March 14, 2012 Permalink
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
In the Presidential election of 2008 I became convinced that something had irrevocably changed. Pointed political rhetoric is not new. Excessive villainizing of the “other” is not new. But never before had I seen such a divisive, partisan spirit at work within the Church. It was mother against daughter and father against son. For the community of the baptized, the sign of our fellowship was no longer the Eucharistic meal. Baptism and communion took a backseat for a new Shibboleth, where the litmus test was now whether or not you had the right political positions. I was still on Facebook then, and people’s Facebook walls were like civil war battlefields.
I do not easily or sloppily throw out charged spiritual rhetoric toward angels and demons, but something about the atmosphere felt eerie to me. That lines were being crossed for the people of God we would not easily come back from, and that something more sinister was at work than we could rationally conceive. It had nothing to do with particular politicians or political parties or even the new realities of social media. It transcended technology and ideology. And what came back to me over and over again was the Apostle Paul’s phrase “the spirit of the age.” Something deeper and darker than charged political discourse, a disposition of blaming and condemning that seemed to be getting into our bones. It was getting down deeper than any part of us than even the Spirit of God could seem to touch. Something that animated us with fury.
To be very clear, I do not attempt to discourage Christians from political action. I am the sort who believes that the kingdom of God is a radical alternative to both right and left, that articulating a clear and consistent kingdom ethic would probably get you in trouble with most everybody. Hence I would prefer to see Christians in politics operate in a way that subverts all the traditional alternatives more creatively. But even within the conventional boundaries, I am always sympathetic to people’s desire to put their faith in action–even when it leads them to care about diverse or even divergent “issues.”
And yet there is the specter of the spirit of the age, the spirit of this world order. It is not a “right wing conspiracy,” it is not a “leftist socialist agenda.” It is a biting, blaming, angry force that is more determinative in our relationships than the baptism. I understand that there is place for anger in prophetic witness–I have been shaped by the Old Testament prophets. I understand that there are injustices that should rightly move us. Yet in a world accommodated to perpetual outrage, I wonder if tenderness is not a more conspicuous witness. I wonder if there is anything left so odd as genuine kindness.
It is the spirit of the age that makes us hellbent on being “right.” It is the kingdom of God that is heavenbent on making us merciful. When we operate according to the spirit of the age, we are utilitarian enough to use any means necessary to get our point across. In the kingdom of God, means matter because the medium is the message. To put it more simply, we don’t just proclaim the cross of Christ, we live cross-shaped lives. Thus it is not just a matter of whether or not we are right but whether or not we are loving. Getting the words right, the idea right, is secondary to having a heart that is enamored with God and broken for others.
I continue to think the demoniac in Mark 5 is the mascot for these times, because he like us was beholden to a legion of voices–all of whom shout for our attention, all of whom demand and coerce. A vast choir of dissonant voices competing for our attention. They are terrestrial voices, and yet they serve the purposes of the one Scripture calls “the prince of the power of the air.” Some are conservative, some are liberal. And yet in so many ways they are the same, because they are so unlike the voice of love that calls us out of the fog and into the peculiar virtue of compassion. What could be more tragic than for the people of God in our broken political sphere to become nothing more than another loud voice? Voices whose tone and tenor are not broken by the interruption of grace, voices that are indistinguishable from the rest save for the fact that we use Bible verses and the name of Jesus to reinforce our claims?
Compassion. Kindness. Humility. Meekness. Patience. These are other-worldly virtues that are exist under the order of another kingdom and another King. They are the markers of a new way of being human, a way the world knows not–a world where forgiveness and peace orient our lives. And yet these other-worldly virtues can be made manifest in this world order, this kingdom can come down to the people of the earth. The message of this kingdom cannot be proclaimed though in the spirit of the age. Even if we get the doctrines right, the ideas right–it won’t matter if we just become another angry voice.