Knowing How to be the Church?

church-and-mountainsWritten by Kevin Timpe

Kevin Timpe is currently the William Harry Jellema Chair in Christian Philosophy at Calvin College. Most of his previous work has focused on agency, virtue, and issues in the philosophy of religion. These days, he thinks a lot about disability and how we could reconfigure our social structures in ways that would better include those who have them. His website can be found at kevintimpe.com.
Here’s a question I’ve been thinking about (in part because people have asked me it): What should the role of the church be in response to the turmoil of the recent election?

In one sense, this is an easy question to answer. The Church’s response should be what the Church’s response should always be. To faithfully proclaim the good news. To participate in the redemption of the entire world through sacrificial and sanctifying love. To help its members love God with all their being. To embody the Flesh broken and the Blood poured out for all humanity. To care for the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the oppressed. To lay down our lives for the lives of others.

All that is to say, the Church’s response is to be the Church—the Body of Christ—as it is called to be.

All that is, I think, true. And in one sense, that’s the most true answer I know to give. But in another sense, it’s a cop-out, a platitude, a ‘Sunday school answer’ of the sort that I’ve grown to despise. Such words may be true, but they can also ring hollow.

Even now, two weeks after the election, how does one attempt to answer this question in a non-platitudinous way, a way that doesn’t cheapen the situation our country and those in it are in by suggesting such an easy answer?

Like many other people, I don’t know. Our default, or at least my default, is to think about what needs to be done on a systemic level. End racism, sexism, economic oppression, and the continued (and likely irreversible) destruction of the environment? Of course—though I don’t know how. Organize to mobilize against the unjust, irrational, and unloving social structures that permeate our contemporary American lives? Sign me up—but someone will have to tell me the details. Take to our college campuses and streets in public protest? I’m all for it—but I hope and pray that such protests don’t inspire further violence in a deeply polarized political climate. Abolish the two party-system and the electoral college? Maybe.

But how to do any of this?

The structural issues for many of us are paralyzing. As soon as I come across what I think might be a good idea, I come across reasons why it’s a bad idea or won’t work. I, like probably millions of individuals across the country, don’t know how to take on the structural issues. I’m left in a paralyzing haze of anger, uncertainty, and good intentions run amuck.

We absolutely need to figure out these issues. We need to keep thinking about how to best work on the macro-scale to improve our country, our culture, our communities. But as we do that, we absolutely cannot wait to take small steps in our own lives, in our neighborhoods.

May I take a stand against every injustice in my local community that I see. May I help erase the racist graffiti on the houses of worship that are the object of hate. May I talk with my kids about why they shouldn’t exclude others simply because they’re different in some way, visible but ultimately unimportant. May they come to know that race, gender, sex, political affiliation, disability status, degree of beauty or socio-economic status is less important than our common humanity. May I work to make sure that people in my own community aren’t denied housing based on their refugee status or ethnicity or gender identity. May I tolerate no bullying and speak against it wherever I see it. May I model to my students that tolerating an injustice we could stand against is to be complicit in that injustice. May I not forget that nearly every economic choice I make has environmental implications that my children will have to live with. May I take steps both small and large to undermine the sexism and misogyny that is so interwoven into the fabric of our daily lives. May I admit, both to myself and in public, the ways that my privilege is largely a result of historical oppression and mistreatment, even if I played no active role in either. May I not minimize the fear that so many feel and is historically understandable simply because I am safe and likely to remain so.

And let us not forget that the Body that is broken and the Blood that is poured out for me is also poured out for my ‘political enemy’. It’s poured out for the president whom I think will be bad for our country. For those of different religious creeds and faiths. For the oppressed. And also for those who perpetrate the oppression.

How do we love the oppressed and the oppressor, without condoning the harm the latter perpetrates against the former?

If I knew that, I’d know how to be the Church.

 

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2 thoughts on “Knowing How to be the Church?

  1. Michelle Panchuk

    Regarding the last two sentences:

    I’ve been discussing this question with my friends quite a lot recently. I agree that it is central to the Christian story that love and grace extend both to the oppressed and to the oppressor. It also seems like empathy is integral to love. But the oppressed often experience their friends’ empathy toward the oppressor as a fundamental betrayal. How can they trust us if we can willingly take on (even empathetically) the perspective of those who degrade them? Are they wrong to feel this way? I don’t know. Probably they are, if the comparison is with perfect beings in a perfect environment. But as the limited, broken beings we are, in the incredibly messy world in which we find ourselves, I’m not sure we should expect anything different.

    Here is an example of what I mean: the rapist and a rape survivor both need the love of Jesus, but if you choose to be buddies with the unrepentant rapist, for the sake of sharing Christ’s love, I’m not sure most rape survivors are going to trust you. They aren’t going to believe that you really understand the soul-crushing weight of their experience, or trust you to have their back when people come out judge them for ruining someone’s life with their accusations. I think something similar is going on with our current political climate.

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  2. Michelle,

    Absolutely fantastic follow-up. I’m going to reply to parts of what you wrote by interleaving.

    You: “But the oppressed often experience their friends’ empathy toward the oppressor as a fundamental betrayal.”

    Me: I agree that this is a danger. And I wouldn’t encourage individuals to express what I’m trying to get across to an individual who is presently being oppressed. (In general, I think it can be morally problematic to say things at certain times even if they’re true.)

    You: “But as the limited, broken beings we are, in the incredibly messy world in which we find ourselves, I’m not sure we should expect anything different.”

    Me: I’m inclined to agree. I think there are various kinds of goods (such as reconciliation between oppressor and oppressed) that we likely can’t expect in the present life. I think we sometimes see this kind of reconciliation. But I think it would be problematic to expect it in all cases. And often wrong to push the oppressed towards this goal. Nevertheless, I do think that the Gospel calls us (and commands us) to love all.

    You: “Here is an example of what I mean: the rapist and a rape survivor both need the love of Jesus, but if you choose to be buddies with the unrepentant rapist, for the sake of sharing Christ’s love, I’m not sure most rape survivors are going to trust you.”

    Me: Oh, I’d certainly understand if the survivor didn’t trust me in this scenario. (It’s similar to things that have happened in our discipline.) But I didn’t say anything about being buddies with the individual in question. And if we are friends with them, then our friendship requires us to get them to end and confess their oppression. (Insert Stump’s stuff on the obligation of fraternal correction here.)

    So in general I think we’re not that far off on the issues you raise. I think they’re worth talking about, and welcome that opportunity here. But the original post was limited in what it was (and wasn’t) trying to do.

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