (sound familiar re a certain President elect?). Fatalism and power are the responses of faithlessness – quite consistent for an atheist but not exactly an option for a Christian.
4. Hope, compassion and beauty
Rather than 1-3, can I suggest that in a violent and uncertain world, Christians are to be people of hope, compassion and lovers of beauty.
Christian hope rests not in politics or nationalism but on the victory of God won in Christ. In him we have the certainty of resurrection life, forgiveness of sin, new life in the Spirit, a mission give our lives to, a God to love and a church and world to serve. We are to be people who believe in, are shaped by and share good news – whatever the world is doing around us.
That good news includes Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ and to live a kingdom life that is ‘good news to the poor’. God’s people, like OT Israel are to reflect God’s heart for those cast aside by the power structures and politics of the world:
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deut. 10:18-19
As recipients of God’s grace and compassion, we are to share grace and compassion generously with those in need like refugees fleeing from unimaginable violence.
Finally, back to those goldfinches. I like bird watching and think goldfinches are particularly pretty. Now some people I know don’t like birds at all and I think Starlings are frankly evil. So my point is not about birds per se, but beauty.
There is something captivating and transcendent about beauty – maybe for you it is a landscape, a sunset, a person, a poem, a tree, a painting, a crashing wave on a beach or a crafted piece of clothing?
Beauty reminds us that this life, this world, is full of goodness, made by a loving creator. It is to be treasured, savoured, enjoyed and looked after. Since God’s ultimate agenda is renewal and healing of this broken and violent world, Christians are to be life-affirming and world-affirming.
Part of being people of hope is to pause and give thanks for the beauty we see every day. Part of being people of hope is to create beauty with our hands and with our words.
Hope, compassion, beauty: these, I suggest, rather than fear, violence and fatalism, form a Christian framework for approaching 2017.
If the Brexit vote in the UK taught us anything, it is that (very) surprising things can and do happen at election time. Sure it was going to be a close-run thing but the overwhelming consensus was that a Remain vote would fairly comfortably win the day. What was missed was the momentum was with Leave and the rest is (unfolding, messy and chaotic) history.
There are parallels – most have not seriously thought Trump could win, yet he has the momentum entering polling week. It is now more conceivable than ever that Donald J Trump could become the President of the United States of America.
Very thoughtful, non-American Christian commentators like John Stackhouse have argued that a vote for a third party in order to send a message to the main parties or to avoid contamination of voting for two awful candidates is basically a cop-out, ethically and politically.
He may be right. He also says this:
In this election, American friends of mine are supporting Donald Trump. They want above all to see the next president appoint a more conservative Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade and protect Christians from an encroaching political correctness especially on matters of sexuality and bioethics.
They are well aware of Mr. Trump’s manifest deficits and they know that they are taking the longest of political shots by trusting in a man who has (one wants to put this gently in a decidedly un-gentle campaign) no very strong record as a political conservative, a defender of the unborn, or as a keeper of promises.
Still, they reason, Mrs. Clinton will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mr. Trump. And I can respect that.
And Prof Stackhouse adds
Other American friends of mine are supporting Hillary Clinton. They want above all to see an experienced, moderate politician in the White House who will do some things they like and some things they don’t, but will not put much at risk that isn’t already at risk and likely will do some good in the process.
They are well aware of Mrs. Clinton’s deficits, manifest or otherwise, and they know that they are going to have to swallow some bitter pills.
Still, they reason, Mr. Trump will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mrs. Clinton. And I can respect that.
I am not as sanguine about respecting a vote by a Christian for Trump or Clinton within a sort of “equivalence of badness”. I can only see a vote for Trump by a Christian as being a form of reckless irresponsibility.
It is patently obvious that Trump is utterly unqualified to be President. He has none of the virtues required and all of the vices you do not want to see in a person representing one of the greatest experiments in liberal democracy in recent Western history, that has, with many faults, worked.
John Stackhouse is right to say that a Christian voting for Trump is taking ‘the longest of long shots’ that he might – just might – show some integrity and values that could inform policy around political conservatism, defence of the unborn or keeping his election promises. There is little or no evidence Trump is going to do any of these things.
What we do know for sure is: he is a liar and bully; a man without any signs of integrity; who breaks promises; gropes women, admits it, then tries to intimidate and threaten to sue women who says he did; uses his power for selfish ends; who is running of a platform of ugly potentially violent nationalism; inchoate rage; not so incipient racism; and a ‘towering’ vanity that verges towards megalomania.
