This post is a follow-on to an email I sent to a friend last night, who was wondering if my increasing unwillingness to champion a particular approach to life (in this case, agrarianism) was a result of a change in my thinking. The answer is yes, my thinking has changed, but not in the way you might think. I still believe the things I used to champion—although I don’t think I was ever the stalwart advocate that many others are. What has changed is my thinking about championing a cause; back then I had mixed feelings about the approach, and now I am completely opposed.
I need to state clearly what I mean by championing. Wendell Berry is to my mind the most important apologist for agrarianism today. He explains the agrarian mindset thoroughly and brings out the important contrasts with modern industrial thinking. But I don’t view him as a champion of the agrarian way of life, or even a proponent; in fact, some have accused him of being an elegist for it. And this is the quality that makes him an exemplar for me. He understands the goodness of agrarianism, the joys and pleasures that were lost when life became industrial, the impossibility of restoring that way of life—and he doesn’t care. He chooses to live that way anyway, and leaves the reader to make his own choices.
A champion is different. Usually that person proclaims that if only people would adopt a certain approach to life, many perceived problems would be solved. Usually there is no evidence that this will happen, but the approach sounds good and taps into a rich vein of wishful thinking on the listener’s part. Usually there is decent money to be made in exhorting people to adopt this solution—books to sell, conferences to speak at, donations to be collected. Often the champion is not purely cynical about this, an Elmer Gantry out to fleece the rubes, but there is usually an assumption that “the laborer is worthy of his hire” as he works to get this important message out there. There are plenty of current ministries I could mention as examples of this, but to avoid offense I’ll cite the Promise Keepers, the 1990s movement which threatened to turn the world upside down by calling men back to godliness. Lots of books bought, rallies attended, weekly small group meetings held, speakers paid. But would anyone now suggest that Promise Keepers was a turning point in the godliness of American Christian men?
If I was ever a champion for agrarian life, simplicity, or any other principle I was a conflicted and tentative one. I repented of such thinking privately years ago and do so publicly now. What removed the uncertainty for me was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together; read about that experience here, and follow the links for more details. Briefly, Bonhoeffer persuaded me that it was more important to transcend differences with our brothers (and the world) than it is to dispute them; put another way, differences are not to be resolved by winning the argument but by relying more deeply on our common bond in Christ. And once I grasped this I was able to understand the mindset advocated by Jacques Ellul, which some call “faithful presence.” The introduction to Ellul’s book Presence of the Kingdom explains it thus:
What is first required of the Christian is not action but a presence, a style of life, an attitude, a special mode of existence. Authentic Christian existence trusts in the power of the Holy Spirit to give our “presence” a revolutionary and explosive force in history.
And later in the book Ellul writes:
God may act, or He may not act, and when God wishes to act He ought to find instruments which are supple and obedient, ready for his use. God rarely acts in a transcendent manner; on the contrary, as a rule He chooses a human instrument to accomplish His work. Now in this work of God, which is actually decisive, will God find the people He needs?
Our job is to learn to live a godly life, prepared to be a witness for God in any and all circumstances He chooses to bring about. God arranges our situations, and we respond to them faithfully.
Some folks will just flat-out dispute this. Others might say, fair enough, but who is to say that God hasn’t arranged circumstances so that my faithful response is to proclaim the wickedness of abortionists, feminists, Hell-deniers, evolutionists, sodomites, racists, Wall Street bankers, Monsanto, the FDA, the medical-industrial complex, President Obama, the Federal Reserve, or praise choruses? To which I say: not me. I only suggest that you be diligent, honest, humble, and faithful as you work to reach your conclusions. And I pledge to do the same as I work toward mine.
What inspired me to write this today was a blog post with a refreshingly direct title, Can you be discerning without always being angry? In a way it shocks me that a Christian would even ask this question. Isn’t it obvious that an approach to life is biblically suspect if it keeps you in a state of perpetual indignation? But in another way it is a perfectly natural question, given the current state of the church.
A few years back I was having lunch with a friend. He mentioned that he thought if churches were a breed of dog then we would be a Pit-Bulls. As we talked more and I tried to understand I discovered that he perceived that we were the ‘shoot first ask questions later’ type of people. As a leader in this context this means that I was being perceived not only as a leader of Pit-Bulls, but one myself.
He was describing an attitude of anger that he saw in me. He acknowledged that there was a lot of biblical discernment. And this seems to be the way it goes. The Christians who seem to ‘excel’ in the area of discernment also seem to be very comfortable telling everybody else what is wrong with their theology and ministry. [Emphasis added]
Once I heard one of these “excellent discerners” explain that his listeners often told him they agreed with what he said but objected to how he said it. To which he would reply, no, you are in fact offended by the truth of what I say. I now realize that the claim was not only false but a convenient excuse. The truth has power of its own, and doesn’t need us to help out by wrapping it in confrontational and offensive garb.
I don’t recommend the conclusions of this blog post, because I think the writer is only partway along the journey to understanding that it is more important (and more effective!) to be irenic than prophetic. But he is very perceptive about the problems and temptations that arise from righteous indignation:
People become really good at going after other people. It seems like if you create a culture for this type of thinking then some folks will just blossom. They will love it. Trust me, I’ve run this blog now for 5+ years and can attest that it is the controversial posts that get people the most excited. People like to go after people. In churches as well, people can fulfill their fleshly desire to be critical of everyone that doesn’t look like them. This can also provide added security and affirmation that you are thinking right. It is very contagious. [Emphasis added]
And he does recognize the alternative of faithful presence, with one unfortunate caveat:
Around this time I can remember our Senior Pastor reminding us in a staff meeting that “as a church we want to be known by what we are for rather than just what we are against.” I thought this was brilliant. [Emphasis added]
The “just” needs to be removed. Or, even better, “we want to be known only by what we are for, not by what we are against.” This is more or less my own personal mission statement. I want people to know what I think is right and good—and I want them to know that I will carefully consider any challenges to that thinking, until seventy times seven times and beyond. To proclaim what you know to be wrong is to dismiss people who think otherwise, even before they have a chance to say, “But what about …?” To be known for what you are against is to be known as those who withhold their welcome from anyone who disagrees. Say what you want about hating the sin and loving the sinner, any reasonable person knows they will experience pressure (“loving” as it may be) before their thinking is properly aligned with that of the group, and love only afterwards.
To those who are attracted to a strong prophetic stance but uneasy about its temptation to indignation, anger, pride, self-righteousness, contempt, condescension—it doesn’t have to be that way. The thing you feel called to denounce should be matched by a godly counterpart you have embraced. Forgo the denunciation, and redouble your embrace! The good thing you exemplify will itself serve as a rebuke to the corresponding wickedness, without any additional help from you. And the fact that you have visibly managed to live out your ideal will say infinitely more to your listener more than any words you offer extolling a way of life that is merely speculative for both of you.
If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain. (1 Tim 6:3-6)
Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thess 4:11-12)