Sunday, September 28, 2008

How (not) to fight culture wars

on a Christian approach to conflict and social change
Romans 12:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 18-25


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As you know, there is a tiny, but conspicuous
word that shows up—in parentheses—in all these sermon titles.
“Not.”
The parentheses help us read the title with, or without, the word.
Both are right.
In other words, there is a good way to be church in public,
and a not-so-good way to be the church in public,
if we are being faithful to the call of Jesus Christ,
whose body we are.

So for instance, last Sunday’s “how (not) to vote,”
means there is a way of voting that followers of Jesus
ought not to engage in—
allowing partisan politics and party agenda
to determine our vote.
And there is a way to vote . . . though not necessarily an easy way.
That is, to have our votes be shaped by
our primary allegiance to Jesus Christ and his kingdom,
and the active discernment of the community of the kingdom.

Today again, the parentheses are crucial.
When you look at today’s title,
you may want me to just erase the parentheses,
and preach a sermon about not fighting culture wars.
Surely, if we’re good Mennonites,
we should be taught how not to fight.
That is our tradition.
To be non-resistant . . . non-aggressive—
or is it passive-aggressive? I keep forgetting.

Well, like it or not,
for two reasons I will preach to this Mennonite congregation
a sermon on how to fight.
First of all, because I do think there’s something at stake
that is worth fighting for.
There is such a thing as a public good, a public moral ground.
It is worth the struggle to find it.
It is worth the struggle to take a stand on it,
and defend it.

And secondly, there is such a thing as a good fight,
a good, and non-violent, conflict.
But we need to be taught how to fight well,
how to fight in Christ-like ways.
We’re not very good at it.
We’re afraid of doing it.
We’ve done it poorly so often,
we think we better not try anymore.

But in truth, we’ve not stopped fighting at all.
We just fight in one particular way—
We fight by dividing.
Choose up sides, and then walk away from each other.
It’s a sad history, repeated over and over.
We don’t have to look beyond our county line,
to find hundreds of painful stories
of church fights that were resolved by separation.

We are a peace church,
known for our peacebuilding.
We do good training and mediation
around the country and around the world.
But our witness is marred
by our inability to deal with our own conflict
in healthy, and Christ-like, ways.

So is there anything we Mennonites
have a right to teach a society polarized by culture wars?
We certainly have lots to learn.
But yes, I do think we have some things to offer.
It’s not like the world does any better than we do.
In fact, maybe our main problem
is that we’ve accommodated to the pattern of our culture,
rather than look for a Jesus way,
or the way of the New Testament church.
_____________________

Our culture fights over what is right and good in the world
in what we call the “culture wars.”
Our culture fights these wars the way countries fight wars.
We form a group.
We solidify our group identity by
drawing sharp lines around our group,
and demonizing the other group.
Then we draw a line in the sand, and dig in.

Some think that is a noble way to fight.
It shows clarity, courage, resolve.
Resolve is a good thing.
Christians need a huge dose of resolve,
and determination,
to follow Jesus in the kind of world we live in today.

Determination isn’t the problem.
The problem is when a group within our culture,
or within the church,
bands together with persons like ourselves,
and forms a group in which everyone
agrees with each other,
looks like each other,
acts like each other,
and is determined to keep it that way.

Whenever we define ourselves over against the other,
we can, with accuracy, predict the outcome.
There will be divisive rhetoric.
We will exaggerate the position of the other.
We will take their statements out of context.
We will overlook our own inconsistencies.
We will magnify their weakness.
We will not talk with the other, only about them.
We will do what we need to gain a tactical advantage,
even if it means bending the truth, or hiding it.
And if anyone wins,
it’s the one with the strongest voice,
or the most resources to broadcast their voice.
And by winner,
I mean the side that came out on top.
The loser will feel silenced and alienated.
Their loss will be transformed into anger and resentment.
And they will get to work preparing for the next battle.

That, brothers and sisters, is how not to fight.
But Christians seem to do it the best . . . or worst.
Our culture has trained us well.
We need to be un-trained.
We need to be transformed.
In the words of Romans 12, which we read this morning,
We need to “not be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,
so that [we] may discern what is the will of God.”
There is a way to fight that is faithful to the way of Jesus.
In our struggle for the right there is an attitude, in fact, a position,
we must take as followers of Jesus.
It’s a position in a body.

Paul urges members of the body to realize that
“in one body we have many members,
and not all the members have the same function”
to believe and act like we are “one body in Christ,
and individually . . . members one of another”
to accept that “we have gifts that differ”
and to “let [our] love be genuine;
to hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.”
That’s how to fight like a body.
Start by believing we belong to each other.
We are not in different groups, but the same group.
And that group has one head, Christ,
to whom all of us bow in submission.

Easier said than done.
It certainly wasn’t easy for the early church.
In Corinth, for instance, they fought with each other all the time,
but they weren’t good fights.
They divided into parties.
Remember the reading, 1 Corinthians 1?
Paul appealed to them, begged in the name of Jesus,
not to form divisions among themselves,
but act like one body, with one head and one purpose.
Paul said he heard reports that Corinthian Christians
were saying things like,
“I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,”
or “I belong to Peter,” or “I belong to Christ.”
“Since when,” he asks in v. 13, “has Christ been divided?”
Each party in the church thought they had a corner on wisdom.
So Paul asked, v. 20,
“Where is the one who is wise?
Where is the scribe?
Where is the debater?
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
_____________________

I’m not optimistic we can talk or debate the world
into not fighting the way it does.
But can we, as a church,
at least put on a small demonstration of a better way?

