In James Hunter’s final essay in “To Change the World”, the author takes his social theory critique and begins a turn towards the theological and the working out of what the church ought to look like if it wants to be an influence in the real world.The reality is that the institutions of our day: be it churches, schools, universities, hospitals, governments, social agencies etc., they all have their roots in authoritative truths with a fixed point of reference. The words surrounding their truths lend confidence to their objectives. The words speak to why they exist and what mission they are continually on. Given enough time, these words become assumptions to the way things are and how things work. They form a bedrock, a foundation in which all the mortar and bricks are built upon. The Enlightenment period in history was a dream of discovering all of these objective truths which in turn would lead us to a society always progressing towards utopia. Hunter, like many others, are pulling back the curtain and saying the Enlightenment dream did not work.
“The Enlightenment’s own quest for certainty resulted not in the discovery of new certainties but rather in a pervasive and astringment skepticisim that questions all, suspects all, distrusts and disbelieves all. Even in the early decades of the seventeenth century, the great poet John Donne wrote presciently of this new age, ‘New philosophy calls all in doubt.’ Marx and Freud made titanic contributions to the project of modern skepticism.” (p. 206-207)
This skepticism has led to dissolution, “the deconstruction of the most basic assumptions about reality.” (p. 203) This dissolution is real and it threatens the viability and survivability of our culture’s institutions. At the very least, the assumptions and the power those institutions once held has been severely diminished. What can the church do given these circumstances? Hunter tells the reader that “defensive against”, “relevance to” and “purity from” are not the answer to the cultural shifts and power systems. What he wants to argue for, is a “faithful presence” or a kind of incarnational shalom to our world. Whatever your context is and wherever your sphere of influence is, enact shalom (the peace of God) there.
“Faithful presence in the world means that Christians are fully present and committed in their spheres of social influence, whatever they may be: their families, neighborhoods, voluntary activities, and places of work.” (p. 247) and “there is no way the old models could ever be sufficient to address the challenges of the present age. What is more, there is a yearning for a different way, especially among the young; a way that has integrity with the historic truths of the faith and the witness of the Spirit and that is adequate to the challenges of the present moment.” (p. 276)
Shalom is us showing up and being church in our day. Not defined by consumerism, individualism or the misuse of power, but by our gospel identity of being formed ‘in Christ’. Shalom is us incarnating the servanthood of Christ in the most challenging issues that our neighbors are facing. Shalom is caring about justice in a world of poverty. Shalom is staying in a place of need when it’s more convenient to leave. Shalom is loving your enemy. Shalom is listening to your critics, being silent under judgment. Shalom is about the other, not you. Shalom is the way out, it is the way of freedom in a world of oppression. Wherever you are, whatever you do . . . shalom.
When an individual or an organization states what they are “for”, are they really just using language and rhetoric for what they are “against”? Continuing on in Hunter’s “To Change the World”, in essay II he brings up the dynamic of Ressentiment.
Ressentiment originates with Nietzsche from the French word where we get the English root of resentment. But it is more than that. Hunter says: “Ressentiment is grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged. The root of this is the sense of entitlement a group holds.” (p. 107)
In the land of American politics this plays itself out with Right-Wing Christians saying that we have lost our way, that what we have now is not the Christian nation our forefathers established. Their ressentiment is that this is a new holy war, to take back what is rightfully theirs that has been hijacked. With Left-Wing Christians, they see the inequality of power and wealth and long for justice. They are done with the zealots of the Right defining what Christian political activism is and want to argue for the “right” way, which is one of a more elite and refined intelligence. Equality and justice over capitalism, they are the voice of the poor that the Right are involved with perpetuated their suffering. Hunter also takes on what he calls the “neo-anabaptists. Those that see all power structures and things of this world as evil and seek to be separatists of it. Their ressentiment leads to a complete uninvolvement in the issues of their day and they find they cannot fully detach themselves from the fabric of the networked institutions they want no involvement with. Ultimately, Hunter would say, their goal is futile. They aren’t detached, they are just acting in ressentiment towards the establishment.The idea of ressentiment is strong social theory. Nothing will get the masses fired up more than a perceived enemy that is aggressively seeking your deterioration. The idea that “they” are out to get us is a powerful one and you can find it on any of the 24/7 news networks, regardless of their leanings.
