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Lapide“The history of the impact of the Sermon on the Mount can largely be described in terms of an attempt to domesticate everything in it that is shocking, demanding, and uncompromising, and render it harmless.  ‘Time and time again,’ writes Gunther Bornkamm, ‘Christianity, especially with the assistance of its theology, has known so well and still knows how to intercept, so to speak, the thrust of Jesus’ challenge, to divert it and to settle down peacefully in spite of it.’” (Pinchas Lapide, The Sermon on the Mount: Utopia or Program for Action?, p. 3)

Rowe“Inasmuch as the communal embodiment of God’s revelation involves the potential for cultural collapse [among non-Christian environments], Acts’ ‘good for them even though they don’t know it’ claim is startling, even offensive.  To modern ears it will likely sound the warning bells of triumphalism, imperialism, and so forth.  That such bells should ring, however, is largely a result of the history effected by the changes in the Roman empire in the fourth century rather than a close reading of the text.  Our awareness of the warring and repressive Christian emperors, Augustine’s argument for coercion in the Donatist controversy, the medieval crusades, colonialism, and many other ecclesial cancers makes it extremely difficult not to read Acts with the knowledge that Christians could eventually do great harm in the name of particular theological construals of the mission of God–and indeed, we should not attempt to bracket out such knowledge precisely because it enables us to ask necessarily pointed questions of our normative texts.  Yet, there is simply no trace in Acts of the ‘common Christian argument that coercing the other will do him or her good’ [Moshe Habertal, a famous Jewish scholar]…

We must ask if the narration of cultural collapse as part of the outworking of the good that comes to the pagan world via the Christian mission leads in the logic of Acts to the coercive making of Christians ‘for their own good.’  There is a direct answer to this question: No.  The narrative logic of Acts points in another direction altogether…

Its vision of human life together [is] grounded entirely in the identity of the Lord of all.  Insofar as the formation of Christian community is the cultural explication of this identity, the political vision of Acts cannot be sundered from the life of the universal Lord.  Whether Luke knows the Pauline conception of the church as the ‘body of Christ’ is open to debate, but that Acts narrates the life of the Christian mission as the embodied pattern of Jesus’ life is not.  Put succinctly, according to Acts, the missio Dei has a Christological norm…

This norm is displayed narratively in the shape of the life of the Lord’s disciples–Stephen, Peter, and Paul above all, but also the communities in Jerusalem, Iconium, Thessalonica, and elsewhere–where the pattern of a willingness to suffer even unto death is the mimetic reproduction of Jesus’ own life as narrated in the Gospel of Luke and retold in the speeches of Acts.  Thus the truth claim about Jesus’ Lordship does not lead in Acts to a narrative blueprint for the need to coerce others for their own good but to a form of mission that rejects violence as a way to ground peaceful community and instead witnesses to the Lord’s life of rejection and crucifixion by living it in publicly perceivable communities derisively called Christians.  The claim to universal truth is not thin but thick, or enfleshed–shown to be what it is in the living out of the person’s life about whom the claim is made.  According to Acts, therefore, to be the community that claims to know the Lord of all is to be in the world in just such a way as the Lord himself was.  Theologically said, ecclesiology is public Christology.

The narrative logic of Acts thus cannot be read as leading to the coercion of the religious other, but in fact must be seen to oppose all such moves that would contradict the nature of Jesus’ own Lordship.  In this light, the text of Acts compels us to read the later development of coercive measures in the history of the church as fundamental and tragic departures from the normative witness of scripture, a turning of the ecclesial back on the foundational narrative of Christian mission.  If we are thinking along with Acts, we can see, furthermore, that these departures  are not simply wayward moments in an otherwise forward-marching ecclesial history.  Rather, recalling the thick or lived character of a truth claim, we should understand them as evidence of a much deeper problem in the Christian witness to the universal Lord: the potential to live a false life, to embody the lie that renders untrue practically the claim that Jesus is Lord of all…Hence does the tension that lies at the heart of Acts produce both an unavoidable conflict over the truth of a claim to a comprehensive way of life and a description of that conflict as witness rather than coercion.” (C. Kavin RoweWorld Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, pp. 172-74)

Yoder“The ultimate justification for the mandate of the state is to be found within the mandate of the church.  The mandate of the church, the mandate to overcome evil, is the superior mandate; the mandate of the state, that of keeping evil in check, only has meaning because the church is accomplishing its mission.  Ephesians 3:10 makes similar claims when it says that the church is to proclaim to the ‘powers’ that God’s ultimate purpose is the building of a church.  Again the early church dared to be audacious, claiming that the glorious Roman Empire, standing as something unique in world history, existed for one purpose only: that God could use a small, despised bunch of fishermen and tax collectors to carry forth the name of an executed Galilean from Jerusalem into the whole world…State sponsored religions everywhere have viewed religion as support for the state–an educating, morality-teaching, consecrating power.  The Christian faith inverted this relationship and viewed the world-embracing empire as merely a support system, subservient to the real work God is accomplishing in the world…

