When is political power legitimate?

John Bale.jpg

John Bale, ‘Revelation Chapter 13’, 1545

‘When is political authority legitimate? When does the state have a status and function that may be considered “ordained by God”? When are those who rule – emperors or presidents, parliaments or police – due honor, not out of fear, because they wield the sword and command the means to intimidate, dominate and coerce human beings, but as a matter of conscience?

These have not been abstract issues in the American context. The founding premises of the nation define legitimacy in government, both with respect to a rule considered so obnoxious to human life in society that it was to be resisted and overthrown (the Declaration of Independence), and, thereafter, with respect to the limitations upon political authority and the institutionalization of public accountability (the Constitution). Between the Declaration and the Constitution, political legitimacy concerns how political power is established and how such power is used. Incumbency in itself is not enough to validate any exercise of political authority.

Nor is the matter abstract nowadays. In the past decade the opposition, notably that of Christians, to the war and to the war enterprise in Southeast Asia has upheld the position that the illegal and unconstitutional conduct of the war renders incumbent political authority illegitimate. It is this very point that occasioned the witness of the Berrigan brothers in becoming fugitives at a time when they had been ordered to submit to imprisonment. To have surrendered to illegitimate authority voluntarily would have seemed to condone it. For the Berrigans, there could be no obedience to criminal power.

At a time when the President is reported to be frustrated and angry that his rule lacks credibility and that he does not receive automatic homage, it is edifying to recall that many who have all along opposed him and his regime – and also the Government of Lyndon Johnson – have not done so as weirdos, cowards, far-out radicals or malcontents. In truth, they have upheld the classic American view of political legitimacy. The very citizens President Nixon has been so desirous to watch and spy upon, defame and persecute, humiliate and ostracize, prosecute and punish have been those who have acted to redeem legitimacy in government so that political authority could be conscientiously honored (again) in this nation.

And, more than that, such persons have acted within the traditional doctrine of Romans 13. John Calvin’s comment could hardly be more emphatic or more immediately relevant to both the war and Watergate as manifestations of political illegitimacy:

Understand further, that powers are from God … because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. For though tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the well-being of mankind. As it is lawful to repel wars and to seek remedies for other evils, hence the Apostle [Paul] commands us willingly and cheerfully to respect and honor the right and authority of magistrates, as useful to men …

If that be the truth, for citizens who are biblical people, the way to expose illegitimate authority is to oppose the incumbent regime. In that case President Nixon may not invoke Romans 13 to indulge vanity, induce tribute, evade guilt or compound deceit; rather, he is consigned to suffer Romans 13 as a stunning and awesome rebuke – and as a fearful and timely warning’.

– Mr Stringfellow

Some Recent Watering Holes


Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source


I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:

And this:

On Hitler: ‘We engaged him for our ends’

Hitler‘Hitler didn’t reach the chancellorship by his own efforts, but was put there by supercilious idiots who assumed they could manage this vulgarian. “We engaged him for our ends”, said the despicable Franz von Papen. A year later, in the Night of the Long Knives, von Papen was grovelling to save his own neck’.

– Neal Ascherson, ‘Hopping in His Matchbox’, London Review of Books 38, no. 11 (2016), 23.

Living betwixt and between muddle and ambiguity

Royal Cave, Buchan Caves Reserve. © Jason Goroncy, 2016

‘Royal Cave’, Buchan Caves Reserve. © Jason Goroncy, 2016

Over these past days, I have been reminded again that at our best, to be human, and to be human community, is to live betwixt and between muddle and ambiguity. We are, unavoidably, marked by profound inconsistencies and misdirected hopes. We are an enigma – even, and perhaps especially, to ourselves.

A few months ago, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave an outstanding lecture on what George Orwell can teach us about the language of terror and war. In that lecture, he drew not only upon Orwell’s work but also upon that of the Trappist monk, poet, and social activist Thomas Merton, and he argued that each in their own way were concerned with the power and the misuse of language. Williams suggested that ‘our current panics about causing “offence” are, at their best and most generous, an acknowledgement of how language can encode and enact power relations’.

Certainly, the spirit of the age in which we live is characterised by efforts to entrench unquestionable power, power that makes unwelcome voices of dissent, and which feels little or no responsibility to those who do not serve its own proximate interests.

According to Williams, our thoughts and wrestles and debates about those questions which really matter for the flourishing of life often expose ‘a deep unwillingness to have things said or shown that might profoundly challenge someone’s starting assumptions. If there is an answer to this curious contemporary neurosis, it is surely not to be found in the silencing of disagreement but rather in the education of speech: how is unwelcome truth to be told in ways that do not humiliate or disable? And the answer to that question is inseparable from learning to argue – from the actual practice of open exchange, in the most literal sense “civil” disagreement, the debate appropriate to citizens who have dignity and liberty to discuss their shared world and its organisation and who are able to learn what their words sound like in the difficult business of staying with such a debate as it unfolds’.

