Monday, October 22, 2018
Perhaps We Should Just Shut-Up
Some years ago a student at North Park Theological Seminary where I taught argued in his MA thesis for what he called “a discipline of silence.” He referred this in particular to the relationship between the church and the Jews. He argued that the church’s horrendous treatment of the Jews over the centuries meant that it needed to earn the right to speak to Jews of what Christians had found in Jesus of Nazareth. I thought of this as I read the last letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his friend Eberhard Bethge. Bonhoeffer was sitting in a prison cell in Berlin awaiting trial for crimes against the German Reich. Within a few months of his most important letters to Bethge he would be murdered by the Nazis. In the last year of his life Bonhoeffer was distressed by the failures of the German Church—not only the “German Christians” who had capitulated to Hitler, but the “Confessing Church” that seemed to him only concerned about self-preservation. He was also scornful of those who felt they needed to convince perfectly contented people that there was really something deeply wrong with them; of those who needed to persuade others that they were right and all others were wrong; of those who had so little faith of their own that they hid “behind the notion of the ‘faith of the Church.’” He considered this “a cheap clerical excuse and is always perceived that way outside the church.” In modern lingo Bonhoeffer saw no authenticity in the German church or German Christians of his day. They were busy protecting their institutions and shoring up the structures of their beliefs but were not truly there for others. “The church”, Bonhoeffer continues “is church only when it is there for others.” He concludes:
“The church must participate in the worldly tasks of life in community—not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell people in every calling
what a life with Christ is, what it means ‘to be there for others’. In particular, our church will have to confront the vices of hubris, the worship of power, envy, and illusionism as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, authenticity, trust, faithfulness, steadfastness patience, discipline and humility, modesty, contentment.”
[From an “Outline for a Book” he sent to Bethge in August 1944]
Some years ago Rodney Stark argued that Christianity succeeded in the Roman world not because it persuaded the Romans of the truth of his assertions, but because it showed them a better way to live. It was “there for others” in its appeal to women and slaves, in its care for those afflicted with disease and poverty, in its formation of communities that functioned as places of refuge and family. This was corrupted by the worship of power, the hubris of certainty, and the illusion that one could answer all the questions and silence all opposition.
From this hubris, this illusion comes all the misery visited on human beings by the church—“heretics” whose understanding of the relationship between the human and divine in Christ was slightly different from the “great church”; Jews who were herded into ghettos, forbidden most professions, treated with contempt at best and brutalized at worst. People were burned at the stake for reasons theological or personal that we find bizarre or obscure. Women were accused of being witches and men of being sorcerers. And always and everywhere the church was enthusiastic to enforce conformity to its particular sexual values using the power of the state.
Today the church, especially in its Evangelical and Roman Catholic forms, seems confused that no one seems to listen to it anymore. It is distressed that its values, especially certain ethical commitments (particularly sexual) are viewed with at best indifference and at most utter scorn. And so it shouts even louder; it desperately seeks the power of the state to reinforce its commitments; it tries to persuade perfectly happy people that they are (or at least should be) miserable. Lately it seems that every time an Evangelical leader opens his (or very occasionally her) mouth they do more damage to the reputation of the church. Every time they appeal to power they corrupt the mission of the church. Every time they condemn and mock their opponents—Democrats, liberals, mainline churches, the gay community, women, and even (especially) more “progressive” Evangelicals, they reduce their capacity to be “the church for others.” And so I have a modest proposal. Perhaps you should shut up for a while; perhaps we should all shut up for a while! I do not mean we should not worship and teach and preach and write so as to form people capable of representing Jesus Christ, the man for others. Quite the contrary! But we should give up attacking our “enemies” and serve them. We should not do this merely as a matter of pragmatism, but as an act of love. Perhaps, as Jesus did, we should even forbid them to tell who it was that served them or healed them. Perhaps in a few generations we would be formed by our discipleship and our very marginality, to have the right to speak again.
John E. Phelan, Jr.
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