True Inclusiveness According to the Word of God

True Inclusiveness According to the Word of God

True Inclusiveness
According to the Word of God

The Beacon
Lecture Series at
All Saints,
Chevy Chase, Maryland

 

By Fleming Rutledge         
       February 6, 2004
 

      I
have two topics on my mind that I propose to disclose gradually rather
than announce them at the beginning. The two are related to one another.
I propose to divide this presentation into two parts, pausing in the
middle for some discussion.
 

      I
understand that I am inside the Beltway here, and in a presidential
election year at that; therefore I know that everything I say will be
in a political context. I am certainly capable of making a politically
partisan
speech, but as a preacher of the gospel I do not do that.
I did not do it last Advent when I preached at the National Cathedral
on the eve of the Iraq war, and I am not going to do it now. What I
do intend to do is raise questions that all American Christians should
be thinking about in these dangerous times. I am also aware that I am
speaking in the midst of a volatile situation in our Episcopal Church.
I hope that when I am finished you will see that I have addressed that
situation, but indirectly, by focusing on something else that I think
is even more important that the issue that divides us at present.
 

      I
have extensive files on my two topics and I am adding to them all the
time. A recent addition is a review of a new book called In the Land
of Magic Soldiers
. The title refers to the widespread belief in
the sub-Saharan African countries that there are certain magic rituals,
going even to the extreme of cannibalism, that will guarantee immunity
to bullets, hence, “magic soldiers”. The book is about the gruesome
civil war in Sierra Leone. The section of the review that caught my
attention begins, “What is of value in this book is less what it says
about Sierra Leone than about the human condition.”
 

      I
am always interested in what people are writing about the human condition.
The review discusses “the most haunting figure” in the book, a white
South African mercenary who flies a combat helicopter for the Sierra
Leone government, indeed the only one that the government owns. This
white man from South Africa says that the thrill of machine-gunning
people on the ground from the air is “better than sex…There’s
a lot of adrenaline going. You’re all keyed up, and when you realize
you’re on target, that you’ve taken out the enemy, that’s a great
feeling.” This same man pays for schooling for local children out
of his own pocket and plans to start a local burn center because there
isn’t one anywhere in Sierra Leone. The reviewer observes that this
man “is so memorable because the strange blend of killing and healing
in his life is a reminder of how precarious is the balance between them,
and of how easily it can be tipped one way or the other by the societies
we build for ourselves.”1
 

      Another
recent article in The New York Times features an interview with
Dr. Allen Keller, the kind and self-sacrificing director of the Bellevue/NYU
Program for Survivors of Torture. The interviewer is clearly appalled
by the ghastly stories that Dr. Keller tells him about his patients.
The doctor says, “How could people do such things? I’m scared that
it’s easier than we think.” That is in part why he opposes torture
to extract information from terrorists. “We mustn’t go there, It
cheapens who we are.”2 Clearly this doctor who ministers
to victims is aware that our propensity for harming others is closer
to the surface than we like to think.

      Adam
Michnik, the enormously wise philosopher of the Solidarity Movement
in Poland, wrote these words in his classic letter from prison:

 

    I am not afraid of the general’s
    fire. There is no greatness about them; lies and force are their weapons…

    I am sure that we shall win…we
    shall leave the prisons and come out of the underground onto the bright
    square of freedom.

    But what will we be like then?
    I am afraid not of what they will do to us, but of what they can make
    us into….I pray that we do not change from prisoners into prison guards.3
     

      I
have collected these thoughts, and dozens of others like them, into
a file which has become my constant companion in recent months. I am
offering some of them now in the context of the movie that a lot of
people think is going to win the Oscar
The Lord of the Rings. I am not a fan
of the movie but I am a lover of the book, and indeed I have a book
on the subject myself coming out some time this spring, a book called
The Battle for Middle-earth
. The title is significant because I
wanted to convey the sense of a great conflict. Because of the movie,
this conflict is now being widely misinterpreted as a clear-cut battle
between Good and Evil. The Danish-American actor who plays Aragorn in
the movie, Viggo Mortensen, has been campaigning against this misunderstanding.
Here is some of what he wrote in the
illustrated guide to the second movie in the series:
 

    The second installment
    of The Lord of the Rings comes to theatres in a world that is
    no more secure than the one in which the first was released last year…It
    would seem from even a cursory reading of world history that there is
    no new horror under the sun, that we will perhaps always have
    to contend with destructive impulses in ourselves and others…The
    most enlightened beings in Middle-Earth are conscious of the ubiquity
    of good and evil
    in neighbors, strangers, adversaries, and most
    important, themselves
    . ]4
     

Everywhere I go I hear people
talking about the Lord of the Rings movie as a battle of Good
vs. Evil. This would have displeased the author, J. R. R. Tolkien, a
great deal. He made it very clear in his many letters that he did not
mean it to be interpreted that way. All of his characters are vulnerable
to the power of evil. Not even Gandalf, the archangel figure, is immune;
some of Tolkien’s angels (the Valar) and Elves were themselves responsible
for all the evil that had come into Middle-earth. All of this mythology
is based on the Christian tradition, suggested in the book of Isaiah,
that the angel Lucifer had rebelled against God. In Tolkien’s letters,
he often put quotation marks around the word “good” as if to say,
this person that thinks he’s so good may not be so good after all.
 

