by Sophia Nugent-Siegal ©
A lot of soul searching is going on in contemporary Christianity—or at least it would be soul searching, were not the word “soul” so very unfashionable. Many questions have been asked about what the mission of Christians is in the twenty-first century. It is my contention, as a teenage member of the generation which so much mission attempts to reach, that the second half of this question – “in the twenty-first century” – is redundant. Am I then a part of that dreaded breed, the “reactionary element”, those who aren’t interested in the “relevance” of the Church, and who want to return to the equally dreaded dogmatic past? Well, no. I believe that we don’t need to worry about defining a “mission for the twenty-first century” because the Christian mission is timeless. It is the same in every era—in fact one should rather be questioning the relevance of the contemporary political world to a Christian’s internal life than the other way around. The Christian mission is to spread the good news that a person can be redeemed by their faith in Jesus Christ.
This creed is about how individuals experience their internal life. It has nothing to say about the questions on which so many contemporary theologians gladly give their opinion, that is, questions of social justice. The “social” aspect is irrelevant to it. The fact that if everyone in a society truly internalized Jesus’ message then society would be transformed, does not mean that a Christian’s core purpose is therefore to change society. A Christian should desire to change people, people as individuals – in fact, people as individuals completely without adjectives, that is to say without noticing whether they are young or old, black or white, male or female, none of which distinctions exist in the Kingdom of God. This ought not to be translated as a mission to improve the status of groups, to make people – as group identities – “equal”, because in the Lord’s eyes the groups do not exist and the people are already equal. In the Christian’s eyes, an individual is thus not a young black woman or an old white man, but a person in need of love on both a spiritual and temporal plane. This is what Jesus did. He didn’t come with a message about marshalling an army of lawyers and political activists (and the 1st century AD had its share of both) to work towards legally abolishing slavery or doing away with “social or economic inequalities”, because that would have been to admit that people are really free or unfree because of what legal documents say, or equal and unequal because of the amount of currency they possessed. If we truly lived in good faith with Christ, then injustice would surely wither away far more effectively than, as it turned out, did Marx’s concept of the proletarian-felled state.
The definition of Christian mission in sociological and political terms reflects a diminishment of Christ’s call to us, so making narrower and shallower the nature of the Christian life. It is thus rather distressing to find so many Christian intellectuals talking about societies, about classes and groups, in a way that could probably be handled much better by secular political philosophers, who are at liberty by the nature of their calling to deal with deeds and not with hearts, and do not to have to concern themselves with such politically inconvenient notions as forgiveness. It is ultimately, I think, a resurgence of the very tendencies in the Judaism of his time against which Christ fought.
The Pharisaic tendency to make of religion a list of practical moral and religious rules subsequently had a long and resilient history within the Christian tradition. The Catholic doctrine of justification by works is an example of such a view, a doctrine which is now unwittingly echoed by contemporary platitudes which seem to imply the possibility of being saved (in some nebulous and non-specific way), without believing in Christ, if one does good things. Jesus was in fact actually pretty unequivocal on this matter “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” To be a Christian is, by definition, to believe that one is saved through Christ.
To see the religious life as a scoreboard of “deservingness” makes of religion something easy and unmysterious. In place of God’s grace, one sets up human moral rules. The reason the doctrine of justification by works was so attractive in the first place is that we habitually associate love and goodness with action in the world. It was Luther who resolved the apparent perplexity. Good works reflect faith, not the other way round. After one has been saved by faith, one does good works because, as a result of God’s grace, one’s heart overflows with love; temporal works are thus mere by-products of a spiritual phenomenon.
There is a strong tendency to make “justification by political activism” our contemporary version of that old dilemma. Politics is not a new invention. In Jesus’ time it was Barrabas, the rebel against Roman rule, who embodied that political role. Today there are legions of well-meaning people who try to circumscribe the Lord’s timeless message within comprehensible practical temporal limits – social justice, legal rights etc – so forgetting that Christ’s message was so much bigger. He talked about redemption, not politics or law. Politics and law pass, as the supremacy of the Roman Empire and her eloquently complex legal system passed. If Christ’s message had been about overthrowing or changing it, He would be as historically insignificant as a thousand of his contemporary Jewish radicals. Love, however, is eternal.
One might argue that if one loves people then one will wish to instigate social change that will improve their lives. But the fact is that the oft-invoked political abstraction, “the people”, doesn’t really work for the Christian. He or she ought to see a person and love or help them. He or she shouldn’t think about how they can improve the economic situation of the class of poor people, but should see the single poor man and feed and clothe him. He or she shouldn’t think about how to reform the health system, but about how to heal this particular sick woman. He or she oughtn’t to take Christ’s call to the rich man to give up his possessions as a call to socialism, but rather as an individual message to specific people who happen to be rich, or those who would seek to be so. None of which is to say that injustice should be accepted, or that Christians should hold themselves separate from acting in the world, but it does mean that the heart of Christian teaching lies in outlining for us the personally-challenging path to redemption not in discussing the abstraction of “Christian mission as social change”. There is no such thing and there never could be such a thing as a “Christian society”, merely societies of Christians—or, better yet, for it is difficult to imagine before the Second Coming any civilization in which absolutely everyone or even a majority of people truly believed—a society containing Christians. Jesus’ message is not a political philosophy, and every attempt to take it as such has ended in disillusionment and hypocrisy.
Does this non-political outlook automatically lead to quietism, to an acceptance of the world’s injustices? I don’t think it does. I think it does mean taking our cue from Jesus himself, who didn’t accept the moneylenders in the Temple or the pitiless stoning of the adulteress, but who wasn’t led into the world of grand generalizations and systematic admonitions. Framed in the language of social and political theory which we inherited from a host of Victorian systemizers, the imposition of top-down social “goodness” has come to be so normative for contemporary Christians that we no longer notice how far we have strayed from Christ’s call to faith. In a recent media article by a contemporary Christian, it was stated that Christ’s message is not about individuals, and the spiritual interpretation of his mission was denounced as religiously-flavoured self-help. This is not only untrue to the Gospel, it is in outright conflict with it. If one makes of individuals’ inner life a subsidiary domain, then one subverts Christ’s key message. Jesus didn’t lay out a grand plan for a Christian social system. He came to speak to individual men and women to lead them to faith. By busily searching for the mote in the eye of political institutions, one risks failing to see the beam in one’s own. Moreover, the conflation of Christian theology and political thought into a set of legislative benchmarks is failing to feed the hunger of a generation of young people who need something more than a collection of sociological adjectives to define their existence. The really radical message that Jesus gave us is one which sets before a Christian’s feet the arduous path of love and forgiveness. Christians can change society by preaching the Gospel, that is, by loving their fellows and, by such love, opening others’ hearts to grace. By doing so they will help to increase the number of good people in the world—and that, more than anything, is what the world urgently needs.