When MCC or other international development workers
go into some remote community that has bad farming practices,
that harm the soil,
and don’t provide enough food for the people . . .
they don’t go in there with a clip-board full of charts and graphs
and scientific experiments that prove a point
that the old ways are wrong,
and a new way is right.
No, they plant a demonstration plot.
They go about their work,
quietly showing what can be done
with the land and materials and seeds people already have.
Then they explain why plants grow taller, look greener,
and produce more,
when they dig this way, plant that way,
and irrigate another way.

The church is called to be a demonstration plot for the world,
when it comes to dealing with cultural conflict.
The world is committed to the old way.
It doesn’t matter what the issue is.
Abortion, gay marriage, terrorism,
war in Iraq, capital punishment.
They form advocacy groups
around being anti-this or pro-that.
Swap the labels.
The tactics are the same.
It’s a contest to see who can shout the loudest,
who can insult the other side most effectively.
Signs proclaim, “God hates your group. God loves our group.”

I doubt the church can find a winning argument
to put a stop to this nonsense.
If we did try to make a point with words,
they would fall on deaf ears.
Because these tactics are not just the ways of the world.
The church is expert in the art of divisive conflict.

For the issues I just named,
there are just as many advocacy groups in the church,
positioning themselves as pro- and anti- this or that,
drawing lines in the sand,
overlooking their own weaknesses,
overstating the faults of the other,
maneuvering to advance their position.
It ought not to be this way in the body of Christ!
If we are acting like a church, like the living body of Christ,
single-issue advocacy groups have no place in the church.
I can understand to some extent, why they form,
especially when church bodies become
so large and complex and institutionalized,
that they borrow political methods to do church business.
If people start feeling that their voice is not being heard,
or is being stifled by unseen powers that be,
desperation sometimes moves them to organize,
form a group, and press a point.

But it ought not to be that way.
When we look at the way that Jesus engaged his adversaries,
often sitting at the same dinner table with them . . .
When we see how the early church worked through divisive issues,
by convening a time to meet and hear each other’s stories,
and read scripture together,
and listen to the Holy Spirit . . .
When we observe the outspoken and brash apostle Paul,
vigorously and emotionally appealing to the church
to stop dividing along party lines
and act like the one body they are . . .
Then we need to wonder,
isn’t there a better way to fight as followers of Jesus?

You could never accuse Jesus and the apostles and the early church
of not being fighters.
They strived, they struggled, they contested against
those ideas and people and groups
that they believed had gotten off God’s path.
It’s right to fight for what’s right.

But shouldn’t the church be able to demonstrate a better way?
Shouldn’t the church be able to emulate the way of Jesus
as we work through those things we don’t fully understand,
or have serious disagreements about?
Shouldn’t we be able to show how to struggle with each other
with love, and grace, and compassion,
as well as with clarity, and honesty, and accountability?
We all learn, and we all grow,
as we engage the other,
especially the other who is different.

Gordon Cosby,
founding pastor of Church of the Savior in D.C.,
who in his 90s is still teaching and preaching,
once said that there are two givens, two must-haves,
for him in being part of a congregation.
First, that Jesus Christ and submitting to Christ’s rule
would be at the center of community life and witness . . . and
That he would be part of a small family group
of extreme ‘opposites,’
different in race and ethnicity, economics, education,
personality and temperament.
In all ways, different.

Cosby believed his greatest opportunity for being formed
as a disciple of Jesus Christ,
was belonging to a small community
that kept their loyalty to Jesus Christ at the center,
and treasured their differences.

Christians who do not treasure difference, or are afraid of difference
form affinity groups,
interest groups,
single-issue advocacy groups.
And the body of Christ is weakened,
because we lose the capacity to directly, lovingly, and vigorously
engage each other at the points where we differ.
A point of difference, is a potential growing point.
_____________________

So I leave us with this challenge.
Let’s deepen our bonds with each other in the church,
so we have the capacity to lovingly fight with each other.
You know this from experience, I’m sure.
The closer your bond with another person—
parent, child, spouse, close friend—
the more secure you are in that relationship,
the greater your capacity to have meaningful conflict
and stay in healthy relationship.

Here at Park View, people are truly different from each other
in significant ways.
The day we stop struggling with those differences,
the day we stop experiencing some degree of conflict over them,
is the day we stop truly loving each other.
If you don’t love someone, or are not loyal to them,
or have no commitment to stay connected,
there’s no point in getting invested enough to have a good fight.

Conflict without love and commitment
is what the culture wars are about.
It’s lobbing grenades at each other from a distance.
It’s shouting and name-calling.
It’s forming single-issue groups to battle for position
over other groups.

The church can do better than that.
We must do better than that,
if we intend to act like a church.
So we must strengthen our bonds as a church family.

That applies at the macro level—
that is, with the whole congregation.
But it applies most importantly at the micro level—
that is, with small formational communities.

I urge us . . . again . . . and I will keep urging us . . .
to find a way to be in a small formational community.
A community whose main purpose is to form each other
for life as a disciple of Jesus in this world.
A community that helps us form communal and missional
Christian practices.
A community that opens the scripture together,
and reads it not only for inspiration,
but for the purpose of discovering the will of God
for our lives . . . and for all of creation.
A community that, as in Gordon Cosby’s ideal,
is diverse enough to challenge each member,
so we don’t suffer from tunnel vision.
A community that loves each other so much,
that we are willing to engage in the struggle.

When we do, we will not only be better people for it,
we will be a better church,
and we will have grown a lush, green, and fruitful
demonstration plot for the world.

By God’s grace, may it be so.

—Phil Kniss, September 28, 2008


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