Isn’t that one of the reasons that we place ourselves in communities of faith? I often tell my children that one of the main reasons we go to church is so that we can learn and practice loving people that we don’t really like that much – people who irritate us, people who we find odd and who we’d never be seen dead with otherwise, people who frustrate us and hurt us and disappoint us. We belong to the church because that is how we hope to learn the truth that is required for our being truthful about ourselves and about one another. What is the Christian community if it is not a unique training ground for learning the lessons of being the kind of community that God intends for all humanity – for learning that to be truly human is to belong to and to relate to and to do life with those who are other than ourselves, those whom God has joined together?

And so we eat and drink – not only with friends, but also with strangers, with enemies and with betrayers … and with our own inner demons. For that is the context in which Christ makes himself available to us.

On the demonic and introverted nature of worldly power

Christopher Henry Dawson‘[T]he new mass dictatorships associate the highest and lowest qualities of human nature—self-sacrifice and boundless devotion, as well as unlimited violence and vindictiveness—in the assertion of their will to power … As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy. The subordination of morals to politics, the reign of terror and the technique of propaganda and psychological aggression can be used by any Power or Party that is bold enough to abandon moral scruples and plunge into the abyss. This is the greatest difficulty that faces us at the present time. For it is an evil that thrives by war, and the necessity of opposing the spirit of unlimited aggression by force of arms, creates the atmosphere which is most favourable to its growth’.

– Christopher Dawson, ‘The Hour of Darkness’, The Tablet, 2 December 1939, 626.

Who said it?

Time again for another ‘Who Said It?’ game. Who made the following statement?

‘Every Weltanschhauung, whether religious or political – and it is sometimes difficult to say where the one ends and the other begins – fights not so much for the negative destruction of the opposing world of ideas as for the positive realization of its own ideas. Thus its struggle lies in attack rather than in defence. It has the advantage of knowing where its objective lies, as this objective represents the realization of its own ideas. Inversely, it is difficult to say when the negative aim for the destruction of a hostile doctrine is reached and secured. For this reason alone a Weltanschhauung which is of an aggressive character is more definite in plan and more powerful and decisive in action than a Weltanschhauung which takes up a merely defensive attitude. If force be used to combat a spiritual power, that force remains a defensive measure only so long as the wielders of it are not the standard-bearers and apostles of a new spiritual doctrine’.

You know the rules …

The ‘game’ closes on Monday.


Reducing to nothing the things that are: a wee reflection on the politics of power

Vince Boudreau’s book Resisting Dictatorship: Repression and Protest in Southeast Asia begins with these words:

There are times and places about which nothing seems more significant than the sheer energy and violence that states direct against basic freedoms. The snippets of information that filter from these dictatorial seasons – tales of furtive hiding and tragic discovery: hard times and uneasy sleep – describe lives utterly structured by state repression. Authoritarians bent on taking power, consolidating their rule or seizing resources frequently silence opponents with bludgeons, bullets and shallow graves, and those who find themselves in the path of the state juggernaut probably have trouble even imagining protest or resistance without also calculating the severity or likelihood of state repression. Such considerations surely influence whether individuals take action or maintain a frustrated silence, and will over time broadly shape protest and resistance. (p. 1)

My long interest in the people and politics of Burma, in particular, means that I think a lot about this kind of stuff, and particularly about how the community of God might witness to and in the midst of such situations where the abuses of authority birth such blatantly evil fruit and where the climate of hope has been beclouded in fear. [Rose Marie Berger’s recent post on Guantanamo: When Will it Get Foreclosed?, for example, recalled such fruit in another part of the world]. Certainly, all human relationships and institutions live under the constant threat of the abuse of power. And even a cursory reading of history will reveal that the Church too has been both victim and perpetrator of such abuse. (I am aware that already I have used the words authority and power interchangeably here. Certainly they are at least related, and the proper understanding and use of each will decide whether the ways being pursued bring the fragrance of life or the stench of death to a situation.)

In my teaching, I am particularly interested to encourage thinking about the relationship between power and pastoral ministry, between the politics of power and what I call the ‘eucharistic ontology’ of Christian witness. Of course, we might do just as well reading 1 Corinthians 1.27–29, and recalling that ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, what is weak in the world to shame the strong, what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God’. I guess that I am concerned with exploring the Church’s option of resistance to powers’ abuse as noted by Boudreau; namely, whether we ‘take action or maintain a frustrated silence’. And if the Church is called, among other things, to participate in Jesus’ work of destroying ‘the works of the devil’ (1 John 3.8), then what weapons does God (for surely, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer, that section of humanity in which Christ is taking form must resist the temptation to take up other weapons!) arm the friends of Jesus with?

