Reflecting Christ in a World of War
Arguing theology can land you in jail. That's what a Georgia couple found out after seeing Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." The movie sparked a debate between them about whether God the Father in the Holy Trinity was human or symbolic, and then words gave way to violence. The police report cited injuries to the woman's face and arm, and the man, whose shirt was shredded, suffered a stab wound from scissors. The couple was released on $1,000 bail.
My own list of failings is too long for me to ridicule this couple, who admit this is the "dumbest thing" they have ever done. Instead, I can't help but see this incident as a fable about antagonism within the church.
The church is called to live out a story of peace, and the most important time to live out this story is during war. We live in a "world of war," to use Stanley Hauerwas' phrase, a world permeated with conflict. Yet recent headlines suggest the church is living out a story not of peace but of schism and infighting:
> "Catholics, Protestants clash in southern Mexico" (Catholic World News, April 6, 2004)
> "Dissident bishops hold defiant service" (Christian Century, April 6, 2004)
> "Southern Baptists move closer to split" (Tennessean, February 18, 2004)
> "Split visions for Presbyterians, Episcopalians" (Christian Century, October 4, 2003)
> "Traditionalists deny rumors of reconciliation" (National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 2003)
Serious matters of faithful conviction underlie the conflicts behind these headlines; nevertheless, they force us to ask whether we really believe, as stated by the Nicene Creed, in "one holy catholic and apostolic church."
Mutual respect between denominations is an essential part of our witness to the world. I once took a course with Cambridge-educated New Testament scholar Rikk Watts, whose denominational background is Assemblies of God. Underscoring St. Paul's yearning for unity in the church, Dr. Watts said in a lecture that he was sometimes tempted to attend Mass with Catholics to make the point to his Assemblies of God friends that Catholics are not second-rate Christians. Dr. Watts was on to something.
The way Christians treat one another, as institutions and as individuals, is perhaps the ultimate argument for or against a non-Christian's decision to enter our midst and become a part of our life and work. This is especially true in our post-Enlightenment era, when propositional truths take a backseat to narrative examples.
I am part of a group of about seven Episcopal parishioners who meet monthly to socialize and talk about God. When a man began attending our church, we invited him to join us at a bar for one of our regular gatherings. A beer at his elbows, this gentleman explained that he was a new Christian and went on to tell the story of his journey to faith. He seemed happy to be with us and later said he was looking forward to our next get-together. Here's a guy who not long ago took the bold step of entering the Christian faith, and he needed a place to talk about it. A kind-hearted community invited him to do so with them, and he took his place among them.
On the other hand, people who leave the church are often driven away from the inside. A friend with whom I served in a college ministry explained to me that she had left the faith because a group of Christians had horribly mistreated her. Sadly, she is not alone.
I fear the image non-Christians have of the church is that of a large body with many tentacles that fight each other – an octopus tied up in knots. Christ offered a different image. He crossed borders of culture and theology to identify with such people as adulterers, Samaritans, and the deformed, to name a few. Theologian N. T. Wright has noted that in the crucifixion Jesus identified even with the firebrand brigands whose agenda for God's people ran sharply counter to his own. He quite literally took the place of such a brigand, Barabbas, and died between two more.
In a world of war the church has a unique opportunity – not to mention a divine commission – to draw people to herself by reflecting the unifying image of Christ.
Chad Allen is an editor with Baker Books in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com.