      One
of the most challenging things about growing into Christian maturity
is learning and acknowledging one’s own faults and weaknesses. When
we have done this, we are not so quick to assign others to the category
of “bad” or “evil.” In Shakespeare’s play, All’s Well
That Ends Well
, two young noblemen are discussing the mixed motives
of the characters around them. One says to the other, “The web of
our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”
 

      I
was at a dinner party the other night consisting of some exceptionally
intelligent people, some of whom were political conservatives and some
liberals. The conservatives kept talking about “evil.” One of the
liberals burst out, “I don’t believe in evil!” The others looked
at him in shock. I was shocked too, at first, but something told me
he hadn’t meant it quite the way it sounded. Upon being questioned
further he admitted that he didn’t mean to say there was no such thing
as evil. What he didn’t agree with was the way the others were talking
so readily about who was evil and who was not.
 

      The
reason that Europeans look askance at Americans when we talk about evil
is not that they don’t know evil when they see it. It’s that we
Americans love to think of ourselves as innocent and good. (Graham Greene’s
cynical journalist in The Quiet American is typical here: “
God save us always from the innocent and the
good”5)
We
feel injured when other countries don’t like us. I encountered anti-Americanism
for the first time on my first trip to Europe when I went out on a date
with a Dutch boy. I have never forgotten how wounded I felt when I learned
that there were people who thought American intentions were malign.
I took it personally. We Americans are used to thinking of ourselves
as supremely well-intentioned, so we are outdone when others don’t
see us that way.
 

      Polls
are regularly released about the religious beliefs of Americans. A majority
of Americans, especially in the “red” states that voted Republican
in 2000, believe in heaven and hell. Of these, close to 90% percent
believe that they themselves are going to heaven. An equal percent think
they know someone else who is going to hell. This should not surprise
us. Twenty-two years of parish ministry showed me that most people consider
themselves entitled to judge the motives and actions of others in a
negative way while giving themselves a pass.
 

      If
we read the Psalms regularly, as all Christians should, we will readily
come up against a contradiction. Many of the Psalms contain passages
in which the speaker declares a distinction between the righteous and
the wicked. For example, Psalm 1:
 

      Therefore the wicked will
      not stand in the judgment,

      nor sinners in the congregation
      of the righteous;

      for the Lord knows the
      way of the righteous,

      but the way of the wicked
      will perish.
      (Psalm 1:5-6)
       

      When
I started looking through the Psalms for examples of this, though, I
got a surprise. I was expecting to find many Psalms where the speaker
(singer) calls himself righteous and the other person wicked. But there
were far fewer examples of this than I thought. Even in the Psalms where
the speaker prays for terrible things to happen to his enemies, the
imprecations are always provisional. The general sense is, “God, this
is the way I feel about these wicked people, I’d like you to bash
their children’s heads against the wall, but I realize it’s up to
you, not me, to make these judgments.” It’s as if the speaker is
hoping
that he is one of the righteous but isn’t quite sure; there
is always a proviso that only God can determine and only God can punish.
Throughout the Psalms the words of the singers seem to indicate that
no matter how bitterly angry they may be at the “wicked,” they are
never
in
the final analysis
exempting themselves as if they were beyond
judgment.
 

      In
any case, the imprecatory Psalms are balanced by those written (and
sung) in the voice of a worshipper who knows himself to be a sinner
before God, no better than anyone else, and unable to save himself by
himself.
 

      Remember not the sins of
      my youth, or my transgressions;

      according to thy steadfast
      love remember me,

      for thy goodness’ sake,
      O Lord!….

      For thy name’s sake,
      O Lord,

          pardon
    my guilt, for it is great.
    (Psalm 25:7, 11)
     

      Day and night thy hand
      was heavy upon me;

      my strength was dried up
      as by the heat of summer.

      I acknowledged my sin to
      thee,

      and I did
      not hide my iniquity;

      I said,
      “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”;

          then
    thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.
    [Psalm 32]
     

    O Lord, rebuke me not in thy
    anger,

    nor chasten me in thy wrath!