In his ‘Reflections on the Notification Sent to Jon Sobrino’, published in Getting the Poor Down From the Cross: Christology of Liberation, José Comblin recalls that ‘Christendom has meant that there has been a close alliance between the clergy and the civil powers, meaning the civil authorities. A long reflection that is not only theory, but that has emerged out of living together with the poorest of the people, has demonstrated that this alliance has left no space for the Church of the Poor. This alliance has treated the poor like beggars, and has not allowed them to grow socially and/or culturally. This has been the case despite the pretty speeches of the authorities, meaning the dominant aristocracies’ (p. 75).

The fact is, as Duncan Forrester has also reminded us of in his Theological Fragments, Christian worship loses its integrity when it becomes either isolated from the realities of life, or an escape from the implications of oppression. ‘It is impossible to keep company with Christ if we refuse to accept the company he has chosen to keep. Following the patristic principle ubi Christus ibi ecclesia (where Christ is, there is the Church), it is necessary to go to find Christ and therefore the Church among the poor he loves, to listen to them, and to learn afresh from them how to worship God in Spirit and in truth … Worship separated from the great issues of liberty and justice has become idolatry, an instrument of ideological manipulation, a way of hiding from God rather than encountering Him’ (pp. 109, 110).

So the need to keep worshipping, to keep being confronted by the Word who puts us and our schemes to death and then calls us to participate in his action, and to keep hoping, like John the Baptist, that the One we encounter on the road might be ‘the one who is to come’ (Matt 11.3//Luke 7.19–20).

Advent V: ‘The sign of God is powerlessness in the world’

‘And to us who come, in the midst of the wicked world torn by malice, to venerate the Infant lying in the manger, what law and wisdom of life are given by this miraculous sign? To what do the angels now call those who come to venerate Christ? They call them to receive into their hearts His humiliation, His persecution, His Crucifixion, as the sole sign of the Christian life, as its power and triumph.

For the best self-attestation of the Good is its defenselessness in the face of the power of evil. The best attestation of Truth is silence in the face of much-talkative falsehood. The supreme manifestation of Beauty consists in the unadornment by vain adornment. The power of God triumphs by means of itself, not by means of the power of this world. For the world, there is no power of God. The world does not see and does not know the power of God: it laughs at the power of God. But Christians know that the sign of God is powerlessness in the world – the Infant in the manger.

And there is no need to gild the manger, for a gilded manger is no longer Christ’s manger. There is no need for earthly defense, for such defense is superfluous for the Infant Christ. There is no need for earthly magnificence, for it is rejected by the King of Glory, the Infant in the manger. But there is a need for the authentic revelation of the God of Love. There is a need for the image of all-forgiving meekness, praying for His enemies and tormentors. There is a need for the image of the way of the cross to Christ’s Kingdom, to defeat evil by the triumphant self-evidence of good. There is a need for the image of freedom from the world. And powerless, we are powerful. In the kingdom of this world we desire to serve the Kingdom of God; we believe in, call, and await this Kingdom. For we have come to know the sign of the Infant in the manger. Power in powerlessness, Triumph in humiliation. And let our heart be our manger, in which we bear the divine sign, the sign of the cross.

By this sign reigns the King of kings, the Infant in the manger. In Him and with Him we are united forever by the fact He was made man. We call him Emmanuel – God with us’.

– Sergeĭ Nikolaevich Bulgakov, Churchly Joy: Orthodox Devotions for the Church Year (trans. Boris Jakim; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 39–40.

William Stringfellow, Free in Obedience – Part III

In his chapter, ‘Christ and the powers of death’, Stringfellow continues to identify and speak to the principalities and powers, what moderns call ‘ideologies’, ‘institutions’ and ‘images’, the latter  being a variety of angelic power manifest in the cultus of celebrity and exists independently of actual persons . So when someone like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or Adolph Hitler dies, the image does not die but goes on to ‘a new and, some would say, more vigorous life’ (p. 53), and those who pay homage to the image are literally possessed by it.

The principalities of institution – corporations, government agencies, ecclesiastical organisations, unions and universities – demand uncompromised worship no less than do the images: ‘Everything else must finally be sacrificed to the cause of preserving the institution, and it is demanded of everyone who lives within its sphere of influence … that they commit themselves to the service of that end, the survival of the institution’ (p. 56). The principalities of institution offer invitations to bondage.

