Continuing here to lay the groundwork for future reflection, opening questions rather than answering them….
Lately I have been musing over something the great Fleming Rutledge wrote a month or so ago: “I don’t like the word ‘practices.’ We have a mighty, implacable, shape-shifting Enemy so we need strategies.”
I agree with this emphasis wholly, except … what if the central practices of the Christian faith themselves constitute a strategy, indeed are the essential strategy? Mightn’t those practices be like the ones that Daniel learns from Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid – seemingly pointless or trivial habits and skills that turn out to be the most important ones to have in a time of great need?
I think this is the point that Lessle Newbigin makes in that essential book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society:
Because Jesus has met and mastered the powers that enslave the world, because he now sits at God’s right hand, and because there has been given to those who believe the gift of a real foretaste, pledge, arrabōn of the kingdom, namely the mighty Spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity, therefore this new reality, this new presence creates a moment of crisis wherever it appears. It provokes questions which call for an answer and which, if the true answer is not accepted, lead to false answers. This happens where there is a community whose members are deeply rooted in Christ as their absolute Lord and Savior. Where there is such a community, there will be a challenge by word and behavior to the ruling powers. As a result there will be conflict and suffering for the Church. Out of that conflict and suffering will arise the questioning which the world puts to the Church. This is why St. Paul in his letters does not find it necessary to urge his readers to be active in evangelism but does find it necessary to warn them against any compromise with the rulers of this age. That is why it was not superiority of the Church’s preaching which finally disarmed the Roman imperial power, but the faithfulness of its martyrs.
The question then is: How to form Christians in such a way that they are capable of undergoing martyrdom? (In any of its forms: red, green, or white.)
I am convinced that this is indeed a matter of cultivating the proper practices – which include words and deeds alike, by the way, or rather speech and writing understood as deeds: as Newbigin goes on to say, the fact that the witness of the martyrs was so exceptionally powerful does not abrogate the need for faithful preaching – indeed, faithful preaching was surely one of the means by which the martyrs were formed: “The central reality is neither word nor act, but the total life of a community enabled by the Spirit to live in Christ, sharing his passion and the power of his resurrection. Both the words and the acts of that community may at any time provide the occasion through which the living Christ challenges the ruling powers. Sometimes it is a word that pierces through layers of custom and opens up a new vision. Sometimes it is a deed which shakes a whole traditional plausibility structure. They mutually reinforce and interpret one another. The words explain the deeds, and the deeds validate the words.”
Preaching and praise, fasting and penitence, reading and serving – all are core practices of the Church. But as Lauren Winner has convincingly and troublingly argued, that may be more complicated than it sounds. More on the difficulties in a later post, I suspect.