Personhood and the Escalation of Conflict. Part 2

How does this apply to missions or ministry?

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”    -Blaise Pascal.

This is a quote worthy of mulling over. Periodically, atheists (or “freethinkers”?) charge all sorts of evil to religion. That is not to say that the irreligious (or the pragmatic) have such a great track record. Delving into the true depths of evil seems to be in the realm of two groups of people:

  • Truly Religious Atheists (“Evildoing should not only be permitted but even should be acknowledged as the most necessary and most intelligent solution for the situation of every godless person!” -View of Father Paissy, character of Dostoyevsky.) A person who truly embraces his own lack of ultimate accountability, can justify nearly any evil. And some do delve these depths.
  • Truly Religious Theists. If morality is based on a divine standard, to believe that one is acting in the name of that standard, some can do the unspeakable with a calm sense of personal righteousness.

Missionaries are certainly at risk of falling into the trap of doing what is wrong in the name of right. That is because they have the following characterisitcs:

1.  Are very religious. While most missionaries I know are not extreme in their religious fervor, they are often encouraged or expected to be intensely “radical” or “extreme” in their religious faith.

2.  Are typically segregated. Missionaries are commonly cross-cultural, meaning they are often foreigners, of a different culture, and of a different religion to those they are ministering to. As such, it is easy, even natural, to have an US versus THEM attitude. After all, many of the locals will look at missionaries as THEM.

3.  May be prone to spiritual militancy. Missionaries are often encouraged to embrace the metaphor of spiritual warfare or “power encounter” by (perhaps) well-meaning missiologists and religious leaders. Often other faiths are demonized, and it is easy to demonize the proponents of such faiths, or see them as willingly acting in league with Satan.

These tend to emphasize conflict. Therefore, there is a tendency to depersonalize. As we depersonalize, we empathize less and become more dedicated to task over people. If we are called to task first, that might be okay. But if the Great Commission is an application of the Great Commandment, our task is FOUNDED on caring more about God AND people, not caring so much about task, or mission.

Of course, there are principles that should mitigate this potential for misdirection:

1.  We are really called to be Christ-like, not Religious. It is not that religion is wrong, but it is inadequate and is prone to abuse. We are to follow Christ’s example. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” connects His ministry with ours.

2.  We are to be Incarnational, not “Segregational.” Paul was to be a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks. Jesus enculturated in the culture, challenging as an insider, not an outsider.

3.  We are given better metaphors, such as servant, rather than warrior. The warfare metaphor has more relevance on a spiritual level or on the level of ideals, “not against flesh and blood.” The full armor of God is mostly defensive, and spiritual, not offensive and physical. Isaiah 53 and Philippians 2 (among others) focus on Jesus as one who came to serve, not to be served. His ministry is made powerful through being a servant, not a warrior.

I am not of the other faiths. If some feel they are at their best in projection of physical power, control, and coersion, I am not one to say otherwise. But Christianity is at its worst with these things. We are at our best as Christians, missionaries, and ministers when we care more about people (BECAUSE we care more about God) than we care about tasks. We are at our best as Christians when we identify ourselves with all people, not being quick to coming up with narrower and narrower designations of who WE are. We are all in this together after all.

We are humans first, more than we are male or female. We are humans first (precious creations designed by God) than we are Christians, or of some nationality, or sect, or race, or cultural designation. Christians are at their best when WE don’t reach out to THEM, because understand that THEY are also US.

We are at our best when we embrace our role as humble servants of Christ, seeking Christ as our model, than when we are radical, extreme, spiritual, religious, or any other description that is focused on tasks, programs, ideas, or missions, rather than people.

Searching for “Radical” Christians and Dynamic Equilibrium

I have seen a lot of articles FB posts, podcasts, and such talking about how people (particularly youth) are supposed to be “radical Christians.” I was originally going to write a cautionary note on this. To me the term “radical” suggests rebellious and reactionary (and noisy and odd). And while there is some truth in this, there is a fair bit of falsehood in this as well. A Christian (radical or otherwise) is supposed to have Jesus Christ as his or her model. Jesus, in many ways, wasn’t all that radical (as “radical” is commonly pictured). He fit into His culture quite well. He looked and dressed the role well (Judas had to identify Him to the authorities… presumably because His appearance was pretty ordinary according to 1st century Judean standards). Additionally, while some of Jesus’ behavior was considered radical to a subset of the people, it was quite ordinary to others (dining with common “sinners” would be seem “radical” to religious leaders but pretty normal for common people).

