by Theodore Plantinga
Some time ago I attended a worship service in a Presbyterian church where I was greeted by a clown. It turned out that the clown at the door was one of the elders. During the service, he was commended by the minister for his willingness to be a "fool for Christ." It turns out that there had been a fund-raiser at the church that week for which the elder had dressed as a clown; when Sunday rolled around, he decided to get some extra use out of his clown suit.
The Presbyterian clown came to mind recently when I read a lively book stemming from yesteryear entitled The Confessions of a Puzzled Parson (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1928). Its author, Charles Fiske (1868-1942), was no clown but a bishop: more specifically, he was the Protestant Episcopal (i.e. Anglican) Bishop of Central New York, a diocese with Syracuse as its headquarters. While parts of the book verge on satire and come across as a bit scornful, suggesting that its author has no political aspirations within the church, the book as a whole does introduce us to the kind of mind one would associate with success in serving in such an office as bishop. Fiske presents problems, but he also knows how to solve them neatly -- at least, in theory.
The prospect of being a fool for Christ is not mentioned in so many words in the book, but there is a lament about becoming a laughing-stock. Fiske confesses: "I am driven to desperation at the thought that (because I wear a clerical collar) the uplifters are making a laughing-stock of me as well as of themselves." [p. 47] The reader may wonder who these "uplifters" are. While Fiske does not, strictly speaking, define them, he refers to them often and leaves little doubt as to their identity. In the first part of the book we find many complaints about these "uplifters" or "moral uplifters"; we even learn that their ranks include "paid uplifters." At one point Fiske characterizes their activities as "pernicious" (see p. 26).
Substituting terms of my own, I would characterize the "uplifters" as "professional Christians" who do not bring honor or credibility to the role they have claimed for themselves. Fiske even uses the term "pulpit Babbitts" (see pp. 72, 190). And so it appears that these "uplifters" are an annoying lot. They seem to have the answer to every issue that faces the church and society, and they dispense those answers not just from pulpits but also at meetings of all sorts to which they love to travel. It is at such meetings and conferences that they spend much of the time that they should be devoting -- if, indeed, they are genuine men of the cloth -- to work in their parishes or congregations. (As to the real task of a parish minister, see pp. 22ff, 45.)
The "uplifters" have lots of answers -- on paper. They may think they are accomplishing great things and might even secretly style themselves "revolutionaries," but Fiske has another cutting term for them: he calls them "resolutionaries." The implication is that the resolutions they adopt at their meetings are scarcely worth the paper they are printed on. One is inclined to groan and cry out: "There oughta be a law ...." Fiske appeals to a well-known newspaperman whom he does not name and tells us that "... in his opinion, the clergy in general, and especially the ministers of Protestant churches and their constituency, were making themselves a general nuisance and bringing religion into contempt ...." [p. 51]
From such talk one gets the impression that Fiske believes Christians should instead be men of action. Talk is cheap -- that seems to be his message in the first part of the book. As for actually rolling up our sleeves, it is hard to get anyone to do it. It seems that volunteers are in short supply. If anything specific is to be done, someone or other will have to be paid to do it. Laments Fiske: "... it has come to a pass where it is hardly possible to get any work done, unless some one is paid to tell us how to do it, some one else paid to raise the necessary funds, and others paid to do it for us." [p. 16d; see also p. 32]
I'm reminded of an old quip about Zionism to the effect that it consists of one Jew giving money to another Jew who uses it to entice a third Jew to actually pull up stakes and move to the Holy Land. Fiske laments that we seem to be drowning in functionaries who talk a great line -- and that's about where it ends. Fiske therefore takes upon himself an unsavory task: he calls it "the criticism of certain unpleasant aspects of Christian enthusiasm" (p. 167).
