Life Together: the Church's Best Response to 'Vitriol' and Violence
In true Christian community, Jesus Christ stands as the middle term, or the mediator, between one person and another. Spiritual love is the continual commendation of Christ, the persistent, humble witnessing to the primacy of Christ's salvation for each other and for the world. This means that our identity as followers of Christ (and as participants in the Church, the mystical body of Christ) takes primacy over all other identities: whether political, social, national, or ideological.
Not long ago, I heard a stirring message by Samuel Rodriguez, President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and outspoken leader on comprehensive immigration reform. His challenge to Christians (and I'm paraphrasing) was that every day, when we look in the mirror, we should see first a follower of Jesus. Our primary identity is Christian; all secondary identities are just that, secondary. And yet, it's necessary to point out that personal identity is complex and intricate. It is impossible to cull out, for example, social, ethnic, and gendered aspects from the religious. In fact, it may be detrimental to ourselves and to our constructive role in society to do so. Avoidance or minimalization of genuine difference is not healthy and can even contribute to the kind of violence we saw in Tucson.
And yet, at the risk of sounding judgmental, too many Christians allow political and ideological differences to trump and disrupt our fundamental unity in Christ. And we too often conflate other concerns, whether ethical or political, with our primary calling as Christians to imitate Christ. Such conflation leads to anger, mistrust, and division among each other. None of us is immune from this tendency. Of course, as Bonhoeffer would surely remind us, following Christ does not take us out of the world but puts us squarely within it. There are, in fact, political and ethical implications to following Christ. No one struggled more than Bonhoeffer with these implications.
Perhaps the difference between Bonhoeffer's approach to the real-world implications of our faith and what characterizes much of our own is in the extent to which we actually struggle with them. When we arrive at conclusions too easily, too quickly, and with too much dogmatic certainty, there may be something wrong. But the quick and certain conclusions are rewarded with public airtime. The public wants to know "your final answer" now. We may, however, be better off struggling with the implications together in the context of life-affirming, other-oriented, Christ-focused community.
Finally, if Christians, who are called to set aside our "selves" (or at least those unredeemed parts of our selves) on behalf of others, cannot do this and thereby live in peace with each other among difference and disagreement, how can we expect the world to do so?
Christians must work at letting the Church become a counter-cultural reality. Not in the sectarian, culture-avoiding sense, but in the likeness of a ship running against the current. We ought to be examples of true, genuine, life-affirming, community. Indeed, we must. Our Lord demands it. I am not so naïve to think that if Christians just start loving each other (and others) better, violence will cease. And yet, too often, giving in to the temptation to employ political rhetoric and join in on public debates in ways that are more conducive to the ‘world's' approach than to genuine Christian community, we have lost sight of our primary calling and of the very best gift we have to give to a broken, disparate, fragmented world. As Peter warned us: "For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God . . ." (1 Pet. 4:17). Bonhoeffer's Life Together gives us a concrete illustration with which to imagine the church's response to vitriol and violence, which too often seems just around the corner.
Kyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Lead Faculty of Christian Thought, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN). He researches and writes on issues related to the intersection of theology, philosophy, and culture. Follow Kyle Roberts' reflections on faith and culture at his blog or via Twitter.