But then I looked up the word “radical” in the dictionary and realized that, while there are several meanings for the term, two different meanings stand out.

According to The World Book Dictionary (using an older version, 1970), radical means:

  1. Going to the root; fundamental; basic.
  2. Favoring extreme social changes or reforms; extreme.

I believe that when we talk about being a “radical Christian” the first meaning is preeminent. After all, the goal is not to be different or extreme for its own sake. Rather, a Christian should have had a radical change in his or her life… radical here meaning a fundamental, basic, change to their root or core. Being extreme, weird, separatistic, highly pietistic or having any other quality that puts one on the outskirts of one’s cultural setting is not really the point.

To me, the image of this is a ball on a string. If a ball on a string is tethered by that string to a solid point. Consider that point to be the foundation, or tether point. When there is kinetic energy (motion) related to the ball, it will rotate on that tether. There are two equal and opposite forces (ignoring gravity, wind resistance, and such). These are:

  • Centripetal force. This is the force that seeks to constrain the ball and pull it back towards the tether point.
  • Centrifugal force. This is a virtual force (a force derived from the inertial response to the centripetal force). It is resisting the centripetal force and pulling it away from the tether point.

The end result is that ball will move dynamically in a circle around the tether point.

Okay, enough on Physics 101. What does this have to do with being a “radical Christian”?

I believe the REAL Force of being a radical Christian is the centripetal force of Christ. Being radical is about being foundational… and that foundation is Christ. A radical Christian is centered on, empowered, and constrained by Christ.

I believe the VIRTUAL Force of being a radical Christian is the centrifugal force of cultural dissonance. Being Christlike will result in fitting into one’s culture quite nicely in some ways, and being heavily counter-cultural in others. It is a virtual force because we are not told to be odd or different (as a goal unto itself). Rather, we are called upon to be Christlike (the REAL Force). However, being conformed to Christ will typically result in being in conflict with (or being seen as being extreme to) the broader culture in various ways.

In other words (and redundantly reiterating myself again), radical Christianity is empowered by (and has as its goal) Christlikeness. Radical Christianity is not empowered by being “extreme.” Extremeness is simply the result sometimes of seeking Christlikeness over cultural conformity.

What is the result of the balance of these two (real and virtual) forces? Dynamic Equilibrium. A ball on a string that is spinning around has dynamic equilibrium, it is energized by under control. A radical Christian is also energized, but under control (God’s control).

Being radical is not about being noisy, out-of-control, or culturally weird. It is energized faithfulness to Christ impacting the surrounding culture (subversively but with targeted purpose, not reactionary or random).

The “Outline” of Christ

I have often said that if I had not been raised in a Christian family and raised in a Christian church I would never have become a Christian. Now don’t get me wrong, I would not have become a Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Mormon, or anything else either. I doubt I would become a hard-shelled atheist either, for to be one would entail a religious faith that I doubt I would be willing to commit myself to. I would probably have been an open agnostic. I would doubt whether God exists, doubt whether others really knew for sure, but would hope one day to know for sure.

I probably would not have become a Christian because, from the outside, I see:

          -Angry, hypocritical Christians

          -Christians more interested in politics than in those who are suffering

          -Bigotted and anti-intellectual Christians

          -Christians who compartmentalize and rationalize all sorts of foolishness

Because I was raised by godly Christian parents in a church that sought to follow Christ (however inadequately), I could see the good as well as the bad.  Behind the layers of church-ishness (focus on attendance and money, decisions that center on member care, seeming interest in church growth simply for the sake of church growth) one could still see the outline of Christ… one who could be a model and guide worth seeking after.