In short, there is too much talking going on. Fiske voices this sentiment by quoting a madman who was confined in a hospital for the insane. The madman seemed to know what the world's problem was, for he declared: "The thing that is wrong with the world is that there is entirely too much talking. They put me here because I wanted to kill off some of the public orators and after-dinner speakers." [pp. 12-13] The excess verbiage -- a veritable cacophony, to hear Fiske tell it -- creates confusion in the minds of those who might otherwise be inclined to lend an ear to the Christian Gospel: "There is such a babel of sound now from the advocates of reform -- women in particular -- that most people depart before they find out what it is all about, like the Oriental visitor who attended a concert and (under the mistaken impression that the music was over) left before it began, only to discover afterward that he had heard the orchestra tuning up." [p. 44]
Fiske's book makes for entertaining reading, and I suspect that the people of upstate New York who used to listen to his homilies did not have any difficulty keeping their minds focused on his messages. He comes across as something of a curmudgeon, a crusty character who thought that trying to change the world or make it a better place wouldn't work. But a curmudgeon does not usually rise to the rank of bishop. One who perseveres by reading further in his book discovers that Fiske was no curmudgeon. On the contrary, he was animated by very serious and elevated moral purposes, as is evident especially from the last part of the book (whose chapters originated as separate essays, it appears). At the end of the book he takes up marriage and divorce.
Here his thinking reflects that of the Anglican communion in general, which is known for its old-fashioned thinking on these matters, although the stance on divorce has softened substantially in a number of countries with Anglican churches, including Canada. When Fiske writes about the inviolability of the marriage bond and argues his thesis to the effect that allowing divorce greases the skids under new marriages before they have a chance to get started (see pp. 226ff, 234-5, 250ff), he sounds as though he could be comfortable in the Moral Majority. Yet the mentality underlying the Moral Majority is what much of the book rails against.
In particular, Fiske is convinced that Christians have made a major mistake in linking their moral appeals and ideals to the strong arm of the state and demanding regulation and enforcement of Christian morality. The ministers of America, he complains, are "entirely too ready to regulate our lives for us." He protests against this impulse and states sharply: "I want to regulate my own life. And I am glad to belong to a church where I am allowed to regulate it." [p. 180] And so he is strongly critical of "American Protestants" (from which he seems to distantiate himself as a member of the Anglican communion). He disapproves of their heavy reliance on what he calls "regulatory code" (see pp. 181ff) and connects this Protestant impulse with the despised Pharisees of the New Testament. He explains: "... the supreme sin of modern Phariseeism is the sin of dependence upon the civil arm for the regulation of morals. The Pharisees were the good people of their day -- only they were so sure of their goodness, and so convinced of the worth of their regulatory system, that they enforced it on others, and in so doing became hardened in self-righteousness." [pp. 64-5] The church needs to stick to its proper business: it is supposed to be a moral teacher -- not a moral policeman (see p. 52).
Fiske points to two camps of clergymen who are going about it in entirely the wrong way. On one hand there are the "paid uplifters," passing toothless resolutions at their endless meetings, which resolutions are casually ignored by society -- if, indeed, they are not scorned outrightly. On the other hand there are the moral policemen. Small wonder, then, that people can no longer respect the clergy and wind up avoiding them. In a telling chapter entitled "The Church's Loss of Prestige" (pp. 71-96), Fiske begins by observing: "There are times when one is a little ashamed to be known as a clergyman." He goes on to explain that when he travels by train he likes to take off his clerical collar and sit among a group of men who will not know he is a man of the cloth and therefore "... do not feel that they are under restraint because of the censorious and accusatory presence of a parson." [p. 71] Sadly, Fiske supposes he has all too much opportunity to be laughed at as a fool for Christ.
Fiske is a wonderful essayist, and the pleasure one derives from reading him has much to do with the sting of his barbs. He waxes eloquent in taking distance from Christian practices of which he strongly disapproves, and so one is reminded of Sinclair Lewis (author of Elmer Gantry) and other writers of similar ilk earlier in the twentieth century. Fiske assures us that the people to whom the church should be appealing but who are repelled by its grotesqueries "... do not want to think of God as a Magnified Rotarian, nor are they ever likely to be enamoured of a religion that has lost all sense of mystery, has no feeling of awe, is never hushed into solemn silence, substitutes for devotion a breezy familiarity with God and holy things, and goes about the business of salvation with an effrontery which is really indicative of spiritual poverty and an utter lack of appreciation of what St. Paul called `the mystery of godliness'." [pp. 73-4] Yet Fiske is much more than a Sinclair Lewis figure, for he does know the solution -- at least, in theory.
