We have abandoned the battleground.
In a hope-desiring but hope-diminishing article, columnist Robyn Urbeck asks: “How do we know when to stop praying for Orlando and Texas, and start praying for Nice?” This is a penetrating question, as wave after wave of terror and sorrow lap upon the beaches of our age. It’s one thing to move on from tragedy into the relative “normal” of our lives, but how do we move on from tragedy to tragedy and news alert to news alert? Reality TV is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Can we all just go back to The Cosby Show? Well, no; he’s got real issues too!
Urbeck’s honesty is worth feeling at length: “We want to believe there is a solution lying in wait in a campaigning politician or a few changes in law, but many of us recognize that if people are intent on inflicting harm on others, they will find a way to do so, no matter what. Indeed, it can be exhausting to continually try to convince one’s self otherwise. So occasionally, we give it up and revert back to tweeting about Pokémon, because it’s all we can do beyond praying for Boston and Paris and Orlando and Texas and Nice. And at the end of the night we’ll turn off the TV, put away the dishes and head to bed, hoping that the next day will be better than the one before, and trying not to think about the next colours to light up the Eiffel Tower.”
What does it mean to be a Christian these days? How do we be the church? We’ve tried voting our way towards cultural relevance again, but no amount of dancing around the issues of the day to make ourselves palatable to the masses and keep up with the times hits the mark. In the end, it leaves us with nothing left to say and little hope to offer the longing of Urbeck. The church runs the risk of reducing herself to just another activist organization seeking to self-justify while we live in the paradox of a time of unprecedented abundance—and even good—bathed in vitriol and chaos.
So how do we live? What are we to be about? In The Community of the King Howard Snyder writes: “The central battleground in the struggle between God’s kingdom and Satan’s counterfeit is people’s minds and hearts.” Yale professor Lamin Sanneh, in Translating the Message, observes that for the first-century church, “The centre of Christianity . . . was in the heart and life of the believer without the presumption of conformity to one cultural ideal.” Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36).
The first disciples confused the battleground. They weren’t at war with political leaders, although for a while they thought they were. Jesus was constantly training them—up to and right through his passion—to look elsewhere: to the battle for hearts and minds, for the advance of a kingdom so foreign we never cease learning its nuances. It is this other place that we are to be conformed to.
If we are seeking to conform ourselves to some human cultural ideal—which is shifting sand—we have abandoned the central battleground and exchanged the gospel of the kingdom—centred in the cross of Christ and his resurrection—for cultural gymnastics that not only twist us around, but leave the world empty for answers as they seek a good night’s sleep in the sad hope that perhaps reality is all just a dream.
Phil Wagler serves the training of missional leaders globally and is constantly learning how wild a hope the kingdom of God is. He lives with his family in Surrey, B.C.