Having named the idolatrous powers of personality cult and principalities, Stringfellow then turns to the ideologies – totalitarian, democratic and capitalistic – all of which are given to nation-survival at all cost, all of which claim a person’s ‘loyalty, service and worship’ (p. 60), and all of which live in conflict not only with one another but as enemies of human being and flourishing. Indeed, ‘the separation from life, the bondage to death, the alienation from God which the fall designates’ (p. 62) is manifest in humanity’s bondage to the principalities and turn to them for salvation:

‘When a principality claims moral pre-eminence in history or over a man’s life, it represents an aspiration for salvation from death and a hope that service to the idol will give existence a meaning somehow transcending death’ (p. 64).

These are the very principalities and powers – ‘the awesome and manifold powers of death’ (p. 71) – that are confronted and overcome by Jesus Christ in his resurrection victory, ‘not for himself, but for us … His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death’s works, safe and free from death’ (p. 72). In his cross, Jesus bears the full brunt of the hostility of the principalities and powers towards him, submitting to their condemnation, accepting their committal of himself to death, and, in his resurrection, exposing, undoing and bringing to nought the false lords of history and the powers they represent.

Don’t forget Wipf & Stock’s offer to readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem of 40% off the retail price of any of the Stringfellow volumes. To obtain the 40% discount, just include the coupon code STRINGFELLOW with your order.

Eucharist and the politics of power

‘The church expresses a corporate existence where divine agency interacts with human affairs, and such an interaction nurtures, that is to say gives life and shape to, the ecclesial body … [A] theopolitics of Christ’s Body in the Eucharist is rooted not exclusively in power, but, in a more primary sense, in divine caritas, which is expressed with a radical gesture of kenosis, reciprocity, and concrete communal practices. This is not to say that power is herein dismissed, or that the Eucharist is a sign of disempowerment. There is a politics of power here. Yet it is a power that integrates plenitude of desire; it is the paradoxical force of sacrifice on the cross; it is the humble power of bread broken into pieces for the purpose of sharing; it is the washing of feet that means a life of service to one another; it is the power of giving one’s life for the other. In other words, this is the theopolitical power of caritas, where the extraordinary embraces and transfigures the ordinary: God’s “sovereignty disclosed at the breaking of the bread,” as Samuel Wells remarks’. – Angel F. Méndez Montoya, The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 115–6.

David Bentley Hart on the rude interruption

resurrection‘Nietzsche, the quixotic champion of the old standards, thought jesting Pilate’s “What is truth?” to be the only moment of actual nobility in the New Testament, the wry taunt of an acerbic ironist unimpressed by the pathetic fantasies of a deranged peasant. But one need not share Nietzsche’s sympathies to take his point; one can certainly see what is at stake when Christ, scourged and mocked, is brought before Pilate a second time: the latter’s “Whence art thou?” has about it something of a demand for a pedigree, which might at least lend some credibility to the claims Christ makes for himself; for want of which, Pilate can do little other than pronounce his truth: “I have power to crucify thee” (which, to be fair, would under most circumstances be an incontrovertible argument). It is worth asking ourselves what this tableau, viewed from the vantage of pagan antiquity, would have meant. A man of noble birth, representing the power of Rome, endowed with authority over life and death, confronted by a barbarous colonial of no name or estate, a slave of the empire, beaten, robed in purple, crowned with thorns, insanely invoking an otherworldly kingdom and some esoteric truth, unaware of either his absurdity or his judge’s eminence. Who could have doubted where, between these two, the truth of things was to be found? But the Gospel is written in the light of the resurrection, which reverses the meaning of this scene entirely. If God’s truth is in fact to be found where Christ stands, the mockery visited on him redounds instead upon the emperor, all of whose regal finery, when set beside the majesty of the servile shape in which God reveals Himself, shows itself to be just so many rags and briars. This slave is the Father’s eternal Word, whom God has vindicated, and so ten thousand immemorial certainties are unveiled as lies: the first become last, the mighty are put down from their seats and the lowly exalted, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent empty away. Nietzsche was quite right to be appalled. Almost as striking, for me, is the tale of Peter, at the cock’s crow, going apart to weep. Nowhere in the literature of pagan antiquity, I assure you, had the tears of a rustic been regarded as worthy of anything but ridicule; to treat them with reverence, as meaningful expressions of real human sorrow, would have seemed grotesque from the perspective of all the classical canons of good taste. Those wretchedly subversive tears, and the dangerous philistinism of a narrator so incorrigibly vulgar as to treat them with anything but contempt, were most definitely signs of a slave revolt in morality, if not quite the one against which Nietzsche inveighed—a revolt, moreover, that all the ancient powers proved impotent to resist.

