Last week was a horrible week. The Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent hunt for the perpetrators, the plant explosion in West Texas and the information that it could have been prevented, the force-feeding of prisoners in Guantanamo (made more public) and the realization that nobody intends to stop, the earthquake in China, bombings in Iraq and Somalia. It was a rough week. It was particularly poignant in a time where we are inundated with tragedies. In the information age, we are awash in the stories that are both far and near. The world is our neighborhood and the alert pastor can scarcely become coherent for the prayer chain or email, before the next crisis comes in, and it is time to reframe again.
One of the worst things to come out of this glut of prayer need is how impotent even the best of us can feel. Those of us whose faith is carried in our feet and our hands feel drained. What next? How do we help now? What collection/drive/prayer vigil will stem this tide of longing for God and God’s peace? We know Jesus is on the ground, acting, and Jesus’ people aren’t far behind.
Still, the church struggles for relevance in this age of fear- to make a statement about what it means to live and die in Christ. In The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Radically Subversive Way of Jesus, Robin Meyers says, “Of all the reasons given for the decline of the church in our time, the number one reason is often left unsaid: no one really expects anything important to happen.” (4) As I read this last week, I wondered how much that is true. How many of our churches are filled with butts in seats that want to preserve the pleasant backdrop for theirfuneral or the wedding of their child or the baptism of their grandchild? God still does great work through God’s church, but do we expect it? Are we willing participants? Do we crave subverting the culture and empire for the sake of the cross?
Meyers says we cannot answer that longing by trying to perfect our doctrines and creedal statements:
How odd that the word faith and the word certainty should be joined when absolute certainty eliminates the need for faith. Absolute certainty, by definition, is orphaned from grace. In needs nothing beyond itself. It is entirely self-possessed. Certainty turns truth into dogma and goes through life in search of question marks that can be turned into periods- or, better yet, exclamation points. (116)
Instead of arguing until we’re blue about who is wrong about what, we must come to understand that there is a politics of the gospel. It is clear and it is the place around which we are specifically called to bring light to the world.
Here is a point of convergence for liberals and conservatives around what seems like an impossible divide. Whereas conservatives have often claimed inerrant scripture or infallible tradition as authoritative, liberals often retreated into a kind of postmodern ethical relativism that forbids them to judge any idea as better or worse than another idea- just different. So let’s be clear about something. In the Underground Church, we do not expect complete doctrinal agreement, but neither do we believe in a world of equally valid ideas or behaviors. Peace is better than war because life is better than death. Children need protection. Either all of us matter or none of us do. Idolatry is the mother and father of all sin. Loving the neighbor, not one’s opinion of the neighbor, is closer to the heart of God. Welcoming the stranger is not optional. (119)
The main premise of The Underground Church is that faith is our actions coupled with our trust in God to use and perfect those actions. The main arguments in any church are (most of the time) about things that do not matter in the light of the needs of the world.
Likewise the purpose of a church that functions subversively is not simply to confirm or to inspire but to undo people. The ultimate objective of preaching is not to score performance points or create a fan club but to create in everyone present the feeling that the more one trusts in the basic equation of the gospel (we lose out lives in order to find them), the more obligated we feel to let go of the sickness that is self-sufficiency. Me, Myself, and I is the unholy trinity. Looking out for number one is the anti-gospel. Enough is never enough will ultimately be enough to do us all in. (223f)
We recently read this book for my congregation’s book club. The people who read the book loved it. The conversation lasted over 2.5 hours. They were very taken with Meyer’s ideas around the church’s call to be different and difference in the world. His unfolding of the subversive nature of the early church- its resistance of Rome, its countercultural meetings, its willingness to put the imitation of Christ above all things- is very new to some ears and a powerful siren call to those who’ve heard it before, but forgotten.
Even if you suspect this might not be for your congregation, it is time for you to read this book for yourself. It is time to be reminded of our call to be different and to do so at all cost. In a time of darkness and deep sadness, the world needs the call of peace, of neighbor love, of radical forgiveness (in other words, the message of Jesus) now more than ever. Robin Meyers’ riff on that call is brisk and refreshing.