    For thy arrows have sunk into
    me,

    and thy hand has come down
    on me.

    There is no soundness in my
    flesh

    because of thy indignation;

    there is no health in my bones

    because of my sin.

    For my iniquities have gone
    over my head;

    they weigh like a burden too
    heavy for me.
    (Psalm 38)
     

      Those
of us who are over sixty will remember how we used to say “there is
no health in us” in the General Confession. That last Psalm is one
of the sources for that declaration:
 

    There is no soundness in my
    flesh…

    there is no health in my bones

    because of my sin.  

      The
point of all this is to show how the line that the Bible draws between
the “bad guys” and the “good guys” is not as sharp as we think
it is. Jesus makes a great many statements about what will happen to
the unrighteous, but he almost always makes these statements to those
who think they are the righteous
, especially when he perceives that
they were congratulating themselves on being better than others. There
is much wisdom about this in the book of Proverbs:
 

    All the ways of a man
    are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit…Pride goes
    before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

    It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the
    poor than to divide the spoil with the proud

    (Proverbs 16:2, 18-19).  

    There are those who
    are pure in their own eyes but are not cleansed of their filth.

    (Proverbs 30:12)
     

      At
last year’s Academy Awards you will remember that two major Oscars
were given to The Pianist. A whole new marketing strategy was
promptly rolled out to pull in a new audience. From the new ads, you
would never have known it was a movie about the Holocaust. The illustration
looked like My Big Fat Greek Wedding
it shows a happy, smiling family raising glasses
and toasting one another. OK, fair enough, maybe that would attract
more people to see the film. But the new pitch
and here’s my pointwas “Experience the Triumph of the Human
Spirit.” Those of you who have already seen this superb movie will
know that it is not in the least about the triumph of the human spirit.
It is about human beings exhibiting extremes of wickedness and goodness
often within the same person. It is about the way that enormous evil
takes over people in wartime so that so-called “good” people often
do shameful things and seemingly “evil” people occasionally do good
things. It is about the pressure of forces spinning out of control,
causing people who were friends or neighbors or even blood relatives
to turn against one another because of the moral chaos and loss of context
that occurs when evil runs rampant, and who
who?can say what he or she would have done under
those circumstances?
 

      So
this evening I am placing the emphasis on the predicament that you and
I share, every single one of us in this room. Evil lies close at
hand.
Who said that? Well, actually, it was St. Paul. I find
it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.

And he continues: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not
do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is
right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the
evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it
is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me
(Romans
7:15-20). Is there anyone here tonight who does not recognize this?
 

      Many
church members today who do not know much about the Bible have been
led to think that Jesus was loving, embracing, inclusive and so forth
whereas St. Paul was harsh and punitive and enjoyed excluding people.
This is a very serious misunderstanding of Paul’s relationship to
the witness of the four Gospels. If we had only the four Gospels we
would not have fully understood the radicality of the new society that
our Lord was creating when he sat at table with those who were considered
notorious sinners. Paul is the one who spelled it out for us. It is
Paul who says In
Christ
Jesus you are all sons [children] of God, through faith. For all who
were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor
Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus
(Galatians 3:26-28). It is Paul
who said For by one Spirit we were all baptized into
one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink
of one Spirit.
(I Corinthians 12:13) Above all it is Paul who wrote
Romans 9-11 which gives us the most comprehensive vision of salvation
across boundaries that we have in the entire Bible.
 

      So
it is crucially important to understand how the Epistles
those
by Paul and those by others
interpret the theological consequences of
the stories that are told in the four Gospels. I have been in conversation
with the religion editor of Time magazine. He is doing a story
for Time about the Crucifixion, slated to appear on Ash Wednesday
when the Mel Gibson movie is finally released. The religion editor is
Jewish and knows very little about Christian faith, though I found him
eager to learn. The thing that I tried to stress in our conversations
is that what’s missing from all the movies about Jesus is the apostolic
preaching, that is, the post-Easter preaching. The movies tell the story
of what happened, or what the Gospel writers say happened, but they
can’t tell us very much about why it happened or what it
meant
unless they include some of the apostolic preaching, which
they never do. (Of course the apostolic preaching shaped the Gospels,
but that is more implicit than explicit. The Epistles are wholly explicit
in their teaching.) St. Paul is the one who fought for the inclusion
of the Gentiles in the gospel, and by extension the inclusion of anyone
who lay outside the boundaries of what was considered righteous and
godly. That is why he wrote in Romans 5 that Christ died for the

ungodly.  