In a narrow sense, then, one might say that the chief offense of the Gospels is their defiance of the insights of tragedy—and not only because Christ does not fit the model of the well-born tragic hero. More important is the incontestable truth that, in the Gospels, the destruction of the protagonist emphatically does not restore or affirm the order of city or cosmos. Were the Gospels to end with Christ’s sepulture, in good tragic style, it would exculpate all parties, including Pilate and the Sanhedrin, whose judgments would be shown to have been fated by the exigencies of the crisis and the burdens of their offices; the story would then reconcile us to the tragic necessity of all such judgments. But instead comes Easter, which rudely interrupts all the minatory and sententious moralisms of the tragic chorus, just as they are about to be uttered to full effect, and which cavalierly violates the central tenet of sound economics: rather than trading the sacrificial victim for some supernatural benefit, and so the particular for the universal, Easter restores the slain hero in his particularity again, as the only truth the Gospels have to offer. This is more than a dramatic peripety. The empty tomb overturns all the “responsible” and “necessary” verdicts of Christ’s judges, and so grants them neither legitimacy nor pardon’. – David Bentley Hart, ‘God or Nothingness’ in I Am The Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments (ed. Carl E. Braaten and Christopher R. Seitz; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 64-66.

Lent Reflection 4: TF Torrance on power

Hercules‘[The] movement of God’s holy love into the heart of the world’s evil and agony is not to be understood as a direct act of sheer almighty power, for it is not God’s purpose to shatter and annihilate the agents and embodiments of evil in the world, but rather to pierce into the innermost center of evil power where it is entrenched in the piled-up and self-compounding guilt of humanity in order to vanquish it from within and below, by depriving it of the lying structures of half-truth on which it thrives and of the twisted forms of legality behind which it embattles itself and from which it fraudulently gains its power. Here we have an entirely different kind and quality of power, for which we have no analogies in our experience to help us understand it, since it transcends every kind of moral and material power we know, the power which the Bible calls grace …’. – Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2005), 136.

‘After War, Is Faith Possible?’: A Commendation

studdert-kennedyGeoffrey A. Studdert Kennedy, After War, Is Faith Possible?: The Life and Message of Geoffrey “Woodbine Willie” Studdert Kennedy (ed. Kerry Walters; Eugene: Cascade, 2008).
xii + 225 pages. ISBN: 978-1-55635-379-6. Review copy courtesy of Wipf and Stock.

One the real delights of my research into the thought of PT Forsyth has been revisiting, and in some cases discovering for the first time, others who were writing around the same time, and often of the same events. To re-read James Denney, or James Baldwin Brown, or FD Maurice, is one of the best ways one could spend a month … or two. Another giant personality to add to that list would have to be Geoffrey A. Studdert Kennedy, better known as ‘Woodbine Willie’. (I posted on ) My copies of Studdert Kennedy’s work, which are all over 90 years old, form a truly valuable part of my library and one to which I return not infrequently. Collected Poetry (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927), The Hardest Part (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1918), I Believe: Sermons on the Apostles Creed (New York: George H. Doran, 1921), Rough Rhymes of a Padre (Toronto: Hodder & Stoughton, 1918) and The Wicket Gate, or Plain Bread (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1923) all constitute exceptional reading.

And so I was absolutely delighted to discover that Wipf & Stock decided to republish some Woodbine Willie excerpts, all well chosen and just enough to plant an appetite in those who will no doubt want to hear more from ‘the bloody parson!’ (p. 12). The collection was edited by Kerry Walters, who also contributed a very fine introduction on Studdert Kennedy’s life and message, and a helpful bibliography of the primary and secondary literature.

Woodbine Willie, (June 27, 1883 - March 8, 1929)

Woodbine Willie, (June 27, 1883 - March 8, 1929)

This WWI padre was, of course, one of the best-known and most-loved Christian pacifists of the early twentieth century. Unlike those theological yuppies who defend pacifism on purely ideological grounds and over a café latte in Lygon Street – informed by the Gospel or otherwise – Woodbine Willie’s commitment to pacifism was birthed in the trenches alongside frightened men and their dead mates. In all that he wrote, a number of questions incessantly occupied his thought: ‘Given the insanity and brutality of war (‘the universal disaster’; p. 14), what must the God who allows it be like? (p. 13); How is evil to be gotten rid of? (p. 3); What sort of universe ought an honest person believe in? (p. 15). His answer to these questions eventually led to the conviction that God is not sadistic, or indifferent to the world’s evil. Neither is God ‘Almighty’ enough to prevent such evils: ‘I see no evidence anywhere in nature of the Almighty Potentate Who guides and governs all things with His rod, and knows no failure and thwarting of His Will’ (p. 81). What God does do, Woodbine Willie insists (in Moltmannesque manner), is to suffer with and alongside humanity. This is love’s character – not raw despotic power but entering into the sorrows of the beloved. War then, which is evil in its most acute form, is ‘the test case for determining if Christianity can cope with evil’ (p. 21).

