Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Peace of God, it is no peace

...but strife sown in the sod.

IT IS WELL KNOWN that Christ consistently used the expression "follower." He never asks for admirers, wor-shippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for.

Christ understood that being a "disciple" was in innermost and deepest harmony with what he said about himself. Christ claimed to be the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). For this reason, he could never be satisfied with adherents who accepted his ;:eaching - especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole time on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make admirers impossible.

Christ came into the world with the purpose of saving, not instructing it. At the same time - as is implied in his saving work- he came to be the pattern, to leave footprints for the person who would join him, who would become a follower. This is why Christ was born and lived and died in lowliness. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to sneak away from the Pattern with excuse and evasion on the basis that it, after all, possessed earthly and worldly advantages that he did not have. In that sense, to admire Christ is the false invention of a later age, aided by the presumption of "loftiness." No, there is absolutely nothing to admire in Jesus, unless you want to admire poverty, misery, and contempt.

What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.

To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination. To them he is like an actor on the stage except that, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger. But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm. Admirers are only too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger. They refuse to accept that Christ's life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended by him. His radical, bizarre character so offends them that when they honestly see Christ for who he is, they are no longer able to experience the tranquillity they so much seek after. They know full well that to associate with him too closely amounts to being up for examination. Even though he says nothing against them personally, they know that his life tacitly judges theirs.

And Christ's life indeed makes it manifest, terrifyingly manifest, what dreadful untruth it is to admire the truth instead of following it. When there is no danger, when there is a dead calm, when everything is favorable to our Christianity, then it is all too easy...--Soren Kierkegaard
Partly an answer to the question. Partly a meditation on discipleship, for Christians in this season of Lent (which is, by the way, meant to be a joyous season, not a gloomy one). Partly a consideration of this as a good starting point:

it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination.
Detachment is one of the targets of Kierkegaard's ire. It was the detachment of Hegelian idealism that fired his philosophical imagination and energized his most energetic polemics. He mockingly wrote of the man who considered his own existence so abstractly that he awoke one morning to find he'd thought himself out of existence altogether! An impossibility, of course, but the very touchstone of the danger of focussing on "the big idea" rather than paying attention to the question put by Tolstoy: "How should we then live?"

Abstract questions, moral issues, even political turf wars, are so much more satisfying, because they allow us a safe distance; they allow us to admire, rather than to follow. Who, indeed, wants to follow a politician? As Eric Alter points out:

Martin Luther King Jr. frequently drew on Amos to insist, "We will not be satisfied until 'justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'" Jesus demanded we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and tells us we will be judged by how we treat the "least of these my brethren."
Those demands reach up to government, ultimately. But they start only when they reach in, to us, and motivate us. Not to march, or protest, or write letters or blogs or comments; but to act. Act to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and treat the "least of these my brethren." That is the Pattern we cannot sneak away from. Because "foxes have holes, and birds their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." Jesus had no advantage at all, no power. And yet he is the Way, the truth, the life.

Luke tells us the early Christians called themselves "the Way" and "Followers of the Way." And they sold all they had, and held all in common, and spent all their time in prayer and rejoicing. Lent is a good time to spend in prayer; and prayer does not have to be separated from rejoicing. We don't have to go so far as the first Christians; indeed, we probably can't, anymore. But the roots of "Christendom" lie bare in this analysis. "Christendom" was the state church, the one you joined by virtue of birth, not decision, not commitment. That Christendom is gone, but in its place we have the Christendom born of admirers. We have the Church of Meaning and Belonging, when we should have the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging. Nothing proves that more clearly than the pious platitudes of an otherwise un-Christian President.

We prefer to be admirers, because it demands nothing of us. We prefer to be admirers, because there is no danger to us. The "other" does not penetrate our "same," and we are comfortable in our impenetrable shell. It is easier and safer to be detached, to see the President as a projection of our own interests, or to see politics as an expression of will, an expression which can be our will, if we just donate enough money, read enough blogs, write enough comments or letters to the editor, or e-mails to candidates and politicians and government officials.

If, in other words, we just stay detached enough from people who are not like us, because they are poor, or naked, or hungry, or in prison. "Lord, when did we see you?"

When do we look?

Rather than rejoice in what we can do, we bewail what we cannot. The limits of our influence is the limits of our reach. The one we would follow, if we are Christians, set us a Pattern of poverty and powerlessness and complete living identification with the poor. Do we follow that route by berating John Edwards? Or do we follow it by doing whatever we can for the least among us?

Am I saying we all have to get up, and to our windows, and say we're as mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore? No. That's the answer of left blogistan. It didn't work in the movie; it doesn't work in real life. We have to take strength and courage from our faith and from those who believe as we do, or who want to do good, as we do, and we have to work with them. If we can't do it phyisically, we can do it spiritually. We can turn our despair to joy only by acting to help whoever we can help. "Think globally, act locally," the saying goes. Nonsense, says Wendell Berry, and he's right. You cannot think globally without abstracting the local area, the people and places immediately around you, into things, into mere extensions of self. And abstraction kills. They are not you, those people around you, and that may be precisely the problem.

Accept them as they are, and help them as you can. Pray without ceasing, if that is your tradition. Don't abstract from the specific to the general; you destroy the specific beauty of Creation when you do that. You replace the Creator with yourself, and end up building your own hell. Look at the specific, and appreciate it for what it is, and do what you can to make it better, to make it right. Berry talks of agriculture as using nature to improve nature, to make it productive and fruitful in ways it cannot be alone. People cannot be productive and fruitful on their own, either, and it takes other people to help them.

Not by educating them, or changing their minds, or creating new structures of power to replace the old. Those structures always re-create the problems of the old structures, anyway. No, the answer for Christians lies in seeing people for who they are, and yourself for who you are, and being a follower, not an admirer. A follower of the Way; of the big idea that people matter most, not systems, or structures, or traditions.

The paradox of the need for such systems and structures and traditions, we will save for another day.

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