I had a conversation with a priest friend. He described a more or less perfect “church campus” in a small North Eastern boutique town. There is the venerable town-center worship center, behind it an education facility, a couple of blocks away a rural poverty support program, and on the corner a second-hand store helping fund the social-service outreach. But despite its evident virtue the church campus is not attracting newcomers. The church is stagnant, in fact slowly dying.
What are they doing wrong?
Church and worship have to do with the in-breaking of transcendence, and it seems that the average citizen of the small town finds her transcendence elsewhere; or nowhere.
In fact old transcendence itself seems to be dying, and perhaps directly under the cultural impact of the gospel. Gone is the great-deity-on-high and with it the threat of eternal consequences, and instead there is a questioning of power itself and the violence that underpins it. The question could take us on several related rabbit trails (e.g. some churches specialize in preserving or restoring that sense of violent power within the four walls of their building), but let me stick to an image that struck me and I shared with my friend.
Life in an evolutionary sense emerged from a soup of proteins that somehow combined into the primitive single cell. The “somehow” is not the question. What is relevant is the background chaos of materials which provided the necessary environment from which life came. It is the “culture medium” which is critical in producing life.
The account of the first Pentecost tells us the Spirit created the first primitive church out of a babble of tongues. It hearkens us back to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. According to Walter Brueggemann the scattering that the Lord brought about, produced by the confusion of tongues, was for the sake of a larger creative purpose of ingathering and unity. And of course we see that in the outpouring of Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Spirit of boundary-breaking nonviolence overcoming difference and separation in forgiving love.
What if today we are witnessing another kind of scattering? One not signaled by diversity of languages (we have facebook to translate for us), but by the breakdown and chaos of even more closely identifying structures of specialness and difference. We have a fragmentation and dissonance within “natural” unities such as race, nation, gender, along with a media which heightens the discord with every voice, opinion and “alternative fact” as valid as the next. Fake news is the news: there is a breakdown of “truth” itself. And with that, of course, there is the critically heightened sense of violence, precisely because unified structures of meaning and truth–single narratives–are there to protect against rivalry and conflict, against violence itself.
This then is the culture medium where the gospel word should be operating, in which it announces its alternative truth of unbounded love in the space of agitation and disarray. Respect for difference is not enough: there has to be the positive experience of transforming love “by which everyone will know you are my disciples.” This kind of love reaches out as well to those who feel impelled to recreate old unities for the sake of fending off the sense of violence. The fragmentation of “natural” unities is, therefore, in order to bring about a new kind of humanity. It is the creative space, like the confusion of languages, in which a genuinely new life of positive love can emerge. Without this present-day chaotic medium we would never be moved to produce this self-replicating “cell” of new human being.
Paradoxically, the gospel’s most natural sphere is not the settled order, but the place where the apparent virtues of such an order break down–in the lives of individuals who experience it as hurt and violence: the marginalized, the violated, the oppressed. The fact that the church campus I described is concerned for the poor cannot preclude that at some point it belongs itself to macro structures which create the poor (e.g. privilege, war, class etc.) The poor have always been blessed by the gospel, but today we have all entered a new kind of poverty where violence itself impoverishes our existence. And so that other beatitude, which is ineptly translated “blessed are the meek,” becomes first in significance. “Blessed are the nonviolent” is the joyful meaning of the gospel for those who consciously opt for it, out of a culture of violence, out of the generative roots of culture exposed to the light as violence.
So the gospel becomes the ability to live in this space with transcendent love, forgiveness and peace. Blessed are the nonviolent for they shall inherit the earth!