Friday, January 23, 2015

Beyond Pleated Pants and Skinny Jeans: Bonhoeffer to the Rescue

Scot McKnight, in his recent book Kingdom Conspiracy, rehearses the maddeningly familiar dichotomy between evangelism and social justice cleverly naming the former as those who wear Pleated Pants and the latter as the Skinny Jeans set.  I’ve struggled with the dichotomy or tension from the earliest days of my entry into theological study and pastoral work (the early ‘70’s).  I guess I received good teaching and had good mentors for I never felt in myself this tension that was writ large over the evangelicalism from which I came.  In my day they might have been called the Straight Leggers and the Bell Bottoms or something like that.

Somewhere along the way (late ‘80’s – ‘90’s) the idea that God called his people to care for the needy and feed the hungry and protect the widows and orphans seeped into the evangelical awareness.  “Justice” was all the rage for a while – from the conservative to the less conservative end of that spectrum.  Yet here in 20-teens we have the Pleated Pants and Skinny Jeans group live and well and still divided.

I suggest that it is precisely because justice issues have entered evangelicalism as an idea that it has had little impact on the lessening or erasing this dichotomy.  The problem does lie in the realm of ideas (important as they may be) and cannot be resolved that way.

Rather, this problem seems rooted in basic assumption we make or accept unquestioned form our nurture and upbringing.  I think the heart of this problem lies in whether we see ourselves as human beings more like Billiard Balls or more like Molecules.  Our western heritage, and in particular its American expression, strongly molds us into the Billiard Ball model.  We are, like the Billiard Ball, solid, complete, and self-sufficient.  We need nothing or no one else to fulfill our humanity.  And, again like the Billiard Balls, our contacts and connections with one another as we roll around the table are external and instrumental and in no way condition or comprise our humanity.

The model I have called Molecule comes from the Bible and some of the expressions and movements that draw partial inspiration from it (communitarianism, socialism).  In high school chemistry we used styrofoam balls and pipe cleaners to make models of molecules. Yes, I know this dates me!  The balls represented the elements of the molecule and the pipe cleaners the relations and connections between them. Thus, human beings are necessarily related to each other and incomplete without one another.  We could say that human beings are their relationships. We are bound together, all of us, into one large organic whole.  We discover what we today call individuality only in the context of these necessary relationships, never by individual “self-discovery” as we call it today but only through the organic-interrelatedness for the community for which we were created.

Churches malnourished on the Billiard Ball model will always see life and issues as individually-focused and resolved.  Individual change is the answer to these dilemmas.  If only everyone would get a “changed heart” and commit themselves to personal responsibility and had work things would work themselves out.  Thus they support only changes and programs built on such assumptions and disparage the rest (usually as a “victim mentality,” or “big government,” or invasion of privacy or property” or the like).  The forces and dynamics that arise (or perhaps also structure) in our life together and take on an extra-human power (what the Bible calls “the Powers” and sociologists things like “mob rule” where people find themselves doing as and with a group things they would not countenance doing as an individual) are denied or neglected.

 These Christians believe that meeting humanity’s deepest need, hearing the Gospel of God’s love in the form of evangelism, is what they are called by God to do.  An individual’s salvation is the most important matter in his or her lives.  Thus communicating the ideas that tell of this love (The Four Spiritual Laws) is what the church is to primarily care about. Not they don’t care about others, the poor, the needy, etc.  This group of Christians out gives the other group to charitable and caring outreaches and ministries by a good measure!  As I said above, this part of the biblical message has been heard and acted on by these folks (but within the parameters of their governing assumptions about what it means to be human – Billiard Balls)

Molecule churches also give to charitable and caring ministries (though, as noted, not as much as the Billiard Ballers).  But because they recognize the intrinsic inter-connectedness of human beings and, indeed, all things, they also focus their time and energy of the shape of our collective life and well-being, believing that the good of the whole is God’s only final and adequate measure of our efforts.  They are attentive to the political and social reams and realize the necessity of paying attention to the impact these realms have on our communal well-being.  Humanity flourishing as human beings under and in communion with the Lord God is their view of what is finally important to God and should be important to us.  Sharing the news of God’s love with those who have not heard or experienced it is surely a central part of caring for human flourishing but not the sole or only matter to which Christians are to attend.

What we need, it seems, a theology of what it means to be human that expounds all this in an integrated and comprehensive way.  Well, there is one available to us.  It’s the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian, pastor, and martyr to the Nazis, envisions humanity and church in is first dissertation Sanctorum Communio.  In a word (or two!), Bonhoeffer believes that human beings are only who they are in relation to Jesus and, through that relation to him, to one another. Jesus is the Lord of all reality by virtue of his death and resurrection and continues his work in the world through his people.  That work he call Stellvertretung in German.  It basically means that Jesus, through us, bears and bears up the suffering and those who suffer in way that God’s love comes them and transformation can occur. Jesus’ cross (suffering even unto death for others) is the measure of this Stellvertretung; that makes his cross the measure of our discipleship as through us Jesus continues to care and embrace his hurting world. 

To bring people to Jesus, then, the evangelistic concern of the Pleated Pants group, is for the church to come near in solidarity, shared suffering, and hope.  It is through the church, in which “Christ-exists-as-community” (Bonhoeffer), that others experience and come too know Jesus and enjoy fellowship with him and become his disciples.  As this kind of church embraces those around them in all the confusing, contrary, intractable suffering of their actual concrete lives (“reality,” Bonhoeffer calls it), they bring those lives into the presence of Jesus himself to care for them as he will.

Much more could and should be said.  I deal with some it in more detail in my forthcoming book The Incredible Shrinking Gospel:  The Crisis of Evangelism in the 21st Century. But I hope I have said enough here to give a clear sense of how Bonhoeffer’s thinking bridges the gap between the Pleated Pants folks and those who wear Skinny Jeans as well.  All of their concerns are affirmed and highlighted (though the matter of the primacy of individual salvation needs to be worked through) and there I room for all to gather together at the foot of Jesus’ Cross.  Individuality (the legitimate expression of the Bible’s concern for each person) is a gift of the community, while the community is what it is supposed to be (the actual presence of Jesus!) only when the gifts and abilities of each are functioning and honored.  And this can’t be just in the realm of ideas (the evangelical default).  It has to be experienced as we to meet and serve Christ in the concrete realities of need and hurt in our early 21st century world!

As long as we cling to our Billiard Ball and Molecule models of humanity (and thus, church) and do not bring them in conversation and combustion with each other under the guidance of something like the way Bonhoeffer envisions humanity and church, well, a hundred years from now another book will be written lamenting the continuing divide in the church between the successors of the Pleated Pants crowd and those of the Skinny Jeans folk. I wish I would live to see the resolution of this divide.  I do not expect I will, though.  I do hope to see some more progress and movement on it.  And for that I look forward expectantly.


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