      The
most radical of Paul’s equalizing, inclusive statements, are in Romans.
For instance:
 

    All human beings, both Jews
    and Greeks [godly and ungodly], are under the power of sin; as it is
    written: “None is righteous, no, not one…All have turned aside,
    together they have gone wrong;…There is no fear of God before
    their eyes.  
    (Romans 3:9-18)
     

      You
may be turned off by this, but just wait. The next one is the most radical
of all. It is from Romans 11:
 

    God has consigned all men to
    disobedience in order that he may have mercy upon all.  

    (Romans 11:32) 

      I
would argue that this is the most inclusive verse in all of Scripture,
yet many resist it, partly because it seems to put all the responsibility
on God, and partly because the typical human being does not like to
think of himself as “consigned to disobedience.” Yet only yesterday
I saw a big feature story in the Norfolk paper about all the people
who are feeling guilty because it’s only February and they have already
broken their New Year’s resolutions. Consigned to disobedience! Have
you taken a look at the Ten Commandments lately? If you are honest about
yourself in relation to them, you will understand that if you were left
to yourself you are consigned to disobedience.
 

      The
General Confession of the church is meant to embody these truths about
the human condition. We say it all together without any distinctions
being made among us. “We have left undone those things which we ought
to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have
done…we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own
hearts…and there is no health in us.” Last weekend I talked with
a woman who is a chaplain on Death Row in a Virginia prison. When she
is with a prisoner and they say the confession, there
is no distinction
between them.
 

      I
wonder if you caught that quotation from Scripture as it went by. From
Romans 3: There is no distinction; all have sinned and fall short
of the glory of God
(3:22-3).
 

      One
sign of a true Christian, and a true Christian society, is a recognition
of this truth. Humility and repentance are therefore hallmarks of our
faith, because they are based in the knowledge that the entire human
race without distinction is imprisoned by disobedience until God has
mercy on us. The Church’s role is to take on this repentance and this
humility for those who will not do it for themselves. That is what we
do on Ash Wednesday. As the first Epistle of Peter says, The time
has come for judgment to begin with the household of God
(I Peter
4:17).
 

      I
worry about American arrogance.
Our
two greatest Presidents understood something about the need for collective
repentance before the divine judgment. George Washington and Abraham
Lincoln both called America to repentance. It is hard to imagine any
President doing that today. It is strange that in the controversy about
President Bush’s overt references to God, no one has mentioned Lincoln.
Lincoln was a theologian profound enough to stand alongside the giants
of Christian history. I am quite serious about that. A recent book discussing
his theology is an examination of the Second Inaugural called Lincoln’s
Greatest Speech,
which I urgently recommend to you.
 

      It
is well known that Lincoln changed his mind about slavery. This shift
on his part has often been negatively construed by Southerners as an
insincere political move, but his writings do not support that conclusion.
Lincoln wrestled long and hard with theological questions raised in
his mind by slavery and the Civil War. He thought deeply about the South
and the North before God. Lincoln never spoke of “evildoers” or
“the evil ones.” Slavery was a great wrong, he came gradually to
understand, but he did not cut up the nation neatly into good and evil
with the Union on the good side and the Confederacy on the evil side.
In this respect he was profoundly biblical in his understanding. He
had read and pondered the Psalms and prophets. For example, when the
Lord spoke to the prophet Isaiah saying, Destruction is decreed
(Isaiah 10:22), he did not mean that he was going to destroy
the bad guys. He meant that he was going to chasten his own people,
the people of Israel. I will be developing these themes and quoting
further from Lincoln on Sunday morning.
 

      Paul
writes further in Romans 5: Sin came into the world through one person
and death through sin, and so death spread to all humanity because all
humans sinned
(5:12). This is repeated in I Corinthians 15:22:

In Adam all die. Human solidarity in bondage
to the power of sin
is one of the most important of all concepts
for Christians to grasp. This doctrine of original sin, as it’s called,
is unique to Christianity. Likewise unique therefore is the meaning
of the Crucifixion. In the Cross we see the Son of God taking into himself
the entire force and power of Sin. This is what the Mel Gibson movie
will never be able to teach, no matter what its merits and demerits
may be. The Cross is radically equalizing in a way that we have not
always fully appropriated. The distinctions between human beings and
groups of human beings that we are accustomed to making are invalid
in the sight of God. This is what Paul knew and what Paul preached;
this is what the apostles proclaimed throughout the Mediterranean world,
giving up their lives for the sake of the gospel.
 

      What
exactly is the gospel? I will say a few things about that after a break….

Part Two (a lot of this is in
the Wallace Festschrift)

 

(Note: Because of time constraints,
portions of this second section were omitted in oral delivery.)