The solution has to do with the church knowing its own place, that is to say, the limits of its competence. He even dares to speak of a "social gospel," a term which the reader might expect him to avoid altogether, for fear that it might leave him sounding like a "resolutionary." What's more, he wants that gospel to be implemented concretely outside the church, for it does not fall within the limits of the church's competence. He writes: "... I voice a prayer for the church that it may escape the perils of the professional uplift, and learn that there is a way we may do our proper work and yet set forth a social gospel." [p. 26]
In a key passage he affirms that human beings who are Christians do have a "civic duty" to attend to:
... the paramount social duty of the church is not the planning and engineering of economic schemes, not the formulating of programmes; but the enlargement of sympathy and the realization of fellowship among men; the kindling of brotherly confidence and understanding, and the spreading of it as by contagion. The real business of the church is to make men's hearts right, and then trust their enlightened consciences somehow to solve their civic duty. In other words, the church cannot (in its corporate capacity) pass upon many such problems, because when it comes to programmes and parties, when we deal with economic, industrial, and educational systems, even when we frame health regulations and liquor laws, good Christians have a perfect right to disagree as to details. [p. 59]
In giving us hints of his underlying ecclesiology, Fiske rightly associates the work of Christ with the work of the church. He recognizes that when we leave the sanctuary after the Sunday worship service and go about our weekday work, we are not the body of Christ in the same way that we were when we gathered at the communion rail. Once this ecclesiological distinction is clearly fixed in our minds, we can understand something of what it means for the church to try to emulate her Lord, of whom Fiske says:
Jesus Christ brought into life a new spirit which, if it be taken seriously and honestly, will change the world. But he passed no laws, inaugurated no new industrial organization, framed no social platform, set forth no political panaceas. Moral issues may sometimes be so plain that the church can express its corporate mind on the subject, but for the most part the methods by which right moral action shall be taken are open to grave differences of opinion. [p. 25]
If we succeeded in being truly Christlike in our approach to social issues, we could avoid being laughed out of court as fools for Christ. Fiske explains:
The church must go back to the method of its Lord -- reform and renew men by the winsomeness and attractiveness of his teaching, instead of compelling them to behave by reliance on the civil arm. Some things we have been doing which we never should have attempted, and because we have tried them we are losing our moral influence. Men sneer at our amateur efforts, and laugh at our hysterical parsons, or become annoyed or even angry at our theatrical pronouncements and leave us alone. [p. 65]
If we wish to ponder Fiske's prescription for getting the church back on track, we will need to pay attention to what he insists is a a crucial distinction. In two different parts of his book he explains the distinction he has in mind. He writes:
... while the church's voice should be heard as a directive influence in public morals, there is a great danger of our forgetting the distinction between moral teaching and the particular methods by which the moral teaching may be applied to problems of our complex life. It is a distinction, I have said, which is difficult to make clear in connection with the church's duty to-day; yet it is a real distinction. Some things the Christian denominations of America are doing which they should never have attempted, and the result has been too great a reliance upon legislation and the civil arm for the enforcement of morality. [p. 167-8]
He assures us that the distinction he has in mind is "clear" (I am reminded of the Reformation insistence that Scripture is clear):
... there is a clear distinction between moral teaching and the particular political, social, industrial, economic, or legislative method by which the moral teaching may be applied to particular problems of our complex modern life. The churches of late have failed to make this distinction, to the hurt of their real influence. They must be called back to their real duty -- which is the supplying of the spiritual dynamic that shall make men strong enough and brave enough to follow the path of truth and right, no matter where it may lead or what it may cost, to think unselfishly and labor courageously amid all the problems of citizenship, so that they may be solved in accordance with Christian principles and in the spirit of Christ himself. [p. 67]
But Fiske does not leave the church itself without a task in this area. He immediately continues by spelling out what the "one thing" is on which the church should focus:
One thing, and one thing only, and one thing always, the church ought to do, and I make this protest to call it back to that task. It is this: To induce us all to think of our citizenship, to make us all deeply prayerful in facing its duties and responsibilities, to make us profoundly conscientious in the exercise of its privileges, to give us all a right motive, to fill us with determination not to shirk our obligations, to charge us with the spiritual energy to labor unceasingly not for our individual salvation only, but for our country's welfare and our neighbor's good. [pp. 67-8]
Now, in this passage I counted more than "one thing" for the church to be doing. But in what Fiske has written here I also see a determination to limit the task and competence of the church as it seeks to equip its men and women to venture into society and thereby discharge their "civic duty" as Christians, even if, at times, they wind up disagreeing with one another and working at cross purposes.
