Free To Think…Bound to Serve
Christianity is more Doing than Doctrine:
Half of every relationship with God is the individual. God, who is timeless and constant, is known “as in a mirror dimly” while we live. We, who change and die, find our knowledge of God change throughout our lives. And we not only differ from our younger selves or who we shall become. We differ from each other. Temperament, experience, inclination give our approach to life different emphases. We each have our own perspective.
Some Christian traditions address this fact by establishing doctrine as definitive. Individuals subscribe to set teachings, by an act of will, and forgive themselves privately for being puzzled or unpersuaded by some of the formulations. Personal conviction is in the authority of the church which has decreed dogma.
Our tradition takes a different approach. We urge that for religion to be real, it must be based on a person’s honest beliefs. This means that each individual trusts himself or herself as a reader of scripture and a thinker about what is revealed there about God. We know we shall each understand God a bit differently from each other, and that the inevitable limitation of our understanding will carry through all the concepts which are part of our religious life. We trust God’s grace and the Spirit’s work to keep us in community, and to keep us ministering to the world.
We are required, as followers of Jesus Christ, to love others. Feeding, healing, forgiving, clothing, and paying attention to those with needs is the way Jesus embodied God’s approach to life. We must do the same. The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel states that it is caring for other people, and not profession of religious views, which counts with God.
The church long has aimed to make its Christianity a matter of active service, and long has accepted open, earnest inquiry as part of its character. For twenty years we’ve summed up this approach to discipleship with the credo “Free to Think, Bound to Serve.”
THIS MONTH’S ESSAY FROM THE PASTOR
The good guys won the Civil War, was the way we looked at it in grade school. Of course, we were in Connecticut, but the big point seemed to be that slavery was ended. The war had become a moral crusade. Right afterward Lincoln was assassinated.
The Second World War defeated the Nazis, who had their own slavery thing going, plus genocide. That convinced us that good beat evil then, too. Truman, who ended the war as President, avoided assassination. The attack on him at Blair House failed.
In India, the colonial hegemony of Great Britain was ended by the pacifist tactics of Gandhi. We didn’t like to think of our allies the British being evil, but the whole story had a lot in common with the pattern of good overcoming bad, especially with Gandhi, the architect of so much good, being assassinated afterward.
Martin Luther King led the “overcoming evil with good” Civil Rights movement of the nineteen-sixties. Many of the laws and practices which had institutionalized racism were undone. King, after achieving much with his approach of non violence, was assassinated.
Anwar Sadat found common ground with his Israeli counterpart and cooperated with the Carter administration’s plan to reduce violence in the MIddle East. For choosing peace over perpetual conflict he was assassinated.
I thought of all these things because I asked myself the question, “when has evil been overcome with good?” I wanted answers that most people would support. Most folks feel that defeating the Axis powers fits the bill. Most folks agree that nonviolent movements which resulted in political progress qualify. There are doubtless thousands of smaller examples of kindness or humility undoing malice, or honesty defeating duplicity, but one wants big ones. The truth is that it is difficult to believe that there is such a thing as overcoming evil with good.
It does seem that many efforts to subvert violence result in assassination. It makes sense if you think about it. People who believe in killing as a way to solve problems are hurt by anyone’s succeeding at problem-solving without violence, and with what tool will they express their displeasure?
Originally all I was going to do was think about Easter as a vindication of Jesus’ prescription that we should overcome evil with good. Good Friday makes a steady strategy of healing, providing nourishment, offering forgiveness, encouraging self-respect and hope, and debating the merits of status quo attitudes look like something that’s only going to get a person killed. Calvary makes the world appear a place hostile to gentle helpfulness and fair play.
An awful lot of the time all of us stick with the message of kindly souls being murdered as the outcome of saintliness. Who counts on turning the other cheek to deter the violent? Now and then a news story comes out is which some sincerely religious woman talks down a gun-wielding criminal and there’s a happy ending. If that were the only kind of story we saw, we might think differently. However, there’s too many other stories of the vulnerable becoming victims, and the wrongdoers being unconcerned about their victims’ harmlessness or innocence.
I’d rather put my trust in a society ruled by law than one in which everyone is ready to fight fire with fire. I’m not, however, at all sure what it would look like if society tried to counter criminality with something other than force.
Still, we have to wonder about things like this, because of Easter. God’s raising Jesus from the dead shouldn’t be taken merely as a demonstration of what we can expect when we die. It means that it’s not only possible for good to be done in the world, but that good is not so easily defeated as the fearsomeness of evil suggests.
One of the things in which the New Testament exults is the disarming and demotion of the various powers which pursued aims contrary to God’s. Death is among the old order of things to be reckoned with which, after Easter, no longer inspires the same trepidation or despair. It is not Death alone, however, which has been exposed as vulnerable. Every kind of evil is weakened, and its defeat is assured. God, in the words of Paul, has “triumphed over” all of them.
Doing the right thing evidently remains dangerous, but, contrary to the kind of cynicism which sees all noble effort as Quixotic, it puts you on the winning side. We have Easter to vouch for that.