      Part
one of this address had to do with the subject of good and evil, righteousness
and sinfulness, godliness and ungodliness
and how the line between them runs
through each person. The classic theological term for this is

simul peccator et iustus (sinner and saint simultaneously).  

      The
second subject is the doctrine of the Word of God in our present situation.
 

      I
don’t need to tell you that the Episcopal Church is in turmoil. I
want to look briefly at the mainline churches in general. That’s the
Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Episcopalians, and
the United Church of Christ. These American denominations in direct
descent from the Reformation are being challenged as never before in
our history. Weekly if not daily, it seems, a new article declares that
the mainlines are “losing ground” or are “in decline,” if not
“collapsing” or “imploding” or “in free fall.” At the same
time, the denominations themselves are splitting along lines described
as “liberals” vs. “conservatives,” “revisionists” vs. “traditionalists.”
Perceptive observers of the American scene emphasize the chasm between
the intellectual and media elite, on the one hand, and the huge, politically
influential “Christian Right” on the other. The mainlines are barely
holding their traditional center. Although many individual congregations
are actually thriving, the overall statistics and projections for the
traditional Protestant churches are dire.
 

      With
all due respect to those who might think me presumptuous, I think I
know what the problem is, and I don’t think it’s the homosexuality
issue. Speaking as one who has traveled extensively through the mainline
churches and listened to hundreds of sermons over a number of years,
I believe that the essential problem can be precisely identified in
just a few words, and they are the words of our Lord himself as he spoke
to a group of Sadducees: Is not this why you are wrong, that you
know neither the scriptures
nor the power of God? Jesus’
point against the Sadducees is that the power of God is able to create
an entirely new reality that transcends all human categories.
 

      The
link between the two
the Scriptures and the power of Godis
the key. The power of God is manifest through his Word. This is the
power that called the creation into being, it is the force that created
the Church in the first place, it is the engine that drove the Reformation
yet
this power today is increasingly less heard from mainline pulpits, either
as thunder or as still small voice, for we have largely ceased to believe
that God speaks. All the symptoms arise from that cause. That is the
underlying ailment that is producing the morbid effects.
 

      Flannery
O’Connor, patron saint of those who care about language and Christian
doctrine, wrote to a friend:
 

    One of the effects of modern
    liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into…therapy,
    to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish
    intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought,
    and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot
    communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done
    so and that religion is our own sweet invention.6
     

      We
have gradually come to believe that God has no power and has not revealed
himself to us. That, I think, is exactly what has happened. The current
emphasis on “spirituality” puts the focus on us and our religious
activities, rather than on God. It is anthropological rather
than theological. Underlying all of this is the question of power,
of dunamis. The idea that the Word of God is powerful in and
of itself
has been fading in the mainlines for a long time. I am
reminded of a characteristic locution in the African-American churches.
A church member will say, “Who is going to bring the message today?”
or, “Thank you, Reverend, for bringing the message.” We don’t
say that in the mainlines. We say, “Who’s preaching today?” or
“Thank you for the sermon.” The idea of a message coming with
its own power
seems to lie outside our set of convictions; yet the
entire biblical story is founded on that reality, and without it, the
essential meaning of biblical revelation is lost. Take for example the
characteristic self-introduction of Elijah the prophet:
 

    Now Elijah the Tishbite,
    of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab,
    “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall
    be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” And the word
    of the Lord came to him.
    (I Kings 17:1-2)
     

      This
resounding declaration sets forth some fundamental presuppositions of
biblical faith:
 

    • Our God is a living
      God.
    • Those chosen to
      be his servants stand before him to receive their commissions.
    • His word comes to
      us from outside ourselves with power to execute what it demands.

 

      It
is quite possible to be flexible on the issue of homosexuality without
relinquishing these foundational beliefs. What worries me is that Episcopalians
are going to take this or that position on that particular issue without
addressing the more basic problem: How do we go about reclaiming the
Church’s confidence in the living God who speaks and acts
?
How are we clergy to make this God known to our people if we are not
convicted ourselves? How are we to shake off our timidity before the
culture and its apparent imperatives? If the
trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare herself for the
battle?
(I Corinthians 14:8) The vitality of the churches will come
in the present as it came in the past, through the power of the Word
itself
the
reinvigorating, recreating and revolutionary dunamis of the Holy
Spirit, enlivening and interpreting the message.
 