The idea that, whatever happens on Tuesday, that such a man could get within sight of the White House should be deeply deeply troubling to all who care about America.
I have huge affection for the country. Yes it has manifest flaws, deep inequalities, a history shaped by violence and an addiction to unsustainable ruthless capitalism (and Ryder Cup fans who lack civility). But show me a nation that does not have parallel problems, if on a smaller scale. I live in the Republic of Ireland and we are a tiny little place but do a pretty good job on political corruption, injustice, a history of violence, inequality and a neglect of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.
So this is not American bashing. It is an expression of horror that Christians, and especially well known Christian leaders, can come up with arguments defending the indefensible of voting for Trump.
Again and again in media reports we are told that ‘evangelicals’ are a key support group for Trump. I am not naive enough to believe that this is generally true. Those labelled ‘evangelical’ are likely very nominally connected to that label. Many evangelical Christians I know in the States are most definitely not voting for Trump – they are as appalled by him as others around the world.
But the fact remains that a lot of committed evangelical Christians are supporting Trump. I can only see this as a failure of discipleship – where a combination of loyalty to Republicanism and antipathy to the Democrats ‘trumps’ the bigger and more important moral duty to keep a man like Trump out of power.
And, such Christians may not realise it (but they should), their stance does nothing but harm the wider mission and reputation of the church outside America.
That evangelical Christians – who are called to follow a crucified Messiah and who are to be shaped by love for God, love for neighbour (where the neighbour is an enemy other than us), love for the foreigner, the weak and the vulnerable, who are to be people or peace and reconciliation – are labelled as supporters of a man of hate and division gives Christians a bad name globally.
The first duty of Christians in America is not to America .. it is to act in a way worthy of Jesus Christ and his gospel and for the good of the church catholic. And that means, I suggest, not voting for Donald Trump.
The EU is currently under a concerted attack by an unholy alliance of communists, hardline demagogues and neo-Nazi parties. Right-wing political parties and associations such as PEGIDA in Germany, UKIP in England, the National Front in France, and Geert Wilder’s neo-fascist, Islamophobic Party for Freedom in the Netherlands are on the rise. In Slovakia the ultra-nationalist fascist Marian Kotleba refers to foreigners and refugees as “parasites”. Kotleba, who despises the EU, has recently won a significant regional election in Slovakia. He was head of a banned neo-Nazi party which allegedly celebrates Adolf Hitler’s birthday and looks back nostalgically on the Nazi puppet state that ruled Slovakia during World War II.
I’m now afraid that these extremists are winning and that those of us who believe in solidarity, peace and reconciliation among the nations are going to lose. We are about to enter a new age in which nationalism triumphs over solidarity.
We might think that we are now living in a civilised world and that we can take peace for granted, but this would be a huge mistake. The EU does not get the credit it deserves for preserving peace among nations that for centuries before had been cutting each others’ throats.
I do not believe that the EU is free from the seduction of anti-Christian forces. But in the light of its role in facilitating peace and reconciliation in Europe, I would tentatively argue the EU was established in the providence of the “God of peace” in order to promote peace, security and the general welfare of the world. The EU offers a model of international solidarity and a bulwark against xenophobia, nationalism, fascism and racism.
I do feel a Christian obligation to warn of the dire consequences that would ensue from a Brexit. Sir Edward Grey said almost exactly 100 years ago: “The lamps are going out all over Europe and we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” I’m afraid there is now a risk that we are about to enter another period of prolonged political and spiritual darkness in Europe.
There is a real danger that politicians are not spiritually equipped to grasp the cultural or geo-political consequences of withdrawing from the EU. Many Christians, too, do not have a proper understanding of the tectonic spiritual shifts that are taking place in the world.
I hope readers will at least consider carefully the case I’ve tried to make about why, from a Christian perspective, it is essential that solidarity and hope prevail over nationalism and fear.
Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?
The lens into these questions for Cohick is Ephesians. She begins by contending that while the sins forgiven aspect of Paul’s gospel has been front and centre, the communal and transformational flip-side of his gospel has been muted within the church.
She summarises the fruit of NPP on Judaism as highlighting how
“a Jew’s faithfulness to God’s law did not earn him or her salvation; rather this obedience represented the correct response to God’s election or call.”