Against those who would ‘blather’ about the ‘glory of war’, or who would hold out hope for war being a converting ordinance, Woodbine Willie says that ‘war is pure undiluted, filthy sin. I don’t believe that it has ever redeemed a single soul – or ever will’ (p. 62):

War is only glorious when you buy it in the Daily Mail and enjoy it at the breakfast table. It goes splendidly with bacon and eggs. Real war is the final limit of damnable brutality, and that all there is in it. It’s about the silliest, filthiest, most inhumanly fatuous thing that ever happened. It makes the whole universe seem like a mad muddle. One feels that all talk of order and meaning in life is insane sentimentality. (p. 41)

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy speaking at Tredegar during an Industrial Christian Fellowship Crusade in 1928.

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy speaking at Tredegar during an Industrial Christian Fellowship Crusade in 1928.

There are no words foul and filthy enough to describe war. Yet I would remind you that this indescribably filthy thing is the commonest thing in History, and that if we believe in a God of Love at all we must believe in the face of war and all it means. The supreme strength of the Christian faith is that it faces the foulest and filthiest of life’s facts in the crude brutality of the Cross, and through them sees the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (p. 49)

Waste of Muscle, waste of Brain,

Waste of Patience, waste of Pain,

Waste of Manhood, waste of Health,

Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth,

Waste of Blood, and waste of Tears,

Waste of Youth’s most precious years,

Waste of ways the Saints have trod,

Waste of Glory, waste of God –

              War! (p. 50)

I cannot say that war, disease, pestilence, famine, and all the other characteristics of the process are good. If this word “Almighty” means that the Father could have made this world, and obtained the results He desires, in a thousand other ways, but that He deliberately chose this, that makes my gorge rise. Why in thunder choose this one? It is disreputable if He could have done it otherwise, without this cruelty and wrong. It is not commonly respectable. He must be an evil-minded blackguard, with a nasty disposition like a boy that likes pulling the wings off flies. I cannot get up any reverence for such a being. Why, bless my life, He tortures children, voluntarily tortures them to death, and has done so for thousands of years. I can’t stand that at all – it’s dirty; and when I am told that I must believe it, and that every detail of the process was planned out precisely as He wished, I begin to turn sick. Snakes, sharks, and blood-sucking vermin – what sort of a God is this? He chose this way because He gloried in it! That beats the band. It turns me clean up against the process. I cannot see its beauty for its brutality. I cannot hear the lark sing for the squealing of a rabbit tortured by a stoat, I cannot see the flowers for the face of a consumptive child with rotten teeth, the song of the saints is drowned by the groans of murdered men. (p. 75)

A soldier in time of war is not a person but a puppet, who moves when you pull strings. (p. 78)

… our armaments are symbols, not of our power, but of our weakness … Our military power is an exact index of our spiritual and moral impotence. (p. 79)

Life is one, from the single cell to the Savior in the flesh. I cannot separate swine from Shakespeare or Jellyfish from Jesus of Nazareth; they all are products of the process. So behind the process there must be a Spirit which is like the Spirit of man. (p. 81)

woodbine-willie-1I am not a pacifist (I’ve been too persuaded by Forsyth and Jüngel here), but reading Woodbine Willie continuously challenges me to ask myself whether I should be, whether our Lord’s command to ‘Love your enemies’ (Matt 5:44) really does, in Barth’s words, abolish ‘the whole exercise of force’. Either way, Barth is most certainly correct when he challenges: ‘In conformity with the New Testament, one can be pacifist not in principle but only in practice (praktisch Pazifist). But let everyone consider very carefully whether, being called to discipleship, it is possible to avoid – or permissible to neglect – becoming a practical pacifist!’ (Church Dogmatics IV/2, 549-50).