      In
Romans 10:14-17 Paul speaks of the preaching of the gospel:
 

    But how are they to
    call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe
    in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without
    a preacher
    [better translated as “one heralding” or “one announcing”
    the
    root is kerygma]? And how can people preach unless they are
    sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of the ones who
    announce
    [the root is evangel] good things!”…So then
    faith comes from the message, and the message is through the word of
    Christ. 
    (NEB)7
     

      Paul
is saying that the power in Christian proclamation is God’s
message itself
.
The emphasis is not on the human hearing, but
on God’s revelatory and performative word.
The action is God’s, not ours. This is the message, the evangel,
understood as victorious power, the power that removes human “spiritual”
capacity to the margins altogether, so that God says (in Isaiah),
 

    “I have been found
    by those who did not seek me;

      I
have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”
 

      As
if to underline his meaning, Paul quotes from this paradoxical Isaianic
passage in order to show that the Word of God is able to penetrate
even the will that is set against God
. The emphasis is on the message
as invading, victorious power. As Paul reminded the Thessalonians, “Our
gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy
Spirit and with full conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5).8
The difference between ordinary messages
and the Christian gospel is that the gospel is unconditional. It does
not stand back and wait to see how the human being will respond. It
is an announcement that creates its own conditions. The kerygma
makes something happen. It does not ask for something to happen,
it does not suggest that something happen, it does not question
whether
something might happen if the congregation
cooperates. Rather, in the very words themselves, it is already
happening
.
 

      In
this second portion of my address I am therefore arguing two things:
 

      First,
we need a renewed confidence in the Scriptures and the power of God.

Another way of saying this is that we need to recover the theology of
the Word of God. This means that the training of clergy in seminaries
for preaching and the training of congregations in parishes for participating
needs to be overhauled. There was a time when great preachers were not
uncommon in the Anglican Communion. Indeed, a candidate for greatest
preacher ever in the English language is John Donne, 17th
century dean of St. Paul’s in London. This supremacy is no longer
the case. The Episcopal seminaries barely teach preaching at all, and
the lay people do not raise a single protest. The doctrine of the Word
of God is barely taught, partly because it is associated with the Reformation,
and the Episcopal Church does not want to be Protestant any longer.
This move has been accepted with astonishing passivity by the congregations,
which I must admit I find difficult to understand. When we lose our
confidence in the power of the Word of God to bring a new reality into
being, we have fallen back on our sinful selves and our flawed and distorted
“spirituality.” And so I am arguing also that,
 

      Second:
We need a stronger theological basis for inclusivity than we have at
present.
The underlying reason that ECUSA is in danger of splitting
is not that people disagree about homosexuality. The reason is that
a strong minority (yes, granted, a minority, but with strength disproportionate
to its numbers) of Episcopalians are beginning to recognize
however
inchoate their understanding may be
that the theological foundation of
the new teaching about sexuality is insufficient, and that the Scriptures
are not being interpreted with the sort of reverent searching that believers
would like to see from their leaders.
 

      Many
of our distressed church members are beginning to fall back on the labels
“liberal” and “conservative.” This is unfortunate. Perhaps it
is too late to reclaim the word “liberal,” but its connotations
surely belong to the spirit of the Christian gospel: generous, open-handed,
free, spacious, abundant, bountiful. How can “conservative” compete
with that? It sounds narrow, pinched, fearful, retrograde
and
for that very reason many Christians who stand on the Scriptures and
the Creeds refuse the term.9 Theological liberalism in the
mainlines today, however, is open to serious criticism because of its
sentimental insufficiency. To give just one of many possible examples,
the slogan of the Episcopal Church during the nineties was, “No outcasts.”
This sounded wonderful; who could object to it? Surely this is in the
spirit of Jesus who made a special point of befriending outcasts. But
because the slogan lacked theological grounding and was never connected
to the full biblical story
which does after all have something to say
about the universal reign of sin and judgment for all parties
it
was by default associated with the specific administration of one Presiding
Bishop. The “conservatives” in the denomination soon began to feel,
with some justification, that they were the new outcasts. The slogan,
in other words, lost its connection to the story of God and became an
identifying tag for a particular kind of human project with all the
prejudices that necessarily accrue to such ventures. The foundation
for inclusivity was not strong enough or broad enough to include those
who were, rightly or wrongly, labeled as evangelicals, conservatives
or (worst) fundamentalists.
 

      By
the same token, of course, the litmus tests administered by the conservatives
for full status within their assemblies have left various people feeling
marginalized as well. No matter how “Christ-centered” and “Bible-believing”
(to use some of the code words) those persons might be, there was no
room for them if they did not toe the line on such matters as abortion,
stem-cell research and homosexuality. Many sincere evangelically-minded
clergy have known the pain of being declared “not sound.” Speaking
generally of church life today, neither on the right nor on the left
have we seen a truly radical understanding of what the gospel declares
to be true about our status before God and one another. The doctrine
of justification by grace through faith alone is given much lip service,
but the reality on the ground seems to be justification by right doctrine,
whether it be a narrowly conceived biblicism on the right or a set of
politically correct dogmas on the left. These polarizations have become
so predominant in mainline church life that it is difficult to point
to exceptions. Many congregations claim to be largely free of conflict,
but that is usually for one of
two reasons: 1) those who disagree have gone elsewhere; or 2) the difficult
issues
homosexuality
in particular
are
being studiously ignored.
 

