Look at how they love one another!
...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 12:38 PM [+]
Once upon a time, the Christian community was what could only be described as radical such that pagans of that time marveled. Tetullian once quoted a pagan author writing about the early Christians saying "See how they love one another...and how they are ready to die for one another." Clearly, the way in which these believers expressed their faith was altogether unusual for the culture of the time. Thinking about this in today's context, it leads me to consider a number of things: was the culture back then decidedly uncharitable, are the Christians of today uncharitable and lacking the same flame of love, or is something altogether different? Because today, I don't think our culture perceives of Christians as being remarkably or unusually expressive of love for anyone let alone one another.
Now, some would happily lay blame for this at the feet at their perception of evangelicals – particularly the politically active sorts who they would say are more interested in banning all manner of things than in either personal of social transformation, but I think this is too simple an explanation. Many have theorized that over the past two thousand years, the notion of Christian charity and love has become ingrained in nearly all cultures it has ever had contact with, such that even while the religious beliefs have faded, many of the once unique values have not – even to the point of being codified into law. And that codification continues to this very day, but whose true lineage is not really acknowledged.
I think there is truth to this, and so we have to some degree witnessed the triumph of many Christian values, but so slow was the triumph that they are being seen more and more as normative to secular life. And I must pause to wonder if this “triumph” is really a good thing? Or at the very least if it doesn't bear with it a certain negative aspect. First and foremost I wonder if we do anyone any favors in transforming society without any transformation of individuals? Without such, have we really transformed society? But that's not the question I want to ponder at the moment. What I wonder is what role does Christian charity and love play in a society that is more and more actively willing to express secular political charity and "love"? Let me try to iron our my thoughts here...
I've heard debate amongst Christians over the political hot topic of abortion and what will often come up in these arguments is that the Church or other pro-life organizations should spend more time actively assisting women who are having a "crisis" pregnancy, rather than focusing so much on criminalizing abortion. Some make this point because they believe that the political fight is a lost cause, though I personally have a hard time fully giving up on the possibility that at some point down the road, societal values will shift to such an extent that abortion will be largely seen for what it is: murder. So, from my perspective our task in this regard is to change hearts more than laws. However, the argumentative blade which suggests that we ought to DO more and legislate less cuts both ways in the sense that we also ought to seek to DO more for the poor rather than legislate on their behalf.
That said, some of a more utilitarian point of view may suggest that we are far more likely to pass legislation that will provide for the poor than we are to restrict abortion. I don't know if that's true or not, but let me suggest that for every person who votes against abortion and does little to help pregnant women, there is someone who votes for "progressive" values but does little else to help the poor. Now there can be a huge debate about whether big government programs can really help people (or at least *I* think there can be a debate), but there is NO debate about what we as Christians are tasked to do by our Lord.
And I don't believe we EVER fulfill those tasks by the act of filling out and mailing slips of paper to our government in early November. Expressions of such "charity" and love are not at ALL unusual or radical in any way, shape or form - far from it. They are mundane and common, but worse still I think they have begun to be seen as the only real way to effect positive change in society. Well, I think I disagree.
Here, I write principally for my own behalf...I'm "preaching" to myself. If we are to recapture the radical nature of Christianity such as that which led Tertullian's contemporaries to marvel, I think we need to readjust our perceptions and priorities. First, we must understand that it begins IN us, not outside of us. We must allow Christ to transform us. Many protestant denominations believe this happens instantaneously, whereas in the Orthodox tradition we believe it is an eternal progression. But be aware that sometimes we can mistake stagnation as being eternally ongoing transformation.
I think I'm stagnating.
As we are transformed and our minds renewed, I believe there are HUGE areas in everyday life where we can see Christ shining through us and enlightening others - even in the most mundane of daily activities. Even just a minuscule amount of change that looks a little more towards the well-being of others and a little less towards our own well-being. In my own life at home with my children I see hundreds of lost opportunities for this everyday. So, it starts in us, it grows and fills our homes, it rubs off on our children (who will then take it with them into the future), and it also follows us into the world. Look, I can still remember as a non-believer meeting Christians who clearly had something...there was an infectious joy and peace about them and they would allow this to guide their everyday lives. They would go far out of their way to help people and to engage people and to seemingly (at least) care deeply about them. The cynic would claim it was all a facade, but to them I would simply ask: So? What are we if not actors on a stage, wearing our masks? If we do good whether we felt like doing it or not doesn't seem to matter in my mind. We can choose and slowly develop our habits.
As Orthodox Christians, looking at our recognition and honor rightfully paid to the saints, we ought to be able to comprehend the power of transformed lives. Given the VERY rich traditions we have available to us, we ought to be seeing very profound transformation, not stagnation. If we see stagnation I think we should be quick to look inward to find the problem - the stumbling block preventing progress.
Our Lord told us not to look for the Kingdom "out there", but to look for it within ourselves. That's where we need to foster REAL change. People, particularly in the so called "post-modern Christian" movement who are more and more trying to bring "Kingdom values" into the polling place, I think are espousing heresy. Jim Wallis talks about "God's Politics", whereas I really don't think God cares much for politics at all! Some, it would seem are still looking for a messiah who will overthrow Rome and reestablish the throne of David. I don't suggest heresy because of how anyone votes, but because of the idolatry to be found in it. Make no mistake though, the other side of the political spectrum is equally willing to make idols of the political process...I have personally worshiped at both altars which may at once condemn me or give me a right to say something about it - I dunno. Of course, this isn't to say I'm suddenly apolitical...I'm just trying to put it into the proper context in my life which I expect will become more and more difficult as government seemingly continues to become more and more apart of everyday life. (Well, there now I've made a political point haven't I? Sorry)
In my contacts with the secular world, I perceive that people really don't see much point in going to Church and they certainly see no practical use for the Church. Schools, Universities, hospitals, "poor houses" and the like were once upon a time all the domain of Christianity in one form or another. Christianity made such things normative and today these things and other noble ventures are as likely as not official bureaucracies of the state. And I see that more and more people are looking to the state for their needs and as secularization marches on this will only continue: the state replacing the Church as a supposed force for doing good. In no small way, Lenin would be proud.
But, the state can no more manifest REAL love and REAL charity than can a bag of hammers. It can send loaded debit cards in the mail to poor people but it cannot love them. It cannot pass the heavenly spark of personal transformation from itself to a person who may even perhaps have filled out all the proper forms and waited in the correct lines. There is still much that needs to be done that would allow for the world to look at us and marvel at our love for one another, but it begins in this stubborn and selfish heart of mine.
Of course it's not about impressing the world nor is it even about feeding the world. It's about being transformed into the image of God. It's about rebirth. It's about shaking off death and coming out of the blinding tomb. "Come Forth!"
Not sure if there is anything cohesive or intelligent in these rambling thoughts while cruising across Puget Sound this AM.