Faith does not mean that we cease from asking questions; it means that we ask and keep on asking until the answer comes; that we seek and keep on seeking until the truth is found; that we knock and keep on knocking until the door is opened and we enter into the palace of God’s truth. (p. 63)

Woodbine Willie dares us to keep on prayerfully asking the questions …

If the Church is to be a Church indeed, and not a mere farce – and a peculiarly pernicious farce, a game of sentimental make-believe – she must be filled to overflowing with the fire of the ancient prophets for social righteousness, with the wrath and love of the Christ. (p. 196)

The Church is not, and never can be, an end in itself; it is a means to an end; a means to the salvation of the world and the building of the Kingdom of God. It is not the Ark of Salvation for themselves, it is the Agent of Salvation for mankind. It is not a refuge of peace, but an army preparing for war. They seek in it, not security, but sacrifice. This is the infallible mark of the Church, the hallmark of the Cross. And if the sin of our modern slums, and the degradation that they cause; if the sin of our over-crowded, rotten houses, and the ugliness and vice they bring; if the sin of unemployment, with the damnation of body and soul that it means to men and women, boys and girls; if the sin of the heartless, thoughtless luxury at one end, standing out against the squalid and degrading poverty at the other; if the sin of commercial trickery and dishonesty, and wholesale defrauding of the poor; if the sin of prostitution, and the murder of women and children by venereal disease; if the sin of war, the very sin of sins, which is but the bursting into a festering sore of all the filth that the others have bred in years of miscalled peace; if all that is not laid upon the Church as a burden, and Christ’s members do not feel it as their own, then the Church is not a Church at all; and no amount of organization, propaganda, and evangelization can make it live. It has missed its vocation. (p. 167)

Christians on their best side

rembrant-prodigal-son-detail‘In invocation of God the Father everything depends on whether or not it is done in sheer need (not self-won competence), in sheer readiness to learn (not schooled erudition), and in sheer helplessness (not the application of a technique of self-help). This can be the work only of very weak and very little and very poor children, of those who in their littleness, weakness, and poverty can only get up and run with empty hands to their Father, appealing to him. Nor should we forget to add that it can only be the work only of naughty children of God who have wilfully run away again from their Father’s house, fond themselves among swine in the far country, turned their thoughts back home, and then – if they could – returned to their Father … Christians who regard themselves as big and strong and rich and even dear and good children of God, Christian who refuse to sit with their Master at the table of publicans and sinners, are not Christians at all, have still to become so, and need not be surprised if heaven is gray above them and their calling upon God sounds hollow and finds no hearing. The glory, splendour, truth, and power of divine sonship, and of the freedom to invoke God as Father, and therefore the use of this freedom – the Christian ethos in big and little things alike – depends at every time and in every situation on whether or not Christians come before God as beginners, as people who cannot make anything very imposing out of their faith in Jesus Christ, who even with this faith of theirs – and how else could it be if it is faith in Jesus Christ? – venture to draw near to his presence only with the prayer: “Help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). Mark well that this has nothing to do with Christian defeatism. It describes Christians on their best side and not their worst, in their strength and not their weakness (2 Cor. 12:10).’ – Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV,4: Lecture Fragments (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 80.

Forsyth on ‘The Power Of The Resurrection’

Here’s a series of posts on Forsyth on the Power of the Resurrection:

Forsyth on ‘The Power Of The Resurrection’ – Part 1

Forsyth on ‘The Power Of The Resurrection’ – Part 2

Forsyth on ‘The Power Of The Resurrection’ – Part 3

Forsyth on ‘The Power Of The Resurrection’ – Part 4

Forsyth on ‘The Power Of The Resurrection’ – Part 5

Freedom and Power

There is a sense in which the nature of God’s own Godhood is such that God had to become incarnate. However, far from being a limitation, the Incarnation is the supreme act of God’s freedom and the concentration of God’s power in one person. God’s power is never aimless or wild. And no other limits God’s power. Divine power, true power, is limited insofar as it is always concentrated toward one goal or end. Any limitation is a self-limitation, and that for one end. For Forsyth, that end is the securing of holiness for God and for creation. Unlike the (super?)powers of this world, God’s use of power is ever with a view to love – to love the other, to love his enemies – a love that takes cruciform shape, dying even for those who would wish him dead.

… limitation is a power of Godhead, not a curtailment of it. Among the infinite powers of the Omnipotent must be the power to limit Himself, and among His glories the grace to bend and die. Incarnation is not impossible to the Infinite; it is necessary. If He could not come incarnate His infinitude would be partial and limited. It would not be complete. It would be limited to all that is outside human nature. It would be limited by human nature in the sense of not being able to enter it, of being stopped at its gates. God would be curtailed to the extent of His creation. And that would be a more fatal limitation to His power than any He could suffer from being in it. He may be in without being locked in. (PT Forsyth, God the Holy Father, 33)

Painting: Rembrandt’s Holy Family (1640); Oil on wood, 41 x 34 cm; Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Holiness according to Otto – 3

In a number of passages Otto seems to be taking a direct stab at Ritschlianism, arguing that the delineation of ‘Jesus’ faith in the fatherhood of God … certainly misrepresents’ the New Testament. The New Testament Father, he asserts, is far more holy, numinous, mysterious than his Kingdom. ‘He represents the sublimation and the consummation of all that the old Covenant had grasped by way of “creature-consciousness”, “holy awe”, and the like.’ Not surprisingly, therefore, Otto identifies Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane as the ‘awe of the creature before the mysterium tremendum, before the shuddering secret of the numen’ rather than as the struggle of a Son who sees the painful implications of a loving Father’s will.

