Eugene Peterson once wrote a kind, personal response to a letter I had written to him, early in my story of being a pastor, and encouraged me to remember that my primary role in this life was to be subversive. I’m here to be other. That the Church and all who make her up are supposed to be other, living subversively in Babylon, offering an alternative narrative to Empire – not by our preaching but in our living.
35 (ish) years later, I think about what Peterson wrote. A lot.
I think over the last 4 decades and feel deep discouragement at the way the evangelical church of which I am still a part, has leaned into consumerism and now has flirted hard enough with nationalism that we’ve lost our virginity.
It’s as if we assessed things that Randall Balmer details in Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory and determined that the proverb, “if you can’t beat them, join them” is inspired wisdom. We criticize the syncretism in the distant history of the Roman Catholic church and cite the ways in which their absorption of pagan cultures baptized pagan practices but then we hold patriotic fourth of July celebrations in our spaces previously dedicated to the veneration and worship of God alone. We hardly pause when the icons of a nation are given sacred status and documents of the Empire are called “inspired” in the same way previously reserved for Scripture.
We platform bullies who lead our churches and protect them from criticism “for the sake of the kingdom work” and for the “souls being saved.” While bodies pile up under and behind the bully driven bus, we consider these acceptable losses as long as we aren’t one of those bodies and as long as we perceive that our church or movement or denomination is growing.
We promote these leaders no matter how much they act as kings and bosses despite the words of Jesus that tell us this is not how the kingdom comes into the world. And we are so committed to our preferences that we ignore what Jesus tells us about how the Church is supposed to be in the world and we act like the Beatitudes are either for the next life or just the fever dream of a Messiah that didn’t understand how life really works.
We embrace being driven when we have always been called to be led by the Spirit.
We accept each other’s lies and alternative facts even while we worship the One who associated himself exclusively with the truth.
We build systems around the popular notion that the ends justify the means even as we use the name of the One who said that the means defines the ends.
Despite claiming to follow and honor the One who died for ALL, we continually dismiss or exclude each other for trying to apply that love in the same way. We wink at our list of preferred sins and we shake our fingers at those we have deemed to put on the very short list of things we would NEVER do.
We’re neither hot enough to make a good cup of tea or cold enough to quench a thirsty throat. We keep staking out the space in the middle that is always in the direction in which the wind is blowing. We make bold, provocative statements that put us firmly in the middle of the people we want to be like while othering those Jesus came seeking.
Somewhere along our story we gave up our birthright for a bowl of lentil soup, we traded being Other for being Accepted and we gave up the way of the Lamb in favor of the way that gets things done. May God have mercy on us all.
3 thoughts on “The Church as Other”
Perfect. I wish I had written this.
Wow. Well written. I’ll never forget the first time preached through 1 Corinthians, when I realized, “I’ve met the enemy. And the enemy is us.”
Well written, I agree with your assessments, but also believe that the seeds of our present predicament were sown years before we had anything to say about it. We inherited this culture and instead of rejecting, we perfected it. We are the generations that have the privilege of seeing the mature fruit.
There is nothing new under the sun. We wanted kings, and we got several who have not the humility of spiritual maturity to sustain it. God help us.