Monday, December 1, 2014

Minority Christianity

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Sometimes I hear followers of Jesus bemoan the fact that we don't have more influence in our culture. Society seems to be getting further and further away from our Christian values instead of adopting them, we lament. This is taken as a very bad sign and possibly an indication that we are nearing the end of the age. While Christians may find it troublesome to live in an increasingly secular society, it is nothing new. A hostile culture was the birthplace of the church and the seedbed in which the disciples of Jesus grew to become confident and vibrant evangelists spreading the good news everywhere they went. 

When we look at church history, we observe that there were times when Christians were in the minority and times when the church had great political power and influence. I once had a debate in a class I was teaching about which served the church better: being persecuted or being aligned with power. There were supporters on both sides, but a clear majority of students believed that political power should never be mixed with religion. Being a minority, it seems, can foster certain desirable characteristics which are usually absent in those who have society's favour on their side.

Living as a fringe group and being a minority with limited power and influence gives you several options. 1) You can accommodate yourself to the culture, trying to fit in and gain influence, 2) you can separate yourself from society and its values, retreating from the world to a large degree, 3) you can push back, being vocal and visible in drawing definitive lines between yourself and the culture, or 4) you can re-interpret everything in society through your own meta-narrative, making it fit into an ultimately victorious story where your values win out. As you can probably tell, I believe that none of these options are ideal, the major reason being that this is not how Jesus modeled life for his disciples.

Instead of overthrowing the dominance of the Romans (political change) or firing the religious leaders of the time (religious reformation), Jesus engaged with people wherever he found them. What Jesus taught was not so much an external re-ordering of priorities as the importance of internal transformation - a new birth. This meant that change had to work from the inside out instead of from the outside in. That's hard to accept (it doesn't look very impressive) and even more difficult to practice. Unless you are a minority. Then inside-out becomes much easier, because it is one of the few viable options on the table.

Being in a minority means that you have no way of enforcing the ten commandments, no way to make people listen to the gospel, and no way to insist on biblical values. And oddly enough, Jesus didn't seem to find this a big problem. Instead of waving a holy wand and changing the entire culture, he lived and worked in an environment which was unfriendly to his people group and doubtful about his message. What he did in this environment was rather astounding: he loved people one at a time, called people to follow him one by one or two by two, and healed people through personal encounter and intimate touch. So much slower than political decrees or in today's world, mass media, but gaining a voice of influence seemed to be the last thing on his mind, evidenced by the directive he gave to certain ones not to tell anyone about their healing.

Please understand that I am not endorsing imprisonment, slavery, torture, or any form of violent or repressive treatment of Christians. Those things aside, perhaps being in the minority as a follower of Jesus is not such a bad thing. Perhaps it is a good idea to let go of our sense of entitlement, especially in Western society, to a pervasive adoption of Christian values. Because what being a minority does is offer us the opportunity to trust God with the results. It offers us a chance to become better listeners instead of constantly spouting off our views. It provides us with occasions to embrace those who are different than we are, to see the good in unlikely places, and to focus on loving relationships instead of spending so much time trying to increase our circles of influence. If Jesus did it, perhaps we can too.

Some of these ideas are taken from Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Baker Publishing Group, 2012. Having lived in Croatia during repressive times, Volf has some wisdom and hard-won experience in this area,

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