Cutting Edges: Be Ye Not Conformed

RayBy Dr. Stephen Ray, the Neal F. and Ila A. Fisher Professor of Systematic Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

These are difficult and troubling times in which we live. The lines between faith and public life are bending in ways that help neither. Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves, as each generation must, of both our calling and our vocation in the world. I find that Jeremiah and Paul help me to think through what vocation means in the world.

In the 29th chapter of his “jeremiad,” the prophet gives voice to the reality that God sends people of faith into the various cities of the world with the specific charge to seek the welfare of those places. A way that we live toward the welfare of the places that God sends us is to bear witness to the fact that there is no earthly power that knowingly works on God’s behalf. This witness curbs the penchant for societies, nations, and groups to claim for themselves divine sanction. This is an important vocation. Time and again groups will claim for themselves the role of being “God’s ______” (you fill in the blank) in the world. The goal of this claim is always the same: to exercise arbitrary power for the benefit of social elites. Sometimes it is almost comical to see those who use “ungodly” means to achieve and maintain power constantly refer to themselves as “godly” people. Comical, that is, if this type of hypocrisy weren’t so dangerous.

The type of reactionary political discourse that cloaks itself in religion plays to both the best and the worst in us. It plays to the best in us because it relies on our impulse to serve God and something greater than ourselves (usually country). It plays to the worst in us by drawing on the innate tribalism that characterizes all human groups. In the end the point is always the same: defeat the enemy in the name of God, and the result is always the same: those holding economic and political power become more powerful, and everyone else loses. The country loses because the threads of what Lincoln called the “bonds of affection” are frayed and drawn. The polis loses because while its attention has been distracted by disingenuous god- talk the commonwealth has been plundered by those who could in the end care less about God and country. Finally, and most important to me, the name of Jesus Christ is defamed. Rather than being witnessed to as the one who loved the poor, the last and the least so much that he gave his life so that all might live (Matt. 25), he is instead portrayed as the arch defender of the privileged, and the worshiper of filthy mammon who takes no greater pleasure than in seeing the marginalized suffer. So, the only ones who win, if you call this winning, are the very forces against which the prophets raged and the apostles castigated. What is perhaps the saddest note is not that the world takes this crowd of hypocrites seriously when they call themselves Christians. No, the saddest part is that we so seldom call them on it.

Perhaps hypocrite is too strong a word. A more descriptive term might be conformed. Conformed to ways of being in the world which the Gospel calls us out of. It may well be that people of good faith and intention can unwittingly allow themselves to become so conformed to the “ways of the world” that they cease to see that worldly power is not the summum bonum of the Christian life. It is possible that in the zeal to be godly, persons and groups fail to see that the embodiment of arbitrary and destructive power is anything but godly. It may well be that we are living in an age in which large parts of the Christian community in America are so bent on winning at any cost that they make alliance with powers and forces whose only aim is domination and whose only means is the sowing of bitterness and contention. In times like these, it could be that our task in our public life is to contend for the faith that is our salvation against the powers of evil and destruction that go by the name “Christian.”

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