Our New Task

The newer perspective on justification by faith advocated in various studies in Pauline Theology by N.T. Wright and others, is now utterly relevant to our historical situation. Such work cannot be merely avant garde theologizing.

In Luther’s day, everyone was “in” as regards the Church and the faith.  We were all a part of Christendom. The problem then was fundamentally vertical, and the question was “how do I find a merciful God?”  But now, almost everyone is “out” and our problem is horizontal. Without questioning any of Luther’s doctrine, we need to see that our context is different, and the questions of our age are not primarily the questions of his. Justification by faith means that we are reconciled to God (yes), but also, and as a consequence, we are reconciled to each other.

We have no idea how bitter the divisions of the ancient world were. WE HAVE NO IDEA: “having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create one new man from the two, thus making peace” (Ephesians 2:15)  The enmity of the law here is not principally alienation from God. It is my enmity and bitterness at any other man, or people group that is not part of my people group. We have violated the law against one another, so someone must die. Violence is necessary. Hence, as the work of Rene Girard has dramatically demonstrated, every people group in the ancient world was built around and survived around some central scapegoat who represented the threat of the outside. Someone must die for our souls to be satisfied.  Well, Christ died for all (every people group, every generation). Now, we can be reconciled.

I was raised in the Presbyterian Church, and I am still a Presbyterian, but one of the largest influences on me was my re-conversion to Christianity through the old Moral Re-Armament movement. Virtually the only thing we remember about these folks nowadays is that they were the parent group to what became Alcoholics Anonymous. Other than that, the memory of Moral Re-Armament is not too flattering, usually distorted, and obscures their real accomplishments. They did amazing things, and were fifty or seventy years ahead of the curve. When I first read Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, who became my great teacher, my thought was, “he is theorizing what I saw them do.”

After World War II, the movement had a chance to purchase a huge old Swiss resort named Caux at a basement price, because it had been spoiled through troop quartering during the war. News was cabled to Frank Buchman, the leader of the movement, who was in America all through the war, in early 1946, asking what he thought of the possible purchase. He cabled back immediately, “Buy.” It was large enough for large, continuous conferences, and was in Switzerland, the only possible place in Europe that European wide reconciliations could take place (because of their neutral stance during the war). The place was purchased, and restored through much sacrifice and volunteerism.

A great conference was staged with people from “every” nation in shattered Europe. The conference began as a gala event. Buchman was on his way from America. Everyone anticipated his arrival with great joy, and anticipated his great pleasure in all that had been accomplished. The day arrived, and a great reception was planned. Everything was perfect. There was music with orchestra and brass. There were colorful folk dancers from every nation.  Buchman walked in, looked around, and spoke the unspeakable. He said, “Where are the Germans?” Everyone was stunned and speechless. He said, “If you think you are going to rebuild Europe without the Germans, you are living in a dolt’s daydream.” And he went to his room.

He was assured that this was impossible. Germans were not allowed out of Germany at that time. And the far deeper truth was nobody wanted them there. Most of these people had lost family members both as war casualties and in prison and concentration camps. Buchman was adamant. The Germans must be there. The impossible must be done. A contingency of more than a hundred Germans came (the first Germans allowed to leave Germany). The group included Konrad Adenauer, who later became the Chancellor of West Germany.

Impossible things happened that were extremely costly: Jesus Christ came alive. In that Swiss hotel, supernaturally, reconciliations transpired, and this was the first place that the Germans were welcomed back into the family of the world’s nations. Through these people, Adenauer met Frenchmen, including Robert Schuman, the Prime Minister of France, with whom he commenced to work to bring reconciliation between France and Germany.  The story of this reconciliation that ultimately issued in the so called “Schuman Plan” is remarkable, and the foundations for it all came through what transpired at Caux. Not much later, the first contingency of people allowed to leave Japan also came to Caux, and this was their first welcoming back into the family of nations. That group included Nebusuke Kishi, who later became the only Christian Prime Minister that Japan has ever had, and similar reconciliations transpired with them as with the Germans.

We live in a supposedly “postmodern” world. If you will permit bluntness on my part, postmodernism is academic tribalism. It states that the only universal principle is that there are not universally recognized principles whereby people can discourse with one another. It is the complete death of the Enlightenment dream, which believed in objective principles of reason that were equally accessible to all.

In many ways the critique is very trenchant. Presuppositionless reason is an illusion. But now, in order to hold on to some shred of the possibility of unity between variously reasoning groups, we hear commonly touted as the basis, “our common human nature.” This too is an illusion. “Our common human nature” is the problem, not the solution.  Our common human nature is dominated by what the Apostle Paul terms “the works of the flesh,” which include: “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like.” It can only result in a humanistic return to the ancient pagan reality that every little people group will build itself around some scapegoat that represents and then protects against the outside enemy.

This translates into endless war. Just as tribes in New Guinea literally cannot talk to one another, because on a systematic basis, everyword is understood as the word of an enemy of the tribe, so in our world, language is increasingly impossible between people and generations, and even husbands and wives.  Everyword is misinterpreted. Everyword is passed through the filter of, “this person is an enemy, a betrayer.” Every time I get on the bus, and see four or five kids with purple hair, and tattoos, and pierced noses and ears, and chains for necklaces, I shudder. These are only the more visible signs of re-tribalisation that is true everywhere. For the first time in more than a thousand years, we are in a position to re-apprehend what the miracle of the book of Acts is about, what all of this talk about One New Man in the place of two is all about.

And in all of this, our denominational splits are quite largely of the same stuff. Reconciliation first happens in the church, and the church actually represents the world as “the royal priesthood, a holy nation” that is able to bring reconciliation to the nations. In terms of our suspicions of one another, look at Acts 9:26-27: “And when Saul had come into Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe he was a disciple.” But he was reconciled. The Gentile mission was different from the Jewish mission, and the church almost split over it. But here they were held together.

First Sadducees and Pharisees experimentally learned that they could be one in Christ.  Then, it was Samaritans. Then, it was the Ethiopian Eunuch, who represented one of the scandals in the closet of Israel. The Queen of Sheba left Solomon’s court with a little more than his wisdom, and to this day there are black Jews in Ethiopia and elsewhere in northern Africa, who trace their linage back to her. This family scandal was brought out of the closet through Philip the Deacon, and this group was given full inclusion in the Covenant through Jesus Christ. After this, every Gentile people group were gone to, and this is largely the story of the Apostle Paul in the bulk of the book.

This was the great miracle that transpired through the raising of Jesus from the dead, and was a kind of rising of the dead of a dead and divided humanity. And so it is with us. Our collective task is to bring the supernatural power of Christ to people who hate one another, and in fact predicate their whole identity on being against each other.

The “us against them” mode is very potent. But it can be overcome. It is overcome, not through programmes or discussion, but by the power of the Matchmaking Spirit of God who comes in the name of Jesus Christ. And it does not need to wait for international conferences in church, business, or state. It can start right now in little churches, where the Spirit is always operating through Word, Community, and Sacrament, as we follow the Apostolic command to “one-another” each other, so that “each esteems the other better than himself.” This is the outworking of justification by faith for our time, and defines the new adventure, which looks very much like a renewed book of Acts, for our time.

Our “common human nature” is the problem. Jesus’ human nature as the God-Man is the renewed human nature, and is the solution. His Body and His Blood are what remake the world, and grant us to partake in this renewed and holy new nature.

Rev. Richard Bledsoe lives and ministers to the church in Boulder, Colorado.