Monday, September 28, 2009

Life as Witness

This started off as a thought about political engagement. Specifically, I was concerned about motivation for Christians to be involved in politics. I can't embrace the generally left-wing view that we can actually fix society. I think that's just naive. More seriously, I think it tends to put human beings in the place of God, who promises that he will fix things, at the return of Jesus Christ. But if I can't fix it, why get involved at all? Why make any effort to improve things, if ultimate success is not, humanly speaking, possible?

Turning this over in my mind, I've realised that the problem extends beyond politics and into every area of life. Why get involved in culture, if culture will always ultimately be corrupt and belong to the passing form of this world? Why be involved in poverty relief or development, given that we will always have the poor with us? Perhaps most fundamentally, why seek personal holiness, when I will always be fallen and never achieve perfection this side of my resurrection?

A few answers spring to mind. Perhaps we could say that there is value in the effort itself, regardless of the result. That may be, but I struggle to see wherein the value lies, and that in itself makes this no good as a motivating force. We could perhaps argue that small successes count for something, but I am not sure that this is obviously the case. It is certainly true to argue that culture and the like are carried, somehow, through the end and into the new creation, but the process is obscure in its details, and I don't feel all that motivated by it.

I've arrived at the conclusion that the motive is witness. I don't seek to change society because I think it can be ultimately fixed, but as a witness to the fact that in principle it has already been ultimately fixed in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. I don't seek to exercise my creativity because I believe I can make a perfect culture, but as a bearing witness to the perfect culture that already exists in principle through the death and resurrection of Christ. And I don't seek personal holiness because I can create it through my own efforts, but as my witness to the fact that complete righteousness is already mine in the risen Lord Jesus.

All my life is just saying 'yes', in every sphere in which I have influence, to what He has done in every sphere of existence.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. wow.

    Terry Eagleton talks somewhere about Christ being the total revolutionary to say that the salvation of the world has in some sense already taken place. (Ive an idea it's in his 1st lecture but couldnt find it in the book)

    I'm thinking you'd enjoy Bonhoeffer's ethics. One of the starting points is that the rules had changed so radically under Nazism that the old kind of ethics (as rules) didn't work any more. Ironically, when fascism really takes hold on the right, the left looks powerless/utopian and something else is called for - witness? I'm intruiged, but haven't read much more. I'm sure you'd get a lot more out of it than I.

  3. I've not read much Bonhoeffer, but I've loved what I have read. Unsurprisingly, it sounds like his take on ethics is very similar to Barth's.

    I think that the NT does see the salvation of the world as being accomplished already in the cross/resurrection of Christ. In fact, I've been mulling over whether it would be a good idea to replace the 'now/not yet' which has become almost a cliche of evangelical theology with 'seen/not yet seen' or something similar to reflect this perspective...

  4. yea. well, they're both German.

    err, I mean...both dealing with Nazism as the end of Hegel and the God locked into history, and they're both therefore realising their need for a God who can stand over and against society. I guess my concern with Barth/Bonhoeffer is the same thing I like about them - their cultural moment.

    I'd love to hear what you make of Eagleton, actually. I'm not sure, myself.

  5. Well, I just watched the first lecture. Interesting. I think his interpretation of the gospel is almost right - I guess the one weak point is his thought about Jesus' eschatology. I find him stimulating, at least, and his critique of materialism is very interesting indeed. Perhaps more comments when I've watched the rest.

    Some of the questioners at the end don't seem to have understood a word he said!

  6. I like the direction you go in this.

    Let me introduce the concept of ‘social sin’ into this. It says that things that mess society up, such as abuse of the poor, powerless, etc., are committed by people and are sinful acts. Like other sins, the solution to them is not to reverse them, but to turn to Jesus for forgiveness.

    God’s plan, as you point out, is to create a new community with Jesus at the centre. Now, within that community it’s right to seek to alleviate suffering, etc. which is why, for example, in James we are counseled to care for widows and orphans. In most places in the Bible where we are commanded to do this kind thing (please correct me if you think I’m wrong) the context is within the church. As far as I’m aware there are no commands to seek to change culture or society outside this context.

    On the other hand, the Bible does condemn society where it is wrong. But here’s the point, it does so with the aim of bringing people into the new society under Jesus. And it’s within that context that transformation (or sanctification) happens. I think ‘witness’ is a pretty good way of summing all of this up, but witness will be different when directed at different people and different parts of society. So I seem to come up with a conclusion that says you can only engage with society to improve it when it's Christian society. Which may or may not be right (please feel free to correct), but which doesn't provide a justification for general engagement with society, such as charity work.

    I’ve tried to cast around for reasons why we might be interested in helping society whether it’s part of God’s new society or not. My own answer is ‘compassion,’ though it’s not necessarily a water-tight one. Compassion will ultimately be for those lost without the saving grace of Jesus, but can be applied more widely, I think.

    You might turn around and say, well, yes, you’ve basically just said what I said, but in three times the space, but I wanted to squeeze it out of my head into a coherent form. Thoughts?

  7. I think I'm with you, Phil. I think you're right that the NT (echoing the OT stuff about Israel) focusses most of our good-doing within the community of faith - see the post before this one. But I guess I could see the idea of witness being one that would motivate us to action in the world more broadly as well. Essentially, confronting the world, the Christian says 'this is not the way it is meant to be, or the way it will be' - and turns that conviction into action that points to how things should be and will be.

    It's all connected with God giving rain to the just and the unjust. Why does he do that? Because of his character, yes, but also I think because of his patience - he sustains the world in existence because he wants all to come to repentance...

    That last para is really off the top of my head, so probably needs some thought!

  8. Daniel,

    I find these comments very hard to swallow.

    You seem to be suggesting that just because we will never stop people going hungry that we shouldn't help feed anyone?

    What you say is fine from a purely theoretical point of view. But when it comes down to it - if people don't have food to eat they die. These are more often than not life-and-death issues, not "generally left-wing".

    Hope you're enjoying your new course!


  9. Hi Greg,

    Yikes. If I were saying that, it would be grim! But quite the opposite: I'm saying that we don't try to feed the hungry as a step towards eliminating hunger (as if that were within our power) but we do it because we know that one day Jesus will eliminate hunger, and has in principle already done so through his death and resurrection. If you re-read my post, you'll see that I've placed feeding the hungry on the same level as personal holiness when it comes to importance.

    My concern is that I think that what I have called the left-wing motive for doing these things is fairly foolish - built as it is on humanism and a naive view of human society. I'm seeking a Christian motive, one which recognises that only Christ fixes things and one that rejoices in the fact that in principle he has done so.

    So, feed the hungry, because in the Kingdom of Heaven the hungry are already assured of (physical, real, tasty, satisfying) food through Jesus' victory.

  10. I don't see what is naive about helping a family get food on the table who would otherwise die from malnutrition.

    It wouldn't take me long to find justification for that action from the Scriptures so why do we need a separate "Christian motive"?

  11. Well, I guess motivation is to some extent a subjective thing. For myself, I tend to be motivated by 'the big picture', and I find it easy to lapse into despair and therefore inactivity because of the size of the task and the smallness of my own resources. For me, to know that what little I do is worthwhile because it is an echo of the great thing that Jesus has done is pretty important. (The naivety to which I referred, incidentally, was not to do with feeding one family, but abolishing hunger. 'Make poverty history' is, I think, an example of a naive, humanist slogan).

    I guess also I've been thinking a bit about gospel ethics. I think we often take the gospel for personal salvation, and then look somewhere else to find out what we have to do. If we start with the gospel, our ethical system will look different. This is an attempt to do justice to that.