Fiske's understanding of the task of the church has something of an academic and theoretical flavor. He carefully avoids any talk of theology as the "queen of the sciences," but if one were to rummage through the attic of his thoughts, I'm sure it could be located there. He tells us:
The supreme need of the age is for men who have the wisdom, the courage, and the conscience to guide the Christian forces of the country in making thorough application of the principles of the Gospel to the conditions of every-day life and the needs of our modern social and industrial system. Back of every economic and industrial question there lies usually a moral principle. The church is the guardian of morals. Surely, therefore, it is incumbent upon the church's members to concern themselves about the solution of public questions. Only so can the Christian fulfill more completely the obligation of the second great Gospel commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves. [pp. 53-4]
Consider carefully what Fiske has written here. What is the "crucial distinction" that is needed if we are to solve the problem he has placed before us (i.e. how we can act as Christians in the world without bringing scorn and ridicule upon ourselves)? It seems to be related to what many thinkers have called the distinction between theory and practice. Writes Fiske:
Wherever a moral question arises, it is the function of the church to establish the principles upon which the question shall be determined. Beyond establishing principles the church generally should not go; but individual members of the church, acting in their capacity as citizens, often united in organizations, must see that right principles are duly expressed in specific reforms even though the exact line cannot be fixed between too much and too little reliance upon measures designed to carry moral principles into effect. [p. 87]
As I reflect upon Fiske's analysis of the problem and the outline of the solution he offers, I cannot help but be reminded of the neo-Calvinist approach to these things as it was articulated in the tradition of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd and others. In these neo-Calvinists we have what appears, at first glance, to be a neat theoretical solution to the problem along lines somewhat reminiscent of Fiske. Admittedly, the neo-Calvinist thinkers would not accept Fiske's wide use of the term "moral"; they would instead think in terms of a differentiated normativity whereby economic rightness and wrongness and aesthetic rightness and wrongness are not to be regarded as branches of moral rightness and wrongness. It seems to me that this neo-Calvinist thesis is a step in the right direction. And it also avoids the danger of making some such discipline as theology or ethics the queen of the sciences or the traffic cop pointing out the proper direction for each individual to follow as he seeks his appointed task. Yet I could find no evidence in the text that Fiske had ever read Kuyper, of whom he was a contemporary. (Fiske lagged about a generation behind, for Kuyper was 31 years old when Fiske was born.) And much as I admire neat theoretical solutions to practical problems, I do have some doubts, which I propose to explore in the balance of this essay.
In the tradition of Kuyper, a distinction is made between the church as a unified organism, that is to say, the church as a body of redeemed believers carrying out its divine mandate in many sectors of life, and the church as an institute or institution. It is the church in the latter sense that comes to mind for common sense when the term "church" is used. For the man in the street, the church is first of all an impressive building and secondly a set of activities carried on within that building by people who gather there regularly and contribute to the financial support of the activities undertaken there. All of this is the institutional and visible dimension of the life of the church. The genius of the solution offered by Kuyper and his associates is to say that when the worshipers leave the sanctuary on Sunday and return to their various occupations on Monday, they are still the church and are still rooted in Christ. But at this point they are grounding their insights and authority in something other than the doctrine of the church understood in creedal or theological or even moral terms.
Through a series of categorial distinctions, which are summed up in the doctrine of sphere-sovereignty, the human beings making up the church in the deeper, organic sense turn out to be rooted in -- or in touch with -- norms that are specific to the area and type of activity in which they have immersed themselves in their daily life. The neo-Calvinist emphasis falls on the idea that they go about their activities fully as Christians -- no less so than when they worship God in church on Sunday. Therefore, what they are doing counts as what the church -- in some important sense -- is doing. But the church in the ordinary, common-sense, or institutional understanding of the term is not to be found in the workplace. Neither does it march into the university to give orders and thereby run the risk of turning itself into a laughing-stock or (more charitably) a fool for Christ).
