14 June 2012

Dangerous God

The Internet Monk blog is featuring a sermon by Joe Spann of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on our "dangerous God." If you have a moment, go and read it, observing the prefaced warning that "If you truly embrace this, your world will be unmade. I don’t say that lightly. Mine has been. Freedom is a very scary and dangerous thing."

You're back? What did you think?

To the extent that I even dare to put God's sovereign purposes into words, I agree with that half of the sermon's theme that says God's main concern isn't to make us comfortable but to make us free. With yet another Syrian massacre or two behind us since I wrote about death last week, and with friends of my own facing the limits of mortality at this very moment, I'm not about to argue that comfort is God's sole focus.

But what am I to do with my mixed feelings about the rhetoric of a "dangerous" God?

OK, I truly believe that that a genuine Godly leading made me give up a truly wonderful job (and so did Judy!) to live in this "hall of mirrors" that is Russia, a land whose many advantages do not include due process. When we start trying to observe the world (however tentatively and imperfectly) through God's eyes and ears, our perspectives change, our priorities get rearranged. This is an adventure worthy of the Knights of the Round Table, and it's available to every one of us.

Furthermore, I honestly believe that God doesn't form believers to make things nice for the powers that be--and when believers start centering their lives on God rather than conformism, those powers may strike out at us. I'm still haunted by the story of the life and death of Sister Dorothy Stang, martyred seven years ago for her Christ-centered defense of the rights of indigenous people and their land. Millions of people are with her in the historic "community of the executed" (to use Emmanuel Charles McCarthy's striking phrase), where their fates are intermingled with those executed by Christians.

So the word "dangerous" does point to reality, in a way. But I have a problem with using the word "dangerous" in trying to present the Gospel. God's freedom is scary for those shaped by the world's expectations of conformity and convenience, but is captivity any safer? My God, look at crime statistics! My own sister Ellen was murdered long before--as far as I know--she heard any coherent presentation of the Gospel!

Look at the statistics for domestic violence. Hunger. Unemployment and its attendant psychological miseries. Political and economic refugees. Bhopal, Love Canal, Minamata disease. Not to mention indiscriminate terrorism.

When we enter the household of faith, we may or may not face new physical dangers. We certainly get no guarantee that the dangers faced by every creature on the planet will no longer apply to us, and, furthermore, we may find out that our attempts to live an ethical discipleship attract hostile attention. But we face these dangers in solidarity with the Body of Christ. I'm serious. Literally every congregation I've ever belonged to has made my life better, even as their teachings have seriously screwed up any chance I had of a conventionally successful career path.

Telling us that God's love is not comfortable and cozy has the virtue of "truth in advertising." I sympathize with every attempt to filter out cheap grace and sentimentality in favor of ethical evangelism. Maybe this is an example of what needs filtering: Christians here in Russia and in East Africa have commented to me that American Protestants seem to have such a verbally chummy relationship with Jesus, instead of a properly reverent relationship with the wholeness of the Trinity. One commentator I read often keeps comparing what to her mind is the depth of Russian Orthodoxy with the "Jay-zus" (her word) religion of those Christians in the U.S. who seem to be so quick to advocate dismantling welfare, prohibiting humane approaches to immigration, and so on. I think her critique is shallow and verges on elitism--but it does have an awkward grain of truth! What do we lead others to believe when we boast a "buddy" relationship with the Crucified One, the Name above all names, while leading lives that are virtually indistinguishable from our secular neighbors?

It's also true, however, that to my hungry eyes, Christians here in Russia and in Kenya don't all seem to me to have an astoundingly higher level of that utter self-abandonment that mystics of all these flavors advocate, than we find in the USA. Half-heartedness and timidity and counterfeits might look different in different places but they all more or less equally avoid the "dangerous" God.

Joe Spann told his audience that God isn't just dangerous to the comfortable trappings of their lives, but also dangerous to the bondages that actually do trap them--and trap their neighbors. But this violent imagery for God's actions, while thrilling and attractive for some, might miss the mark for others. As a man, I will never explain God's love to survivors of domestic violence by talking about God wrestling them to the ground. I know three different people who, when in crisis, have had strong visions of Jesus actually coming to them, and in each case his strength was manifested in compassion.

I think many idealistic preachers sometimes feel despair about the apparent feebleness of their communities' passion for God. But there is no rhetorical shock treatment that will fix this situation. Only love and prayer and fasting and trustworthiness and more love. A community needs to build a baseline trust and mutual commitment for that first person who struggles to her or his feet in the monthly meeting and dares to say, "I feel a leading to ..."--thereby establishing a model for others that might not otherwise have known that such a thing was still possible three and a half centuries after the Valiant Sixty. What we don't need is that "wham-o theory of grace" that I mentioned, quoting Stan Thornburg, in my original post about "evangelical machismo." Commitment looks different for each of us; for some it may mean dramatic changes, but for others, an equally reoriented life may look outwardly much the same as the day before.

