Christianity has inherited from Judaism an ambiguous relationship with the world. I don’t mean the natural world; in Genesis, God repeatedly declares the created world to be good, and throughout the Old Testament are hymns and thanksgivings for the beauty of the earth. I mean the world of other people, the culture outside our doors. In the Torah are hundreds of commandments about keeping apart from the outside world, at least as that world is understood to be Gentile. In Jesus’ time, the burning question for faithful Jews was how to live in a world where pagan Romans occupied Israel: collaborate like the Sadducees, resist like the Zealots, concentrate on right behavior like the Pharisees, or withdraw like the Essenes. When Christianity became a state religion in the fourth century, the Desert Fathers and Mothers withdrew from the world, protesting the Church’s compromise with the Empire. For two thousand years, Christians have been simultaneously drawn into the world to preach and serve, and drawn back from the world to focus more deeply on God.
The battle still rages: this very morning, I ran across both approaches. In The Atlantic, I read a review of Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Although this book is not even scheduled to be released publicly for several weeks, it has generated a lot of discussion by way of advance reviews and the author’s public speaking on the topic. Mr. Dreher’s title refers to Benedictine monks and nuns who, as the Western Roman Empire crumbled, withdrew from the pagan culture of the Dark Ages and preserved Christianity as well as culture and learning, so that when the social situation improved in the later Middle Ages, the seeds they had kept alive could grow and flower. His thesis is that, as Christianity ceases to be a guiding force in American culture, Christians need to withdraw from that culture and create intentional communities where they can live the Gospel authentically and await a more hospitable time.
The idea is tempting. Many would argue that Christianity has been at its best when it has been the most counter-cultural and that if the choice is between rejecting or compromising with the culture of American politics and entertainment, rejection and withdrawal make a lot of sense. Dreher offers the example of Orthodox Jewish enclaves that have been able to preserve their religion and culture for centuries even in the midst of American and European cities that are wholly antithetical to their values and beliefs.
An hour after reading this review, I watched Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon from last week’s Episcopal Revival in the Diocese of Pittsburgh (if the idea of an Episcopal Revival seems impossible, that is part of the problem. See http://tinyurl.com/Revival2017). At Holy Cross Church in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Bishop Curry preached the need for a revival that goes beyond the church and spills over into the world. He begins from the same premise as Mr. Dreher, that the West has lost its Judeo-Christian grounding in favor of worshipping the Golden Calf of the Self. But rather than seeing that as reason to withdraw from the world, Bishop Curry points us back to the example of Christ himself, whose insistence on love grows more and more urgent the closer he gets to his own crucifixion, the act that ++Curry describes as “the sacrifice of un-enlightened self-interest for the good of the other.”
In other words, Jesus didn’t have the luxury of withdrawing into a bubble, of keeping his hands clean and his eyes closed to the sinful brokenness of the world around him. And neither do we. Jesus did not compromise with the corruption and violence of this world, but rather opposed it with righteousness and peace, even at the cost of his own life. And so must we. Jesus overcame death and the grave, defeating the satanic powers of this world by facing them head on in love. And so may we.
Lent begins March 1. Lent is often understood as a period of spiritual purgation and purification in preparation for the mighty events of Holy Week. Seeking that purification, some of us choose various kinds of fasting: withdrawing ourselves from certain habits or indulgences of the world. Such fasting is not a bad thing if it gives us time and space to focus on our relationship with God. But if we think that we are living the Gospel by walling ourselves off from our disreputable neighbors and the messy world we live in, we have missed the point. To quote Bishop Curry again, “There is much that seeks to articulate itself as Christianity that doesn’t look anything like Jesus. If it doesn’t walk like Jesus, and talk like Jesus, and look like Jesus and smell like Jesus, it’s not Christian! … And if it’s going to look like Jesus, it’s got to look like love.”