Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Church as God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement

(A rough draft of a chapter from my forthcoming book on Bonhoeffer)

I have argued that Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement captures the DNA of God’s people in scripture and that the Submerging Church captures the form and ethos the church needs today. This image, I argue, provides a compelling icon for the church’s identity and vocation today and setting for scripture to function authoritatively as God’s Word.

I want to offer here a further description of such a community, particularly in light of the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  This is not a model and certainly not a formula for doing church today. It is rather a set of characteristics we might expect to find in all sorts of different forms and configurations where the church embraces and attempts to live out this “general campaign of sabotage” (as C. S. Lewis wonderfully put it) against the disorder of the world.

1.    A prayer movement (DB’s arcane discipline)

a.    “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”[1] Karl Barth 

b.    “Prayer is subversive activity. It involves a more or less act of defiance against any claim by the current regime . . . [As we pray,] slowly but surely, not culture, not family, not government, not job, not even the tyrannous self can stand against the quiet power and creative influence of God’s sovereignty. Every natural tie of family and race, every willed commitment to person and nation is finally subordinated to the rule of God.”[2] Eugene Peterson 

c.    Prayer engenders “common Christian acts . . . sacrificial love, justice, and hope . . . If we develop a sense that sacrificial love, justice, and hope are at the core of our identities—they go to our jobs with us each day, to our families each night—then we are in fact subversive. You have to understand that Christian subversion is nothing flashy. Subversives don’t win battles. All they do is prepare the ground and change the mood just a little bit toward belief and hope, so that when Christ appears, there are people waiting for him.”[3] 

d.    Prayer begets a community of confession of sins one to another. According to DB in Life Together such confession is what makes a church a church.[4] 

2.    A community of cruciform witness (DB’s Church for others; seeing things from below)

a.    “God plants communities amidst the despair and violence of the world that, by their sheer life in Christ, witness to another reality. In the process they disrupt the Symbolic Order (reigning ideologies), birth hope and prepare the way for something new. This is what is made possible in Christ by the Holy Spirit.”[5] 

b.    “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. 'The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared' (Luther).”[6] ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

c.    "Covenantal existence eventuates in a community of uncommon generosity and mercy, a community of fidelity and freedom, a community that is not seduced by [the] absolutism [of fundamentalism] and that is not left unrestrained by [the] autonomy [of liberalism]. It is a congregation of conservative covenanters and liberal covenanters, all of whom are covenanters before they receive other labels. 

"So imagine a community of covenant, set down in a society of usurpatious absolutism and self-indulgent autonomy come to give self away, ready and able to receive more life from those who are unlike us, ready for fidelity that takes the form of freedom that is disciplined, ready for signs and acts and gestures of forgiveness and hospitality and generosity, more ready to support than to judge..."[7] Walter Brueggemann 

d.    "Let not men’s sin dishearten thee: love a man even in his sin, for that love is a likeness of the divine love, and is the summit of love on earth. Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing. If thou love each thing thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once thou perceive this, thou wilt thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it: until thou come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal."[8]  Fyodor Dostoevsky 

e.    This witness is resistant, transgressive, and utopian.[9] (DB’s Seeing from Below) It resists false and alienating ideologies, transgresses unjust laws, boundaries, and taboos, and opens temporary spaces of freedom and celebration (see Pirates’ Temporary Autonomous Zones).

3.    Aim: to infiltrate every community and living space with outposts of God’s SCRM which serve as sign, sacrament, and servant of God’s cruciform rule.

a.    Sign – points beyond itself to God’s coming kingdom and new creation 

b.    Sacrament – provisional experience of that kingdom pointed to 

c.    Servant – enacting further planting of SCRM’s

4.    Multidimensional, local, and tactical (DB’s immersion in all of life)

a.    Focused on neighborhoods and local living situations of the poor and helpless.

b.    Occurs in the closed circle of a committed church fellowship, a dotted circle of extended fellowship (friends, relatives), and a semi-circle of third places in the world where Christians may be guests.[10] David Fitch

c.    This community shares life with its neighbors as a parallel community, embodies a different way of life within that shared life as an alternative community, and sometimes as a critique of their shared life as a counter community. These three aspects, parallel, alternative, and counter, are all features of the community simultaneously with different aspects foregrounded under different circumstances and pressures.

d.    Being subversive means working within the givens of the culture we live in. We have no grand strategy to seize the reins of power and impose “God’s way” on everyone. Rather, in concert with the powerless we do what we can, when we can, as often as we can to “help and serve” (not dominate) them (Bonhoeffer) in finding ways to better themselves. We learn from them the serpentine wisdom (Matt.10:16) the powerless have about finding cracks and loopholes, gaming the system, underground resistance, and similar tactics (de Certeau). It celebrates these typically small but real acts of resistance as signs of the freedom from death granted us in Christ (Stringfellow and the church as circus).

5.    The Violence of Love

a.    “We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.” [11]

b.    Even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the epithets they put on us, we know that we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes, which have turned everything upside down to proclaim blessed the poor, blessed the thirsting for justice, blessed the suffering. (May 11, 1978)[12]

6.    Realism.

a.    Cued by Jesus Christ, who won by losing (in the world’s terms), we to go forth to live, love, serve, and lose (in the world’s terms). It can hardly be other for a people who live by a theology of the cross. Yet, this losing is, in the counter-intuitive reality of God’s kingdom, winning, even if through suffering and death.

b.    Living by the reality of Christ is well exemplified by no less than J. R. R. Tolkien: “Actually I am a Christian and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”[13] A long defeat in the right direction!

That’s at least the core of what I envision as God’s SCRM. Frederick William Schmidt provides an excellent summary:

“Diminutive, small-minded, and timid visions of it will not suffice. We are not called to strawberry festivals and handwringing. We are not called to communities cut off from the world and closed to those around us. We are not called to be the party of the left or the right. We are not the “United Nations-lite” with stained glass language.

“We are called to be the courageous, truthful, risk-taking, loving, forgiving, extravagant expression of the work that was begun, that will be brought to completion, and that is now expressed in the body of Jesus the Christ.”[14]

[1] Attributed to Barth in Kenneth Leech, True Prayer: In Invitation to Christian Spirituality (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1980), 68.
[2] Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is:  Psalms that Summon You from Self to Community (Downer Grove IL: InterVarsity Press
[3] Rodney Clapp, foreward to Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction
[4] DBWE 5:2423-2578.
[5] David Fitch, Facebook, 11.29.16.
[6] DBWE 5: 674.
[7] Brueggemann, 2011, 33.
[8] The Brother Karamazov, ch.41.
[9] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
[10] David Fitch, Faithful Presence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).
[12] Ibid.
[13] Carpenter, Humphrey; Tolkien, Christopher. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Kindle Location 5443). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
[14] Frederick William Schmidt, “Let Us Be the Church,” FB 6.28.17

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