      Our
urgent need, I would therefore argue, is a serious and intentional theological
examination of the question, “On what basis can we be truly liberal?”
I was much struck by the recent testimony of Andrew Young, whose liberal
political credentials are beyond question. In a wide-ranging interview
he spoke of his concerns for the world we are bequeathing to his grandchildren,
“the confusion we’re creating in the global order.” He is described
as the most popular Democrat in the state of Georgia, black or white,
but even so, he is intensely disliked by Georgia Republicans, and remains
the butt of hateful racist jokes. Yet he said this about his days in
Congress: “Almost everything I tried to do in Congress I was able
to do because I worked both sides of the aisle. Conservatives were always
in the prayer groups, and I attended. Every Wednesday morning, we had
Bible study. Almost everybody there was an extreme conservative. But
they saw me as sincere, and I could also share their religious conviction
but
give it a little different twist.”10
 

      We
should not romanticize or idealize African-American Christians, but
as the spirit of the black church has led the way for us before, it
might do so again. Andrew Young’s model is one that the liberal mainlines
might ponder. In the black church there is a tradition of forgiveness
and tolerance, a faith in the power of redemption for every person,
which perseveres in spite of endless slights and hurts. At the same
time there is among many African-American Christians a mighty faith
in the living God whose Word is like a hammer that
breaks the rock in pieces
(Jeremiah 23:29), a faith that makes our
weakened liberal anthropology seem like a very thin brew. In this combination
of a high value placed on inclusion and an unquenchable zeal for the
Word, might we not see a hint of a new type of genuine liberalism? The
model is based in a sincere love of Scripture and a trust in its power
to create a new reality, the power of the God who “makes a way out
of no way” in a formulation made famous by the Rev. Mr. Young and
his colleagues. This is the God who “raises the dead and calls into
existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).
 

      The
lay Episcopal theologian William Stringfellow has been dead for some
years now. He was a polarizing figure in some ways, and the body of
work that he left us suffers from sloppy editing and unchecked polemical
ire, but there can be no question that he knew both the Scriptures and
the power of God. That is what continues to make him unusual as a figure
who is cherished by the liberal wing in the church. His vision of what
a Christian should look like was (and is) enthusiastically embraced
by the left, but his theological stance was actually more encompassing
than many realize. Stringfellow’s theological project was able to
accommodate the likelihood that God was working not only through the
politically correct Left but also through the supposedly fundamentalist
and discredited Right. This was even more true of another radical figure
who is still with us, Will Campbell. It was Campbell who, from his post
on the frontier of the darkest hours of the civil rights movement, kept
his ties to the Ku Klux Klan in spite of everything. Like many other
theologians who have drawn deeply from the well of the Reformation,
Stringfellow and Campbell both refuse to declare anyone innocent, either
on the Right or on the Left. By the standards of the Epistle to the
Romans, beloved of them both, these two theologians were and are as
thoroughly Pauline as anyone in the Church today in their conviction
that the power of God’s Word will overturn all our conventional assumptions
and cause something completely new to come into being
something that will bring surprise and shock
to absolutely everyone across the spectrum, as in Matthew 25 where both
“sheep” and “goats” are confronted with a message that they
clearly did not expect. Again a key text here is Romans 11:32: For
God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy
upon all.
 

      Therefore
the difference that really counts between liberals and conservatives
in the Church is not specific issues such as homosexuality or even peace
and justice, because individual Christians may disagree in good faith
about exactly how peace and justice are to be achieved. Nor, I think,
is it even the problem of fundamentalism/fanaticism. My sense is that
the question that really counts is whether or not there is a living
God. I do not say “loving” God, because the mainlines are not failing
to preach a loving God. The issue that divides us is not the centrality
of agape in the proclamation of the gospel; it would be difficult
to disagree about that. The question, rather, is whether God and his
Word are “living and active.”
 

