By Dan Clendenin
“You will be my witnesses,” says Jesus in Acts 1:8 for this week. The words sound so simple, but the reality is far different. Bearing witness in today’s world is an inherently ambiguous task. Jesus says as much in his John 17 prayer.
Jesus calls us “out of the world,” even while we live very much “in the world.” And so his deeply ambiguous prayer: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”
Called to love the world, separatism and withdrawal are not options, whereas because of that very proximity, assimilation and conformity to the world will always be temptations. So, how do we love the world without becoming worldly people?
One of my favorite sermons captures this ambivalence. It’s by Martin Luther King, Jr., from the book Strength to Love. The sermon is based on Romans 12:1–2: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” King captures the essence of this text in just two words: God calls us to “transformed nonconformity.”
Thirty years ago last month, in April 1987, I interviewed the French sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) in his home in Bordeaux. Like King, Ellul spent a lot of time thinking about how we engage the world without mimicking the world.
Ellul wrote 58 books, half of which were social scientific studies about what he thought were the most important forces in our world — politics, propaganda, and, most famously, technology. In dialectical tension with these were another twenty five books on Biblical themes like Jonah, 2 Kings, and Revelation. Each type of book needed the other.
When I asked Ellul what had given him the most satisfaction in fifty years of scholarship and witness, he didn’t hesitate. It was his work with the street gangs in the 1950s, the goal of which wasn’t to integrate marginalized teenagers into mainstream society, but to help them to be “positively rather than negatively maladjusted to the world.”
Commenting on the new book The Benedict Option (2017) by Rod Dreher — he calls it “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade,” David Brooks observes that religion often comes in one of two forms, the purist and the ironist.
For the conservative Dreher, who converted from Methodism to Catholicism to Orthodoxy, the cultural war is over and Christians have lost. As a purist, he commends a strategy of “[seceding] culturally from the mainstream.” We should turn off our smartphones and watch only movies and television that are consistent with Christian values. Christians should “pull their children from public school, put down roots in separate communities.”
Brooks favors the ironist mode that appreciates the many ambiguities of existence. Purist ideals are for the next world, not this world. “By retreating to neat homogeneous monocultures,” says Brooks, “most separatists will end up doing what all self-segregationists do, fostering narrowness, prejudice and moral arrogance. They will close off the dynamic creativity of a living faith.”
This August 15 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Oscar Romero (1917–1980), the Archbishop of San Salvador, in El Salvador. Romero was murdered while celebrating Mass in a small chapel in a cancer hospital where he lived.
Romero was always close to his people. He preached a prophetic gospel. He denounced the injustices in his country, like torture, and supported the development of popular and mass organizations. He became the voice of the Salvadoran people when all other channels of expression had been crushed by the repression.
But his life was cut short, with a better future still far off.
One way to process the many ambiguities of our gospel witness is to remind ourselves, in the words of a poem-prayer that are associated with Romero, that we work and pray for “a future not our own.”
The so-called Romero Prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, and later delivered in a homily by Cardinal John Dearden in November of 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. Romero was murdered five months later.
In a later book of reflections, Utener wrote a piece for the anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom entitled “The Mystery of the Romero Prayer.” He said the “mystery” is that though the words of the prayer are attributed to Romero, they were neither written nor spoken by him.
A Future Not Our Own
It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
The Romero Prayer isn’t an excuse to be a passive bystander and do nothing. It’s a reminder that in all our work and witness, we must also watch and wait.
We hope and pray for what we don’t see, says Paul. We live by faith, not by sight. We persevere, says the book of Hebrews, even though we haven’t received the far-off promises of God.
NOTE: David Brooks, “The Benedict Option,” The New York Times (March 14, 2017).
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