24 Questions for Advent: Seven
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see? – Les Miserables, Finale
I love the play Les Miserables, and have had the privilege to see it twice onstage. It is based upon one of the most powerful and enduring stories of redemption in all of literature. Through all the harsh realities of poverty, pain, injustice and evil, the story testifies to the hope of the salvation of the human soul and a better world “beyond the barricade.”
The cure for poverty is more than money; it is opportunity. The cure for despair is more than relief; it is hope.
So we have no reason to despair. Despite the fact that our outer humanity is falling apart and decaying, our inner humanity is breathing in new life every day. You see, the short-lived pains of this life are creating for us an eternal glory that does not compare to anything we know here. So we do not set our sights on the things we can see with our eyes. All of that is fleeting; it will eventually fade away. Instead, we focus on the things we cannot see, which live on and on.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18
We may know this, and yet it is hard to live in this life of “outer humanity.” We are sensual beings, and how we feel and experience these pains, short-lived as they may be, is the ultimate challenge of life on earth. The hope expressed in Scripture is a powerful way to keep our focus on things eternal. Yet sometimes, those of us who profess to be followers of the Gospel can be guilty of using this hope as a spiritual band-aid to the very real pain that many people face each day.
Early in Church history, there were powerful debates about the nature of the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds. Believers in Christ were at odds over even the nature of Jesus, how he could be both physical Man and eternal God. One of the many beliefs that the Church had to confront was Gnosticism, which was a second-century religious movement claiming that salvation could be gained through a special form of secret knowledge. Early Christian church fathers such as Origen, Tertullian, Justin Martyr and Eusebius of Caesarea condemned gnostic teachers and beliefs as heretical.
Gnostics believed that the world was divided into the physical and spiritual realms. The created, material world (matter) is evil, and therefore in opposition to the world of the spirit, and that only the spirit is good. By the end of the second century, many Gnostics broke away or were expelled from the church. They formed alternative churches with belief systems deemed heretical by the Christian church.
Though the Gnostic movement has long since passed away, the idea of dualism continues to exist in many people’s beliefs, even today. It often comes in the form of simplistic “spiritual” responses to complex human problems that separate the Church from the rest of the world. In an interview in 1982, Christian music artist Mark Heard made this observation:
There is a fine line between having Christian fellowship within a community, and having an exclusive Christian community outside the community. And I think here is the point where we begin not relating to society sufficiently, according to our Biblical responsibility. It's too easy nowadays to retreat to the Christian ghetto. When we're active in Christian circles to the exclusion of activity in the larger circle, we're widening the ideological gap instead of trying to bridge it. (And by activity, I don't mean meetings, I mean dialogue.) Thus, the Church continues in its own world while general society continues in its own world. So, "secular" society continues in the paths into which it has been thrust by the academics and politics of recent years, and the inertia carries it forward, while "Christian" society continues in its own path, occasionally voicing reactionary comments to secular society, but, nevertheless, independent of it. Our reactionary statements usually don't do too much good, because they come too late. We often don't see the problems until they become so big that they look over the walls of our Christian villages and threaten to eat us alive.
Liner notes in the album Victims of the Age, 1982
I have had similar concerns in my own interactions with fellow believers over the years. What has resulted in the present day, I believe, are the cultural wars over what America is based upon and the “alternative facts” which make dialogue increasingly difficult between people of different ideologies. We circle the wagons and get defensive with others, trying to create and live in a separate society, rather than immerse ourselves in the world as salt and light as Jesus directed.
On April 18, 2018, Church leaders from many denominations came together to profess and sign Reclaiming Jesus – A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis to re-assert the importance of the Church’s witness to the world and reject dangerous ideologies that undermine the truth of the Gospel. The pre-amble of the Confession includes these words:
It is often the duty of Christian leaders, especially elders, to speak the truth in love to our churches and to name and warn against temptations, racial and cultural captivities, false doctrines, and political idolatries—and even our complicity in them. We do so here with humility, prayer, and a deep dependency on the grace and Holy Spirit of God. (You can see a video of leaders reciting the Confession here: https://sojo.net/media/reclaiming-jesus-time-crisis)
May our lives demonstrate the real hope in Christ that we have, not only for the eternal to come, but in the present lives of our neighbors today, who struggle with all kinds of poverty and despair. May we be good news to the poor in how we live, love & embrace others.