With regard to Luther, Otto argues that the non-rational in Luther’s religion has come to be ignored, even by Lutherans who have ‘not done justice to the numinous side of the Christian idea of God. By the exclusively moral interpretation [they] gave to the terms, [they] distorted [and rationalized] the meaning of “holiness” and “wrath”.’

The echoes of Otto in biblical scholarship are noteworthy. James Dunn recently noted that ‘wherever the concept of “holiness” appears in the biblical material, underlying it is a sense of the mysterious otherness and aweful power of the divine, of God.’ Von Rad describes this otherness and power as ‘the great stranger in the human world … a datum of experience which can never really be co-ordinated into the world in which man is at home, and over against which he initially feels fear rather than trust – it is, in fact, the “wholly other”’. Something of this ‘aweful power’ and ‘fear’ is recalled in the story of Aaron’s first day on his new job as Israel’s high-priest when he lost his two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-3). The story reminds us that ‘God has never lightly suffered the desecration of the holy’ and that ‘it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God’. In Habakkuk’s experience, ‘I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me’ (Hab 3:16a).

Tozer describes ‘the moral shock suffered by us through our mighty break with the high will of heaven [which] has left us all with a permanent trauma affecting every part of our nature.’ Philosophically, this encounter with the ‘irrational’ results in a sort of ‘wonder’ as described by Josef Pieper:

‘The innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery. It does not end in doubt, but is the awakening of the knowledge that being . . . is mysterious and inconceivable, and that it is a mystery in the full sense of the word: neither a dead end, nor a contradiction, nor even something impenetrable and dark; mystery really means that a reality, the singular existing thing, is inconceivable because it is an inexhaustible source of light, and for ever unfathomable.’

On God’s self-limitation, order and law

‘The limitation in God is due to God Himself. Self-limitation is one of the infinite powers of Godhead. If God were not personal, if He did not contain the mighty concentrative lines of personality, He would be less than God. He would be a waste, ineffectual force, without form and void. He could, indeed, hardly be force even, which must work in lines. He would be a dim essence, and empty substance, a gaseous abstraction without contents, without feature, interest, or life. He would be without order, for order is limitation. But surely order is the Divine presence in the world, not its absence. Law is His law, not another’s law laid on Him. And personality is law and order in their highest terms. Limitation is no more undivine or incompatible with infinity in the one case than in the other. Divine law, indeed, when we express it in moral terms, what is it other than God’s self-control?’ (PT Forsyth, God the Holy Father, 34)

Forsyth on ‘The Power Of The Resurrection’ – Part 2

We lack power because we do not experience our personal religion as a power. Religion is any or all of the things I have said, and we feel sincerely that it is so. Only it is not a power with us. Its experience is much that is admirable, not only the one thing that is commanding. There are so many powers that we feel ‘in practical effects to be greater. In admission, of course, the greatest of all powers is God, is faith, is the Cross. We concede that without saying and – we believe we believe it, But practically we retract the admission. In the retrospect of a single day of our life we are bound to admit that the things which have been practically recognized and effective with us, both in our conduct and in our view of life, have been different. We feel and own intensely the power of armies, states, and organizations. We organize force, equity, and industry, and we believe in organization more than it was ever believed – in. We are forced to admit what an immense power it is and is going to be. We are offered our choice between organization and ineffectiveness. The objects we are most set on for the time are such as organization alone can reach. At least they cannot be reached without it. Again, we feel easily the power of heroes, emperors, geniuses, even when we have more of the imperial than of the heroic, or the ‘inspired. We feel the power of personality, of eloquence, of sentiment. We recognize the vast power of money, the unprecedented part played by finance in the social economy and the modern time. We have a momentary and reactionary passion of belief in institutions, in institutional politics or piety. We know the power of science and its organization of knowledge. We have a sense never before given to the world of cosmos power, the collective force and energy of a perfectly coherent universe. These are but examples of power on the vast scale which we all feel, and they are in striking contrast with our sense of power which we associate with faith, or answer in it. Yet if in our faith we do not feel and own a power infinitely greater than any of the historic or cosmic forces of the time, our religion has but a limited future, and every effort we make to organize it into line with the powers which we secretly and practically call most effective, is bound to end in deep disappointment. We need organization, but it is very far from being the thing we most need, or need most immediately.