Suffering: ++Justin’s Speech on the 21st Century Church (Part 2)

Archbishop Justin’s speech to the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast is one of the richer pieces of somewhat public theology I’ve encountered in quite a while, and I’ve already picked up on one minor theme I wanted to expand. Another theme, one that he spent more on, is suffering.  He speaks of the suffering of the Church in parts of the world where there is systemic violence, and where Christianity is indeed a persecuted religion.  He tells of a visit to Pakistan where he has seen the Church suffer and grow:

“The Church, though, is a suffering church in this century. It is growing and in growing it suffers. It carries a cross. That is as true today as ever, and the last few years have demonstrated the truth and cost of that reality. A couple of weeks ago, Caroline and I were in Lahore in Pakistan. Just incidentally. . . just remember in your prayers our diplomatic service around the world. We’ve seen a lot of them in the last year; they are unbelievably good and they get absolutely no credit, anywhere, for the extraordinary work they do [applause]. . . But in Lahore two weeks ago we met some of the clergy and the Bishop of Peshawar who were involved in the bomb explosion last September at All Saints Church, an Anglican church, in which over 200 people were killed. And you ask them: “How are things recovering? Are people still going to church?” “Oh,” they said. “The congregation has tripled.” It is a suffering church and a church of courage.”

 

The Church grows when it suffers, even dies or risks death, to witness to the love of God as manifest in the life and work of the person of Jesus Christ.  This is nothing new. Even Tertullian, in the second century CE (while Christianity was undoubtedly a persecuted religion) claimed that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. And to a certain extent, the bravery of men and women under threat because they wish to practice Christian faith–or any tradition in which wisdom and compassion are the guiding precepts–are rightly people to admire and emulate.  The Church often grows when circumstances are genuinely difficult. As ++Justin tells us, growth cannot come from suffering.  Genuine growth, personal or corporate, does not happen without cost, without loss, without discomfort and risk.

I think we know this instinctively.  But I sometimes think the Western churches–in North America and Britain (really the only places where I have experience of church)–want to claim suffering in the hopes that growth will follow.  And rather than really risk doing new things, really trying costly efforts constructively to be in the world (and taking the chance that not everything that gets attempted will succeed–with success generally being measured in attendance and monetary giving), we manufacture a culture of “persecution”. This is probably more prevalent in the United States, where the First Amendment to the Constitution forbids Congress to make an “establishment of religion” or to “prohibit the free exercise thereof”.  That was a stunning experiment on the part of the Founders.  When the colonies which eventually became the United States were first settled, one of the major reasons was to escape religious persecution in various parts of Europe.  That didn’t mean that any of those formerly persecuted groups would not, in their turn, suppress the spiritual freedoms of those who disagreed with them. 

Christians–especially in America–need to realize that being one of many religious/spiritual/philosophical possibilities in a society, and not being the dominant one, is not equal to being persecuted, and decline measured in terms of monetary income and attendance is not the same thing as suffering. “Competition” from other Sunday morning activities, such as team sports, shopping, or even spending time in one’s bathrobe reading the newspaper, are not really evil attacks on the church.  People spend their increasingly-limited free time doing what matters to them.  If the church is not one of those things, it is really the fault of the church, not the fault of these other activities. If the church does not inflame spiritual passion, if it is the Laodicean church of Revelation 3:15-16, it is the church’s fault that the Angel of the Lord spits out the disgusting lukewarm whatever-it-is.  The Angel only responds appropriately to the stimulus.  It is the responsibility of the church to provide a better one.

As Rowan Williams said so brilliantly to the self-described “persecuted” Western churches:  grow up.

Growing up will involve some suffering, some risk.  It will mean doing what isn’t comfortable (another thing that Rowan criticized:  the confusion between mild discomfort and truly being “persecuted”).  But growing up–feeling awkward, taking chances, risking failure–is exactly what the comfortable-but-declining Western churches need to do if they are to experience any kind of revivification.

By confusing our mild discomfort with the kind of suffering that ++Justin describes, placing the blame where it doesn’t belong rather than taking our share of the responsibility for decline, and refusing to take the kind of bold risks that are called for, we are poor stewards of our heritage of the riches of Christ.  We also dishonor the real martyrs whose blood was, and continues to be, the seed of the church.

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