Hunter states: “The sense of injury is the key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity . . . Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action.” (p. 107-108)
This is a good challenge to me as a passionate irishman. It doesn’t take much for me to get fired up, have an emotional response and retaliate in real or perceived ressentiment. Playing the martyr and dehumanizing our opposition can take the place of real dialogue of the issues and our difference of views. This is the same for the arena of politics, church, education, civil issues, workplace and recreational organizations.My reflection to this issue as a leader is: “Articulate yourself for what you are for, not what you are against.”peace,Marshall
As a part of the doctorate program I’ve started with George Fox University (DMin in Global Missional Leadership), we are reading and discussing a provocative book on how exactly world change happens: James Davison Hunter “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World“. Hunter’s thesis in his first essay is bascially that within traditional Christian thinking, we have fallen hook, line and sinker for a kind of Platonic idealism. That we may “hope” and “dream” about changing the world, but our ideals don’t match up with the reality that is steeped in history. Culture is tangible and real, it does not exist in the mind and in our ideals. Within the evangelical tradition, we have long tended to over-spiritualize our endeavors and under-estimate the reality of power and position.The most challenging part of Hunter’s first essay to me was the idea that culture change has rarely if ever come from the periphery, but always comes from the positions and places of power within culture. I’ve not been silent about the fact for the past 12 years or so that I have intentionally sought the periphery to affect the kind of world change I was desiring. Choosing grassroots over institutional in my form of church, flat leadership vs. hierarchical. Hunter deeply challenged these presuppositions for me in a healthy way. I am not making drastic changes in my doing, but I am continuing my reflection that I need to wrestle with the facts of history and world change if in fact that is my end goal.Hunter speaks to Evangelicalism’s lament over not seeing the change it desires:
“the main reason why Christian believers today (from various communities) have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don’t believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted.” (p. 89).”Christians are absent from the institutions at the center of cutlural production. The cultural capital American Christianity has amassed simply cannot be leveraged where it matters most.” (p. 91)
The Gospel of Jesus is a gospel to the poor, the outcast, the disenfranchised, the imperfect, the weak, the lonely and the unloveables. I don’t read Hunter discounting that. I read Hunter saying that if we deeply care about this gospel, if we think the Kingdom of God is the hope for the world, then we should care about how change happens to these ends. On the flip side is the trappings of power. History can show us as well that power and position corrupts, so how do we buffer ourselves from such temptations and remain in our gospel-identity? Israel had many kings, only 2-3 were good. However, one of them, namingly David was such a powerfully influencing, world-changing King that his influence through his elite position still dominates Juadaism, Christianity and that strip of land on the east bank of the Mediteranean Sea.Elitism can be a trap, but might also elitism be an opportunity for Kingdom world change? I am yet chewing on Hunter’s thesis.peace,Marshall
I was really struck by something Martyn Percy, from Rippon College in Oxforshire, England said last week. He made this statement in his lecture on Practical Theology:
“Humor has a role to play in the mood of a congregation.”
A simple statement but it had me deeply reflecting on the role humor and laughter has played in the past 10 years of Ordinary Community. I can say honestly, it’s been one of our bedrock foundations. Any time the people are gathered, there will be much laughter, even in the midst of suffering. What a gift that is. Laughter is so therapeutic and basic to our experience of being human. Studies show that developmentally, children laugh far before they learn to speak. The expression of joy is a part of our design, we were made to laugh.As well, laughter plays a huge role in the forming of deep and intimate community relationships. Dr. Jeanne Segal, who has done extensive research on this came to these conclusions:
The social benefits of humor and laughterHumor and playful communication strengthen our relationships by triggering positive feelings and fostering emotional connection. When we laugh with one another, a positive bond is created. This bond acts as a strong buffer against stress, disagreements, and disappointment.Laughing with others is more powerful than laughing aloneShared laughter is one of the most effective tools for keeping relationships fresh and exciting. All emotional sharing builds strong and lasting relationship bonds, but sharing laughter and play adds joy, vitality, and resilience. And humor is a powerful and effective way to heal resentments, disagreements, and hurts. Laughter unites people during difficult times.
Joy defines us as the people of God. Happiness is fleeting, it largely depends on our circumstances. But joy is unmoving, it is rooted in the things that never change. It is rooted in our commitment to one another and our security of living a life in a Kingdom that cannot be shaken. We will suffer, of that you can be sure, but we never suffer alone . . . and in that there is joy.
10 He continued, “Go home and prepare a feast, holiday food and drink; and share it with those who don’t have anything: This day is holy to God. Don’t feel bad. The joy of God is your strength!” – Nehemiah 8:10 The Message
Sitting in St. Peter’s church here in London in a Social Media bootcamp for people who care about the voice of the church and how it may be used as a relevant platform for that voice. Dave Merwin has a brilliant mind and a heart for his world and shared his insights with us this morning. Perhaps no other issue challenges to live out the postmodern ministry cliche of “ancient-future” more than this. Is this what the church should be moving toward? Or is this something the church should counter-cultrually transcend and go against? I have a gut-feeling towards both.One of the statements from a gentleman giving a question from the audience said something like, “Jesus would not be personally branding himself if he were here today.” While, I agree, Jesus was quite counter-cutural as well as unassuming in his recorded social interactions. But I am also not sure that he didn’t engage in the kind of information clarification of his day. In particular, the way he was very strategic and careful about the title the general populace referred to him as. Was he the “one”? Was he the “messiah”? Was he the “revolutionary”? Was he a “prophet”? Was he coming to be “King of the Jews”? Jesus care about how he was perceived, over and over again, unassuming as he was, he spoke into these perceptions and argued for his space to clarify. He “branded” himself with the title “Son of man”. He wanted to show that his power was to serve, not to dominate. He wanted to communicate that he was a different kind of “Lord” than Caesar. Others wanted to brand him with their perceptions, “friend of sinners”, “a new kind of teacher”, “blasphemer”, “greater than Moses”, “magician” etc. In his interactions, I observe Jesus branding himself to bring clarity to his person and purpose. His attempts were to brand himself for clarity and for purpose.The other side of social media is the manic nature of constant noise and exponential interactions. It is quiet easy to ask the questions of humility, purpose, busyness, participation with the world’s rythymns, a panic pace, relationship with stuff over people, an inherent narcissism where the world is revolving around me and frankly just too much output where there is not quality, just quantity. Earlier I tweeted a bit of this quote from Henri Nouwen:
“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure”
Should we be putting out more noise, or should we be teaching contemplation? Should we participate with the stuff of busyness, or should we show an alternative way? A way grounded in the experience of the communion with the Spirit of God in solitude and reflection, instead of noise and manic. These are my questions.
No real answers, just asking the questions. 🙂