Thursday, March 09, 2017

Despised and Rejected

I've been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship lately. It's not a particularly fun read, but it's really good. There's enough there I could probably write something every day, but you get this one (and maybe a few more). In chapter four he talks about the call to take up our cross and follow Christ.

When Jesus calls his followers to take up their cross, he's calling them to the same path he walks - despised and rejected by humanity. Sometimes we forget this means everyone. Since we've formed this religion that reveres his sacrifice, we forget that Jesus was rejected even by his friends, family, and faith community. The call of Christ is counter-cultural and I think, in many ways, it works counter to every culture. To be faithful to the call of Christ we may very well have to challenge the very community that introduced us to Christ.

I think about my Sunday School class. We try to deal with difficult things - a few weeks ago was Christ's command to love your enemies - there's a real struggle between those who recognize the goal and their own failure to achieve it and those who have somehow compromised the goal in order to be able to achieve it. It's easy for us to move the goalposts, so to speak - Bonhoeffer calls this "cheap grace," that is accepting salvation and forgiveness without it costing us something (or costing less than it demands).

We live in a society that, despite the doom and gloom on the internet, is still very much a "christian" culture - even if it's more of a civil religion than anything resembling Christ. There is a general consensus on salvation as afterlife and not something that impacts the present beyond a general morality. When we really get to know each other, though, we discover the distance between a faith that demands something of us and a faith that merely wants us to get along. Perhaps this is why we, even within a congregation, resist those moments of real intimacy; we just don't want to be divided from each other. We don't want our culture countered.

I don't think this counter-culture has to be an outright rejection of tradition, though, but perhaps a pushing at the borders. A faithful member of any religious group does not need to - and certainly shouldn't - dump the framework from which they arose, but must, almost by necessity, expand and explore that framework in ways that make previous generations uncomfortable. This is the taking up of our cross.

I think about this in relation to Christian colleges, where parents send their kids, often in the hopes they'll be molded traditionally, when in fact they're challenged to engage Christ more deeply, which requires a reorganization of tradition. People might lose the faith of their childhood, but develop faith anew in new ways. That's a bit scary, especially to parents and loved ones, but it's necessary for vibrancy and, most importantly, obedience to Christ.

If we are taking up our cross in imitation of Christ, there will be conflict. Even among those most proficient at expressing grace for the journey to new places, an internal conflict arises. I can love and respect the faithful actions of my children without necessarily agreeing or understanding. This is a healthy approach to the counter-cultural gospel, even if it's difficult.

In the end, though, what this chapter reminds me is that the gospel is a truth that requires a response. Doing nothing is not an option. We must accept or reject, but trying to ride the tide will only wash us away. I see great conflicts bubbling beneath (and not so beneath) the surface of many Christian groups and denominations these days. Yes, both progressive and traditional perspectives have their own value and their own pitfalls; it can't be an either/or, black/white, good/bad dichotomy. At the same, though, we have to anticipate inevitable tension, because that is a requirement of faithful gospel response.

Taking up our cross means we will be despised and rejected. The key is to be truly counter-cultural and not accommodationist. The true temptation of progress is to follow the path of least resistance, when clearly the example of Christ ventures the way of most.

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