A guest blog by Jonathan Totty
In the parlor of a grandly decrepit Episcopal Church, we began to create a community of people becoming whole, integrated, healed. Like moribund flesh, as individual worshippers bound together by the felt need to allow the Protestant Episcopal Church to submit her doctrines and liturgy, along with the Holy Scriptures, as opinions to be considered by rational minds, we endured the malaise of mainline protestant decline. As a community of Christians, though, we grasped for the potency of ancient ideas reborn toward a politics of friendship, which constitutes the politics of God’s eternal community. Nothing loves death as much as itself. Busy and isolated people merely experience the decline and fall of humanity, whereas life manifests in relationships wherein minds meet, and hearts synchronize in desiring the good. So, we made our prayer, “Come Holy Spirit, come and renew the face of the Earth.” Against the odds of modern life, an eclectic group of folks met in a parlor, oddly resembling an undertaker’s lounge, to study and discuss articles, books, films, and lectures collected around the idea that Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection establish a just and peaceful way of being human in the world.
We, a priest, a literature professor, an engineer, an attorney, a scientist, a social worker, and several folks who work in healthcare—about twelve of us in total—meet Sunday mornings, regularly, to discuss the Bible, the history of the Church, doctrines, but this time we met more purposefully and more committed to developing a robust self-understanding about Christian identity. As the priest, my parishioners delightfully surprised me by their willingness to commit to a rigorous course of study. We replaced what had amounted to a Sunday School hour with a course complete with syllabus, lectures, and course readings. Our materials included varied sources such as Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s Silence, writings about the Bible by the feminist theologian Susanne Scholz, and a lecture by Rowan Williams the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Our goal was to develop a self-understanding about Christian identity, derived from the witness of Jesus’ self-sacrificing life and death, that fosters peace and justice while opposing violence and oppression. My parishioners met my ambitious proposal with eager minds and supple spirits open to encountering God.
Throughout eight weeks of Sunday morning discussions, we became God’s beloved community, followers of Christ, people awakened to the forces, the principalities, and powers of demonic and human origins, and people committed to inculcating Christ’s spirituality of peace and justice within our own lives. We became a community by listening to diverging views and understanding the biases and social locations informing each other’s thoughts, opinions, and theories. By listening to one another, we developed a theological stance of openness, open even to meeting Christ in the other. We embodied the theology we hoped to understand. A theology of Christian identity resides within us; the Holy Spirit makes Christ’s life come alive in us by God’s grace infused within our person. Thus, a Christian identity does not exist as an impersonal standard of measure, rather Christian identity resides in Jesus as the one who reveals the Father by his kenotic incarnation and sacrificial death. In Jesus’ resurrection, God promises that our own creaturely personhood abides in the life of God. Consequently, we discovered Christ in ourselves as we recognized Christ in each other.
After weeks of attending to our surroundings and developing a vantage point for reflection by way of critical theory, we wondered how we might meet the demands of our consciences and the world as authentic followers of Jesus. For it is not only some historians, as Toynbee thought, who “hold that history is just one damned thing after another,” because we sometimes endure life as one damned thing after another. In contrast, the way of Jesus forms a straight and narrow path through suffering, through death, into the bright light of God’s eternal life in which all things cohere. We walk the way of Jesus in prayer, study, and service. When we walk the way of Jesus, we enter the flow of God’s love, which establishes the source and goal of all creaturely life. So, even as we became attentive to the powers, principalities, and forces of darkness, we turned to the traditional practices of the Christian spiritual life as a strategy of resistance. Sin and death hold sway by encouraging despair, whereas the Holy Spirit promises joy subsists in the fullness of God’s presence.
While leading our Sunday morning discussions, I decided the communal life we discovered at Grace Episcopal Church should be shared. So, I shared the materials I developed for my parish with Paul Axton. He, then, extended an invitation for me to adapt the course for Forging Ploughshares under the class title: Marginalization and Restorative Justice. Thus, under the auspices of Forging Ploughshares, I invite you to join a discussion about the Christian identity, and how Jesus’ life in us fosters the just, peaceable, and beloved community of God. The class, Marginalization and Restorative Justice, will create a space of discernment about the mission and life of God in us and in the world as we explore Christian social teaching from both Catholic and Protestant perspectives. By study and conversation will foment a realized and active spirituality, which constitutes an alternative peaceable way of life instead of the violent and oppressive norm. Together we will practice spiritual conversations that teach us a way of encountering God, a way of being formed as disciples of Jesus, a way of inhabiting the Peaceable Kingdom.
Therefore, even as I have described one theological conversation and offered an invitation to another, my ultimate purpose resides in the description of theological conversation. In theological conversation, we live and move and have our being in God as a community. We encounter God in dialogue with others. To be present to another, we must also be present to ourselves. Every conversation marks an opportunity for self-knowledge. Attentiveness to others and to ourselves along with the reasonable and responsible pursuit of truth fosters good conversation. The unqualified and unrestricted Good, which is God, fulfills the implicit question of every conversation, which is the human unrestricted desire to know. Consequently, if we seek the meaning of Christian identity honestly and responsibly, then we will together become Christians. The unrestricted nature of our conversation means our conversation ever and always occurs as dialogue approaching the Word of God. God invites our conversation into the divine life. So, let us dare together to talk about what it means to be Christian, and thereby invite the Holy Spirit to come, come and renew our lives in this world and eternity.
(Register for the Class Marginalization and Restorative Justice here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)