Micah Bales wasn't following a tame God when he pursued faithfulness at a Senate Banking Committee hearing yesterday. His description of arrest and detention mirrors many of the descriptions we read here of demonstrators being arrested at unsanctioned demonstrations.

Eight years ago I put a review of Jennifer Haines's book Bread and Water on the Amazon.com Web site. It's still the only review of that book there. [Update: as of August 2015 it's not the only review anymore.] She wrote about her experiences of prayer during her three years in federal prisons. Her name came to me just now because of an incident with her that I touched on briefly when I first mentioned her book here. She led a workshop at Pendle Hill (the one in Pennsylvania) back in 1977. The session was a great example of leading people gently into the reality of God's purposes contrasting with our own plans--in other words, the dangerous God. We were all asked to imagine putting God at the very center of our lives; what would that concretely look like? She had a diagram on the board with God at the center, and she wrote our responses around that center. I don't remember what I responded--it might be in my diary--but, interestingly, a few years later I was in the same job that she had at the time, coordinating the Right Sharing of World Resources program.

More on Tuesday's Independence Day demonstrations in Moscow here. And here's a side of the event that didn't get much coverage in the mainstream papers--"Religious opposition joined huge Moscow protest on Russia Day."

"A Large and Collective Story: Moscow's 'White Album,' 2012." (I recommend checking this great Web site regularly.)

The American Friends Service Committee's Web page honoring Gordon Hirabayashi.

Did you know that U.S. Senator Lugar made a major speech earlier this week on international aid and climate change? Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network covered the speech and outlines its high points and problems.

Booker T. Jones pays tribute to his friend and colleague, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn.

"Linus Thorvalds: 'Linux succeeded thanks to selfishness and trust.'"

Buddy Guy talks about his life and philosophy and his new autobiography with Tavis Smiley. [Update: original video has expired; this is the abbreviated version from YouTube.]


Anonymous said...

I always enjoy reading your blog, Johan. This one is a peach.

There is that tension between the love of God and the fear of God. That fear, to me, is not the childish or superficial fear that he will smite me with great vengeance and furious anger for some petty sin. It is the sense of numinous awe that anyone with any sense experiences when faced with a mystery so large, so profound, so ancient, so incomprehensibly hallowed as to beggar the imagination -- yeah, that kind of fear.

And that can seem dangerous. I've known times when God sent me off on some leading that I didn't understand or want but couldn't avoid.

On the other hand, I am in complete agreement with your assertion about how equating danger with violence is mistaken. Certainly with victims of violence, but anyone really. Because the God who sent me off in those unpredictable and perilous directions did so entirely out of love. The danger was in how I perceived it, not in what He meant for me to do.

Even when that has put me in confrontation with the principalities and powers. At those times, when the prophetic Word needed to be enacted more than spoken, God's purpose was love for His people. If the powers that be choose to be violent, it is their doing, not God's.

I don't mean to minimize the passion of Jesus in Gethsemane, of Romero before the altar, of Dorothy Day at the first House of Hospitality, of George Fox at Derby, of thousands of nameless martyrs. At times the danger is very real, and yet it is not God's doing, but that of those who think in this way to oppose Him.

The movements of God are love, and always love, as precarious as they may seem to my limited vision.

Anonymous said...

Oh -- and on the subject of cheap grace and the Buddy Christ: a local minister used to ask, "who is this Jesus Weejus people are always talking to? You know: 'And Jesus Weejus ask you to be with us, and Jesus Weejus ask you to heal our sick, and Jesus Weejus ...' " Cracks me up.

mindful searcher said...

Thank you for this blog post. There is much food for thought here, and I am glad I have until next Thursday, when your next post appears and I am challenged by it content, to think on this latest post God is dangerous in the sense that Thoreau is dangerous, that Ghandi is dangerous, that Martin Luther King, Jr., is dangerous. The call of God takes us to new places, perhaps Russia or the home of a neighbor, that may be out of our comfort zone, but the call equips us with what is needed to answer the call. The danger is in our lack of trust and in the response of others to our call, not in the nature of God.

Johan Maurer said...

Hello from Eugene, Oregon. I really appreciate these responses. I also hope that by Thursday I'll have gotten over jet lag to the point that I can write coherently...

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