Published in today’s Edmonton Journal, the following is a reflection on Christian behaviour in view of the anniversary of 9-11. (Here’s the unedited version, which I think reads better.)
Dedicated to misbehaving Christians and ordinary iconoclasts.
When my son was six and attending Sunday school and dutifully learning Bible verses, he memorized that mainstay of evangelical verses from the book of Acts this way: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt behave.
We laughed at the time, (still do) but later realized that his little homonymic gaffe spoke a great deal about how his parents viewed ecclesial Christian life. Perhaps, for a large part of orthodox Christendom, it even represents something of a classical Freudian slip. For isn’t it true that we often confuse salvation with good behaviour?
Of course I’m not referring to a life that is awakening to the freedom in behaving honestly, and aiming at peaceful relationships through humility and generosity. The free response, transformation, and ensuing behaviour of a life that has encountered a great big pre-existing Love is the kind of miracle that keeps our world afloat.
I’m referring to another kind of behaviour that takes on the mantle of “good” because it has the force and dominance of a received social code. This is the behaviour(s) that come to us by way of osmosis—behaviours we adopt without noticing, as if in the darkness of cellular division—and bind our churches as much as our corporations and governments, to the values and attitudes and modes of thought that are concerned about keeping machines running and power structures in place, while assuring us that contributing to their mastery ensures progress—progress we can take as evidence of God’s blessing.
Put another way, it’s the kind of good behaviour that is exhibited by the geese in Kierkegaard’s allegory—which were sleek and fat and evidently blessed—able, every Sunday, to dwell on the high destiny to which they were called without feeling the need—thereby not experiencing the danger—of actually having to use their wings.
Perhaps, since we claim to follow an iconoclast and a rebel, being saved has to do with repenting of our good behaviour. After all, salvation is not an eschatological retreat, or a rally calling us to restore honour; it is a road, the ruts and bumps of which serve to shake and keep us awake. As Thoreau said of his own awakening on the path to Waldon’s Pond, “What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”
Thoreau’s hyperbole is appropriate here; what Walter Wink calls the Domination System, what Thomas Merton calls the Unspeakable void, what the bible calls principalities, is a pervasive blanket that blinkers the conscience from questioning systems of power and affluence and hubris and acquisitive violence.
It is an entity that waits to take over at the moment of human crisis. Recall those few stationary minutes, nine years ago, immediately after the World Trade Centre fell—when possible courses of action hung like fruit from two alternative trees; beyond the grief and justified anger, there was a moment of genuine human indecision and introspection that begged for time and dialogue and cracked open the possibility for something creative to be born. Then, in a plunging rush, the weight and momentum of the dominant social code swung back into control and a declaration of vengeance—supported by the majority of Christians—was issued from behind a church pulpit; not much has changed since.
It’s as though we are determined not to live by faith. We trust in that which is untrustworthy, and mistrust the Word that tells us not to trust in the strength of big machines.
And just now I want to resist the "yes but" of all the arguments (my own included) that say, well, you just can’t stop from retaliating, you just can’t drop out of society, we can’t all be like Thoreau and head for the bush. Perhaps not, but we’ll need to understand that the "yes but" is a capitulation to the big system, and a failure to live by faith.
But perhaps yes; think of the fresh air and hope that blows in through the openings of creative misbehaviour. If it weren’t for some splendid misbehaving women, taking their cue from the thrust of the gospel, we may still be considering the personhood of women. If it weren’t for the misbehaviour of Martin Luther King, among others, where would the state of human rights be?
The question today is not, as in the past age, what are we saved from? but what are we saved for? Christian theology that matters will have to concern itself with the later question. The former question has allowed us to escape to a private heaven leaving the domination system fat and intact.
But there are words of hope and elemental misbehaviours emerging from churches. And I’ve seen small groups gather outside of the church and discover that the gospels provide one with wing-like appendages—that they’ve been trying out. There will be crashes and ruffled feathers; but in that there will be hope and possibility.