All of this Kuyperian theory is nicely concretized in one of the major institutions whose founding he spearheaded -- the Free University of Amsterdam. Someone who hears the name of this institution for the first time cannot help but wonder what "free" stands for. Does it mean that students pay no tuition? That was not the intent. The term "free" in the name of this Amsterdam university means first and foremost that the institution is free and able to carry out its God-given educational mandate directly, without undue pressure being placed upon it by other spheres or sectors of society that have no essential insight into the educational enterprise. The list of potentially troublesome sectors of society that ought to keep their noses out of university affairs includes the church! And so the body of Christ in the organic sense is busy with university and scientific affairs at the Free University, but the church in the institutional sense keeps its respectful distance, thereby giving Fiske no grounds for complaint.
This theory of how Christians act in the world without having the church dictate their conduct is admirable and has excited many Christians for generations. It can be read especially as a self-conscious repudiation of the Roman Catholic tendency to make the church too dominant in life. The danger of the Roman Catholic model has often been pointed out in connection with the rapid secularization process which we have witnessed in many jurisdictions. As a Canadian, I think especially of Quebec, where the Roman Catholic Church was once utterly dominant and expressed its dominance through the prominent church buildings to be found to this day in many small towns in Quebec. In time the (Roman Catholic) church lost its position of dominance and prestige, with the result that Quebec society rapidly became far too free not just of the church but of the power and claims of the Gospel. What happened in Quebec would make a fine Kuyperian case study, illustrating that Christian influence in society should not radiate directly from the church but should be mediated through roles and institutions that are distinctly Christian in character even though they are not ecclesiastical in any specific sense.
The Kuyperian approach to this issue borrows some of its credibility from the continental European preference for corporate way of thinking, as contrasted with the individualism we associate with Great Britain and the United States, an individualism that makes it difficult for many people in the English-speaking world to understand Kuyper. On the Kuyperian account, the people of God are present in the university and in business and in many other sectors of life in a corporate sense, acting together. But I cannot help but wonder whether, when they are outside the sanctuary in which Sunday worship takes place, they should not be branded a "mixed multitude." In case this phrase does not ring a bell with you, see Exodus 12:38; the people of Israel, having suffered oppression in Egypt, are joined by other oppressed people as they are about to depart, thereby becoming a "mixed multitude."
One of the standard Kuyperian examples of a Christian organization that facilitates the process in which the people of God (the church in the organic sense) come together in a non-ecclesiastical setting to do the work of God and respond to his will is the Christian labor organization. In the Netherlands, a country that was shaped to quite an extent by Kuyper and his many associates, a system often called "pillarization" (verzuiling) came into effect. What this curious term means is that major spiritual streams were deliberately isolated from one another to the point that separate labor organizations or labor unions for members of those streams were entitled to operate in one and the same workplace. (Likewise, there were separate organizations for many other life-spheres.) And so there would be such a union for the humanistic or secular part of the population, one for the Roman Catholics and one for the (Calvinistic) Protestants. This ideal was transported to North America, proving slightly more popular in Canada than in the United States. Today there is a thriving Christian Labour Association of Canada. But its membership is indeed a "mixed multitude," as Gideon Strauss of the Work Research Foundation recently explained to me yet again when he and I happened to discuss this matter.
When we ponder this phenomenon of the Kuyperian labor organization which serves people drawn from so many ideologies and spiritual orientations, we see that the original idea seems to have shifted slightly. It is not so much that we stand in the domain of labor as a group of Christians who have banded together to do Lord's will -- yet not in our capacity as church members in the institutional sense. Rather, the basic idea is now that we bring Christian insights and principles to bear on labor relations. And those principles are good for all human beings -- regardless of whether they confess the name of Christ. Therefore the Christian Labour Association acts on behalf of a great many members who make no pretense of being Christians themselves.