      To
repeat, Flannery O’Connor’s assessment is correct. We have “come
to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us,
cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so and that religion
is our own sweet invention.” If she is right about this failure of
the churches, the question now arises, what then is the antidote for
this condition we find ourselves in? The antidote will begin with a
recognition that we are suffering from a famine of the Word of God (Amos
8:11). When there is a famine of this sort, we are thrown back on ourselves
and our own spirituality, which cannot be trusted because, like everything
else concerning the human condition, it is infected by sin. The Word
of God, however, speaks into existence that which does not exist
(Romans 417). This is the creation ex nihilo. Where there is
no faith in the power of God, the power of God creates faith. Where
there is no vision of the God who speaks, the Word speaks a vision (write
the vision!
said the Lord to the prophet Habakkuk [2:2]) Where there
is acrimony and dissension, exposure to the living Word means a new
vision where even our most important religious distinctions are abolished
circumcision
is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, as Paul says three different
times, (I Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 5:6, 6:15). Therefore the human
activity of reading and expounding the power-filled Word of God is the
antidote.
 

      My
experience is that when Christians of varying perspectives are willing
to study Scripture together in a seriously committed way, remarkable
things happen. This is difficult to accomplish in the present atmosphere
of the mainlines. The decision-making bodies in the churches have an
exaggerated sense of their own importance and very little understanding
of the way that the kerygma creates new realities wherever it
is heard
and
particularly when it is at work in groups of people who would not otherwise
be capable of coming together around a genuinely theological
message. As Douglas Harink puts it in his important new book, “The
Scriptures have the power not only to direct and guide the community
but also to constitute the world for it
.”11 This is
where we have been lacking confidence. We have lost hold of the conviction
that the message is not only powerful in itself but also is able to
bring into being a new reality that is part of God’s eternal order,
already planted in the world.
 

      The
Christian community has no independent existence. It must be perpetually
renewed and refashioned by the power of God. “Constant recourse to
the Bible” is indeed the “characteristic and significant practice”
of the Church when it is receiving its life theologically and
not anthropologically (quoting Stringfellow). Anthropology as
an academic discipline is a noble field of study, but it does not get
us very far along in the Christian life because it is solipsistic; it
goes round and round on itself. Thus, when visiting museums of anthropology,
one reads label after label saying, “The Inuit believe that…”,
“the Old Norse religion was…”, “this amulet was thought to…”.
There is no sense whatsoever than any of this is founded in any sort
of reality beyond anthropological practice. The museum-goer is implicitly
invited to respect all these different beliefs while at the same 

time subtly distancing herself from them. In contrast, the Scripture
states with a shocking lack of tact, “I am the Lord, there is no other.”
When the community receives this Word in faith, the transforming power
of God shapes our consequent actions theologically, according
to the theos who speaks. For this reason the Church’s true
witness can never be simply imitations of trends in the culture and
indistinguishable from them. The radical message of the justification
of the ungodly cuts across race, class, ethnicity, political views and
degrees of moral worthiness as such things are ordinarily measured.
It reaches far beyond the currently fashionable mantra of “inclusion.”
The insufficiency of this buzz-word becomes apparent when it proves
too small to “include” those who are out of fashion with the current
keepers of the ideological gates.
 

      These
convictions underlie my proposal for a new type of liberalism even more
“inclusive” than the old type. It will arise out of the story of
God’s movement to us in Jesus Christ, not our movement toward him;
it will be celebrated in the praise of God without reference to our
own deeds except in thanksgiving because we have been given the power
of the Spirit to participate in God’s work. A new alliance of academy
and pulpit will be required for the task of reviving the voice of the
mainline churches without flagging in our longstanding commitments to
social action. We need to find more and better ways to bring the very
best biblical and theological scholarship to bear not only on creating
new members of the academic guilds but also on the formation of men
and women who will go out to be ministers of the Word. The artificial
split between biblical studies and theology in the academy needs now
more than ever to be bridged, as does the division between the Testaments.
 

      Anyone,
these days, who holds strongly to a biblical view and argues for it
with energy and passion is in danger of being called a fanatic. This
is doubly true in circles where theology and Christology have been weakened
by the inroads of enormously popular and influential books questioning
the New Testament canon and the creedal affirmations about Jesus. Only
a strong offensive from clergy and lay leaders can offset this trend.
This is possible, but only if this offensive is undertaken in a spirit
suited to the times, with a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity,
nuance and irony. When this happens, the culture pays attention.
 

      Congregations
and clergy alike need equipping for the battle against the new gnosticism
and the new skepticism about Jesus Christ. We need leadership for making
the turn away from anthropology to theology. The antidote to mainline
malaise in the present moment is a revivifying dose of Scripture and
the power of God.
 

      Let all the earth fear
      the Lord,

      let all the inhabitants
      of the world stand in awe of him!

      For he spoke, and it came
      to be;

      he commanded, and it stood
      forth.

                Psalm 33:8-9

 

          Praise
    the Lord!

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