But in Missions, one is commonly reaching out to people who have no positive experience with Christianity. Some have no experience with Christianity. Others have been soured to Christianity. What are some options?  I don’t know. Here are a few:

1.  Focus on NGOs. (sodality structures, ministry groups). Since churches generally welcome everyone and have a broad ministry range, they tend to have ministry that is somewhat mediocre and people of mixed motives and drive. Groups that are more limited in who are members and are more focused in ministry avoid this problem.

2.   Create “un-churches”. This term simply describes all of the different ways people try to form groups that don’t look like churches. Some may be small groups. Some may be stylistically different from traditional churches. Some may see themselves as a “different kind of church” while others may not describe themselves as churches at all.

3.  Revamped churches. The church stays essentially the same, but makes it look and feel more faddish or friendly to outsiders.

All of these have their place I suppose, but to me it kind of misses the point. The church is commonly not seen as a safe place to question and grow. Discipleship programs tend to focus more on quantity or exhuberance of traditional piety rather than on qualities of Christlikeness and love. Churches seek to pull people out of the community rather than inject them into the community.  Leadership in the church is narrowly focused, usually, based on formal education and certification rather than Christlike qualities and humanity.

It seems to me that it is the character of the Christian that needs to change more than the style of the church. If the character of the Christian allowed people to see the outline of Christ (regardless of how faint that outline might be), the style and structure of the church would not need to be artificially changed. In fact, much of the changes would happen naturally, while other ones would not need to change since they would no longer hinder others from seeing the outline of Christ.

Perhaps I am being naive. But let me tell you this. Our Disaster Response Team is on route to Cagayan de Oro to provide chaplaincy crisis intervention for families of those who died and those who have been relocated due to flooding. They have given up time between Christmas and New Years to do this. Their flight was diverted to Davao due to bad weather. Now they waiting in a van to take the 10 hour drive during the night to Cagayan de Oro, risking foul weather and landslides to do this. This is Christlike behavior. Even though our group is an NGO, it could have been a church or any other type of group. The outline of Christ behind the Christian should not be hard to see regardless.

Also see the following:

Undecided About God

If It’s Broke, Fix It!!

You know the quote… “It it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Although the equivalent is the contraposive (“If you must fix it, it’s broke”), the inverse is important as well. “IF IT’S BROKE, FIX IT!”

I believe that there is an aspect of Christianity that is definitely broke, but it is not its essence. The essence is solid… even divine.  I am reminded of the quote by G. K. Chesterton:

“Christianity has not been tried and

found wanting; it has been found

difficult and not tried.”

G. K. Chesterton, Christian Apologist

Chesterton points out the key point. There is a marked difference between Christianity in its ESSENCE and Christianity in its APPLICATION.

Part of the problem is that Christianity is difficult. Christianity seeks, as its goal, Christ-likeness. Anyone who studied Jesus as He is portrayed in Scripture would see that this is a monumentally difficult thing. Many would argue that short of the work of the Holy Spirit, the quest is hopeless.

The answer over the centuries to work around this has been commonly to produce a Quasi-Christianity. This is done in at least one of three ways (there are, of course, more):

A.  Lower Christ.  This can be done through taking one aspect of Jesus and defining the standard by this lessened Christ.

-Jesus is (only) a teacher

-Jesus is (only) a good person

-Jesus is (only) the sacrificial lamb/ source of forgiveness

-Jesus is (only) a prophet

-Jesus is (only) a transcendent being

-Jesus is (only) a mystic

B.  Replace Christ with an Abstraction. This is similar to the first. Here, Jesus ceases to be a person, but becomes a symbol of a abstract trait.

-We are Christlike if we are loving (regardless of truth, morality, and justice)

-We are Christlike when we adhere to propositional truth (regardless of the rest)

-We are Christlike when we seek moral purity (regardless of the rest)

-We are Christlike when we seek justice (regardless of the rest)

C.  We replace Christ as our standard with something or someone else. These could be:

-Christians seek to achieve virtues of surrounding society

-Christians seek to achieve virtues/standards of church/denomination

-Christians seek to model of saints or spiritual heroes

I think most of us would agree that none of these other standards work very well. We must seek Christ as our standard… as He is, not as we make Him. Much of the world sees Christianity as broke (at least in its application). It’s not surprising that people can’t see the essence if the application is so flawed. Therefore, if it is broke… FIX IT!!