I wonder just how far such an approach strays from the more individualistic model which Fiske articulates -- or perhaps I could better say: presupposes. If there is no distinction between the church in the institutional sense and the church in a deeper corporate sense as active in all sectors of the world, the idea, as Fiske neatly articulates it, might then be that we should regard the church as the place where God changes individual hearts and redirects human beings to paths of service in accordance with the Gospel. But once those human beings leave the church and put on their uniforms and roles for their work on Monday through Friday, they are individuals working shoulder to shoulder with other individuals in an increasingly pluralistic world. And so the old notion of a little leaven that winds up leavening the whole lump comes to mind (see I Corinthians 5:6).
On the other hand, when we move down such a track, the claim that the church is active in some sense as church in the university and in the world of labor and business and so forth begins to fade away. All too easily, the Kuyperian ideal can become a matter of giving a certain theological or philosophical spin or interpretation to what in fact goes on in society. Both Fiske and the Kuyperian camp would agree that Christian persons in society exercise a good influence and do their level best to improve things not just for their fellow Christians but for people in general.
So what we are to make of all of this? When we take pleasure in what the Christian Labour Association of Canada has accomplished, are we justified in pointing to the church in action? Or do we only see Christian individuals who are known on Sundays -- and in principle throughout the week as well -- to be members of the church in the ordinary, institutional sense, the sense that is recognized by the man on the street? I suppose one could go either way on this question without the actual situation in the workplace or the university or the business enterprise being much affected by the conclusion we had drawn. If William James were a party to this debate, he might well shrug his shoulders and conclude that we are not talking about a genuine theoretical difference.
In expressing admiration for both these lines of thought while raising some questions, I cannot help but be drawn back to the Presbyterian elder who undertook to be a fool for Christ -- and in the context of a worship service! In my lectures to Christian students, I do not recommend such conduct -- but perhaps I should. However, a point I do make from time to time is that in our lives as Christians we must be willing to become vulnerable for the sake of the Gospel. A humble example usually illustrates my point. There are some folks nowadays who tell us that we must never pick up a hitchhiker. There is always a tiny, tiny danger that a hitchhiker will turn out to be a person of evil intent who winds up robbing you or harming you. Safety must be put ahead of all other considerations, and so the sensible thing is never to pick up a hitchhiker. The point I make about such advice is that all human interaction has the potential to expose us to harm or injury. But we are under a mandate from our Lord to help our fellow human beings. To minister to the sick and dying who are afflicted with AIDS is to run a risk -- albeit a small one. To minister in a leper colony, to take a more classic example, is also to run a risk. Many forms of admirable Christian service involve Christian men and women placing themselves in zones where danger is at hand -- perhaps political turmoil and revolution.
Does this mean that we must be willing to risk our lives for the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of ministering to the needs of others in the name of Christ? The answer is yes -- but on the other hand we need to be prudent about it. And so it is certainly legitimate to consider one's own safety and welfare, also when contemplating picking up a hitchhiker. The point is that personal safety must not be the only consideration in our minds. There is something noble about being vulnerable and risking your health and welfare and even your life.
And so, if we are to be vulnerable, we should also be willing to be exposed to the laughter and scorn of others. And while I do not particularly enjoy being laughed at, I do, from time to time, say and do ridiculous things in the course of my teaching in order to grab students' attention. Whether I'm willing to look ridiculous in the face of people who don't know me is another question; it might be hard to devise a test to find out the answer to this question. But I retain my admiration for the Presbyterian elder, and I think the minister's comment during the worship service was on target.
Today, looking like a fool might mean being willing to make pronouncements about issues of various sorts that some will dismiss as woolly thinking or as impractical idealism rooted in ignorance. Are we to make such pronouncements in the name of the church and therefore risk looking like "resolutionaries" (Fiske's term)? The Kuyperian answer is simple: the church should stick to its own proper business. As for Christian organizations, they should indeed pass some resolutions, but the people active in those organizations (not just clergymen who may happen to attend some of the meetings) should roll up their sleeves to see what can be done about implementing the resolutions.