In terms of its service to the state and to the general welfare, the church serves most effectively and in its most essential and irreplaceable way when it seriously goes about the business of being Christian, proclaiming the Gospel, modeling an exemplary community life, and praying for all people.  The Christian who wants to put the role of Christian living into second place in order to serve the state as a first priority is like a musician who leaves the stage in order to work as an usher in the concert hall.  Of course the usher is also necessary; but the musician cannot be replaced in his or her role.  And musicians, of all people, should know that they are of most value when they perform the role that no one else can fill.  If the musician is not on stage, and there is therefore no concert, then the usher’s role has no meaning either.” (John Howard YoderDiscipleship as Political Responsibility, pp. 22-23, 44-45)

Yoder“The divine mandate of the church consists in overcoming evil through the cross…The posture of the Christian in relation to evil fits into the category of ‘following Jesus.’  This concept has become so familiar, so commonplace, so cheap, that we do not properly understand what following really means.  What it means is something completely revolutionary.

The early church believed that God was at work within the church by means of Jesus Christ living on within it…The early church did not view the way of the cross which the church traveled in following Jesus as some sort of extra moral achievement, something that would have been optional and commendable, but which they could have done without.  They viewed it as something that belongs to the very essence of God’s salvation plan for the world.  The cross-carrying following which the church practices, that is the continuing life of Jesus through his Spirit in the members of his body, is not an implication, something tackled on; rather it is part of his saving work.  That is what the New Testament means when it speaks of following, of the body of Christ, of the Holy Spirit–that God’s continuing work today is no less valid, no less divine, no less urgent than it was from the start.  Just as God was at work through the person of God’s own Son, so God continues to be at work in the church in the form of the Spirit.

It is self-evident, and never to be forgotten, that the cross of the church has no meaning without Jesus.  Suffering in itself does not accomplish any saving work.  But we are too reluctant to confess the other side along with the Scriptures, namely, that without the cross of the church, the cross of Christ would be emptied.” (John Howard YoderDiscipleship as Political Responsibility, pp. 21-22)

 

Barth“It is essential to the Church that nothing human is foreign to it.  It is always and everywhere the Church of man, a Church of particular ages and peoples, and languages and cultures…In the Church the boundaries of humanity are respected and guarded.  The Church does not worship idols.  It does not cultivate ideologies…In that which makes it differ from the world, the Church is even more worldly than the world, more humanistic than the humanists.  In it, it comes nearer to the real meaning of every human tragedy-comedy.” (Karl Barth, God in Action, pp. 27-28)

Barth“The Church will gain true courage and genuine significance whenever and wherever it is firmly resolved to resign the false courage and counterfeit significance–the courage of large numbers, of moral qualities, of activistic programs, of effect on and appreciation from those without–with the intent of putting its sole confidence in what founds and preserves it as it unites in lending an open ear to what God has spoken…

The deep reason of its [the world’s] unrest is its refusal to confess its profane character.  The Church is aware of this secret of the world.  It must not permit itself to be befuddled by reproaches and accusations.  Just so it is truly loyal to the world.  But this faithfulness of the Church to the world is after all possible only as the reverse side of an entirely different loyalty…In this faithfulness [to God], the Church’s faithfulness to the world is rooted…

There is no danger that a spirit of domination will die out either in public or private life.  The state represents sovereignty, culture means dominion, and even the best and purest development of human nature is a will-to-rule.  There is not one among us who does not have a share in some such rule, and there is none who does not somehow strive for it.  And the rule of men is always sinful and perverse.  In spite of this insight, the Church has always acknowledged–also in this respect, obedient to the Scriptures–that this sinful and perverse government among men is a necessary divine order to restrain its equally sinful and perverse freedom.

Just as definitely, however, the Church has found its calling to consist in something else than in the establishment and maintenance of such a rule.  It will give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but it can never give its unconditional sanction to any such form of mastery, to any form of the state or trend of culture.  It cannot join hands with any of them for better or worse.  It is in no wise its office to undergird man and aid his ascendancy.  Where it does affirm man’s rule over men it will do so in reverence of the hidden intent of God and not of the only-too-patent plans of man.  It will have regard for the patience and wisdom of God who knows to set bounds to sin even by sin itself.  But for the sake of God and man, it will keep its hands free for its own peculiar task.  The sign which it is called to erect is a sign other than the sign of dominion.  For this reason, it will not conceive its task to be the establishment of a rule of its own.  It will not proceed to build a city of God in opposition to the cities of the world…

The sign which the Church must erect–or rather, the sign under which the Church has been placed from its very inception reads: Service, and not rule!” (Karl Barth, “The Church,” in God in Action)

 

Karl Barth“I am reminded of a story I heard years ago in Germany when Walter Ulbricht, the German Communist leader, was head of the German Democratic Republic.  It was said that Ulbricht once had a conversation with Karl Barth about the new society that was being built in East Germany.  Ulbricht boasted to Barth that the Communists would be teaching the Ten Commandments in the schools and that the precepts of the decalogue would provide the moral foundation for the new society.  Barth listened politely and then said: ‘I have only one question, Herr Minister.  Will you also be teaching the First Commandment?” (Robert L. Wilken, Remembering the Christian Past, p. 62)