This was a fusion of ethnic, religious, cultural and political identity with Judaism of Paul’s day – expressed in various ways among sects like the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, Sadducees etc. And in this, she argues, Jews were quite typical of other religious identities of the ancient world.
In Ephesians, there is not a contrast between the narrow, ethnocentric, legalistic Jewish identity as opposed to the abstract, neutral and broad Gentile identity. The disaster within Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric is where the ‘Jew’ “who represents the pride and arrogance that plague humanity.” The benefit of the NPP is that it has demonstrated that Jews of the first century were no more arrogant than humanity in general and can’t be used as a foil for the ‘humble’ Christian who accepts God’s grace.
The better way to see things is how Gentiles and Jews both have identities: ethnic, cultural, religious, political. Paul is rejecting Gentile idolatry, but also any Jewish claim that Torah obedience carries special weight and that it should be adopted by Gentiles. Cohick puts it this way:
Paul theologically shifts the doing of the (ritual and cultic) law from a universal mandate for God’s people to a sociological category representing a cultural display expressing Jewish heritage. The Jewish believers continue to practice their heritage but must refrain from insisting that gentile believers within the same community embrace Jewish cultural practices.
Reading Ephesians via a NPP lens, Cohick contends, rightly highlights how the ‘Gentile question’ is the driver behind the letter’s ecclesiology: there is a profound ‘recalibration’ going on about who now are the holy people of God. Gentiles have become recipients of the Spirit. Their inclusion is a sign of the universal ‘power of the cross to make all believers new.’
2:14 is a revolutionary statement in the ancient world – one new humanity, within one body, through the death of the Jewish Messiah (2:16). Both Jews and Gentiles are adopted into God’s family through faith in Christ (1:15) and both remain Jews and Gentiles. This new humanity foreshadows the inheritance to come in the new heavens and earth – a humanity of diversity and unity. The shocking and radical inclusion of the Gentiles is for Paul a deep mystery (3:6).
Until that eschatological new creation, the present age is ruled by powers and authorities opposed to the work of God (2:2)
The gospel challenges the spiritual rulers and principalities that keep their power in part because they separate and destroy; they “build” hatred between peoples rather than tear down dividing walls of hostility. The peace these rulers promote is pacification of the weak by the strong. This is not the peace of Christ, which brings together all members of his body in love.
The response is for God’s people to put on the armour of God – this is apocalyptic language and imagery, but the method of warfare is respect, generosity, forgiveness, faith and so on not aggressive, triumphalistic posturing.
Paul frames his injunctions to practice forgiveness with his conviction that spiritual evil forces rampage about the world, wreaking havoc and su!ering. Humans are victims of such powerful evil. Paul asks the community to put on their “new self” that is fitted for godly behavior that imitates God and walks as Christ walked (Eph. 5:1–2). This new humanity, Jew and gentile, one in Christ, by its very existence declares ultimate victory over sin and death, and life eternal in the new heavens and new earth for all who call upon the name of the Lord.
Cohick offers some interesting observations on the contemporary relevance of the inclusion of the Gentiles is in the ‘nonprivileging of status’ of whatever sort – even that of Western theological traditions, now a minority voice within the global church.
The “we” of the American churches needs the “you” of the global South and the Asian churches. The “we” of Paul and his Jewish compatriots is not a “we” of dominance, of paternalism, of superiority; it is a “we” of chronological experience of God’s revealed truth.
And she expands on this contemporary application
Today in most US churches, it takes daily diligence to resist the siren call of consumerism, nationalism, and individualism and to embrace fewer material goods and more global church identity. Paul’s kinship language would be a good place to start in renewing our minds and thus our practices and pocketbooks. A goal would be an ethnically and racially integrated local church experience, one that does not privilege one ethnic or racial approach over another. A baby step in this direction might be partnerships between currently homogeneous churches within a city. The danger here is that the wealthier church might call the shots or imagine itself as the “senior partner” of the pair. This same temptation exists when an American church partners with a church in the global South. Paul’s call to be one body requires tremendous restraint of will in the relinquishing of control by the dominant group and the intentional empowering of the least of those in its midst.
Ethnic boundaries broken; radically different attitudes between identities forged in opposition to each other; equality and humility as identities are relativised; a new humanity marked by the Spirit, existing as a powerful alternative to the world; peace, unity and shalom – it is this sort of focus and insight that flows from a NPP reading of the text.