A big part of such Kuyperian action, of course, is involvement in the political process itself beyond merely voting, and it is worth noting that the Christian political party with which Kuyper was associated has often been in power, with Kuyper himself serving as prime minister of the Netherlands during the years 1901 through 1905. Moreover, the tradition continues: exactly one hundred years after Kuyper's time in power, the office of prime minister is being occupied by Jan Peter Balkenende, who is an avowed Kuyperian.
On a strictly Kuyperian analysis, of course, there is nothing laughable about the presumably thoughtful proposals and programs which Christian organizations and political parties devise in their efforts to promote the welfare of the nation as a whole. But on the model which Fiske rejects, Christians meeting in essentially ecclesiastical settings will wind up passing Pollyanna-like resolutions which are laughed at by the world. Thereby they are turning themselves into fools for Christ and encouraging Fiske to take off his clerical collar when he travels on a train, just so that he can enjoy the fellowship of his fellow passengers.
For my part, I am willing to endure a certain amount of scorn because I hold to ideals of conduct that others may find foolish. This is also what is done by pacifist Christians, of which there are many in the Anabaptist tradition. Fiske's realistic and hard-headed attitude toward such policies is worth reflecting on. He writes:
We are the victims of paid pacifists who induce us to preach disarmament in season and out and demand the abolition of armies and navies at once, instead of trying out the experiment on a small scale and beginning by discharging the local police force and throwing away the key to the front door. We all hate war .... But the secretary of some peace society has induced us to inscribe our names to a resolution that the only way to avoid war is by action analogous to that of tying our hands and letting a bad man hit our children. [p. 41-2]
What are we to say in response to such hard-headed wisdom? A line from a hymn comes to mind: "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." What might this mean in practice? I suppose it would have to mean that when I am hit, I do not hit back. Is this outright, unrealistic foolishness on my part? Would such self-restraint qualify me as a genuine "fool for Christ"? Or would it be impossible for me to a exercise such a high degree of self-restraint? I hardly know what to say in response to these questions, and it saddens me that the primary figure to whom our society turns as symbolizing and implementing this ideal of peace-making is not a member of the Christian tradition but M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948), who in his day was the world's best known Hindu. Gandhi could well have written the "Let it begin with me" line in the hymn, and he was known to be quite an admirer of the pacifist strain within the Christian tradition. He did not mind looking like a fool. As for those who thought his methods would lead absolutely nowhere, he was able to say eventually that his methods had been instrumental in driving the British out of India -- no mean accomplishment!
Even so, I'm not quite the "resolutionary" that readers of this essay might take me to be. I am cautious by nature, and at this stage in my life I'm less inclined to chide others than I might have been some ten or twenty years ago. Part of the reason for the change is my transition to the role of grandfather, which I have made in recent months. Now that my son has a son and has thereby become a father, I leave dogmatism and active reproof to him, while I play a more gentle and encouraging role in relation to the newest member of the extended Plantinga family. I'm not the meddling grandfather type.
Sometimes I think that the church as an institution should -- and perhaps does, especially in my own communion, which is the same as Fiske's -- play a grandfather-like role. Perhaps we should conclude from recent Christian history that a high degree of negativity on the part of many of the churches, and also certain organizations that have roots in the churches, has left us with us a negative image that leads secular commentators to compare us to Muslims. For my part, I am stung when I hear some of our clergymen being characterized as "ayatollahs."
If we are laughed at today, could it be because we seem to be "against" everything? This is not to deny that there are many practices and developments in modern society that should be thoroughly deplored -- of course there are! But does the forbidding posture of the young father determined to apply proper discipline to his son serve as an appropriate model for the church in such a time as this? I have my doubts. I fear that we're losing sight of the positive side of our faith.
And so, in the end, I must take issue with the bishop in terms of his fear of becoming a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world. Scripture teaches us that what we call the Gospel is foolishness in the eyes of the world (see I Corinthians 1). If this is indeed so, and if we embrace that foolishness openly, should we be surprised when we are laughed at and taken to be fools for Christ? Who, then, is on the right track -- the Anglican bishop who takes off his clerical collar on the train or the Presbyterian elder who is willing to don a clown suit as he greets people at the door before the worship service? [END]
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