by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 27-July 4, 1990, p. 630, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
How a cynic might delight in our liturgies that come stocked with prayers of confession.
Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?
Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword . . . those who do not take their cross and follow me are not worthy of me
I don’t think I’m alone in confessing that my instinctive answer to Paul’s rhetorical question is very different from his. Though I could wish to echo Paul’s “By no means!” Luther’s “Be a sinner and sin strongly, but even more strongly have faith and rejoice in Christ” is a cornerstone of my ethics.
I’m not a murderer, mugger, rapist or dope pusher: I strive to be a faithful and gentle spouse, a good role model to children. I try to pursue my career with integrity. I keep informed, vote, pay my taxes. I’m a reasonably exemplary citizen, as I’m sure are many of my fundamentalist, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Jewish neighbors. It isn’t any theological superiority that makes me a civil paragon; it’s more a function of my class and economic status. We ought not to despise such civic virtue. Marxist or Freudian accusations notwithstanding, religious folk are generally a societal boon.
Still, our good citizenship is quite beside the point when measured against Jesus’ reckless eschatological imperatives involving swords and crosses. Indeed, our profoundly felt obligations to our families, jobs, country and all that we have at stake temper our zeal for radical commitment and render us cooperative citizens even though our society exhibits so much de facto atheism. Our worldliness leaves us hoping that Jesus’ grace will in the end overwhelm his demands.
Most of us know in our souls that we have no intention of fulfilling Jesus’ incredible demands: sell all, resist not the evil man or woman, take no heed for the morrow, leave one’s family, bear the cross. Our premeditated disobedience makes our claims to being Christian somewhat curious. How a cynic might delight in our liturgies that come stocked with prayers of confession. We “confess” from the start that our hope lies in our whining for God’s forgiveness.
Appeals to cheap grace are not our only recourse. Ingenious theologians can make the eschatological otherworldly import of Jesus’ teaching vanish before our eyes. Thus, we can style ourselves obedient when in fact we are merely being guided by one or another set of worldly ethical agendas — some noble, some base. Christians have convinced themselves that they were following Jesus by joining a host of irreconcilable movements from the New Deal to laissez-faire capitalism, from Nazism to Marxism, from paternalism to feminism. Jesus can be made the champion of every cause.
Medieval monasticism was one such effort to adapt Jesus’ apocalyptic agenda to the world. Christians venerating martyrdom found in monasticism a way to martyr their own flesh. Ironically, the walls of monasteries and convents made such self-mortification relatively secure in the unstable feudal world; indeed, many mortified their flesh amid works of aesthetic splendor. Luther saw monasticism as a human substitution for God’s righteous order. However, in calling Christians out of monasteries into the world he opened up a very different coopting of Jesus’ imperatives: becoming indistinguishable from the world. Luther, the former monk who exposed the accommodations and pride behind asceticism, suits our cultural hedonism just fine.
We are left dumbfounded by Jesus’ statement “Blessed are the poor.” Poverty seems to us a curse: “For you always have the poor with you.” Mainline Christian social ethics are shaped by the ideal of a world without poverty. We would regard it as obscene if preachers taught the poor to be content in their poverty. We preach social justice and not martyrdom, economic equity and not poverty. Jesus’ words are way out of step with the best thinking of the church.
In his story of the Grand Inquisitor, Dostoevsky charged that if Jesus returned to preach anew, his words would so unsettle the church, which had compromised Jesus’ teachings to make them humanly bearable, that we would have to kill him. That there are exceptions to Dostoevsky’s point, like a Mother Teresa, simply underscores the fact that the rest of us have determined to go our own way.
Jesus’ apocalyptic radicalism is irrelevant to the worldly requirement of any age. In Christ and Culture H. Richard Niebuhr quotes Joseph Klauser’s powerful charge: “‘Jesus ignored everything concerned with material civilization: in this sense he does not belong to civilization.’ Therefore, his people rejected him; and ‘two thousand years of non-Jewish Christianity have proven that the Jewish people did not err.”’
Were Jesus not the living word of God and the source of my salvation, I too would reject him as an irrelevant crank. As it is I have neither the resolve to follow him nor the consistency to turn from him. I am stuck with him and he with me. And I’m not alone in this. The neo-orthodox cliché that Christianity is an impossible possibility is not all wrong. We can only approximate Jesus’ demands in the crudest ways, which can at times seem like vulgar parodies. This predicament is entailed in God’s entering the world. The world cannot contain God as God contains the world. God’s initiatives are always distorted when we try to act upon them, not just because we are sinners but because we are not God. Our ethics symbolizes an order of righteous love that we can barely glimpse and rarely bring to pass.