Love the One You”re With

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Dear Joel,

I have a little time free, so on to my next installment. This one will be less doctrinal than the others, but there are obviously doctrinal underpinnings. I want to address obedience and the affections. Another way to speak of this is in terms of covenant loyalty.

I was recently in a conversation with a group of friends, and the subject of the Scottish covenanters came up. I forget exactly how we got there, but one friend was not sure how much actual sympathy he had for the covenanters, thinking that there was more than a little fanaticism in their stand. Courage and martyrdom are all very well, but would it have hurt anyone to take a more moderate and sane stand in the face of persecution? My response to him lies at the heart of what I want to present to you here.

I think his comment was misplaced precisely because he was in large measure right. In other words, covenant loyalty understands the concept of social and corporate justification. (Individual justification by imputation is the subject of another letter.) I am quite prepared to believe that many die-hard Protestants down through the years have been fanatical, unwieldy, and hard to deal with. Sometimes this was due to their righteousness, the kind of person of whom the world was not worthy. You probably would not invite the Tishbite to a wine and cheese soiree, or Jenny Geddes either, for that matter. Sometimes it was due to them being right in a wrong kind of way. But such angularities do not keep them from being my people. Having a crazy uncle in the attic does not undo the bloodlines—he is still my uncle. Sometimes I support my uncle, sometimes oppose him, but he is always my uncle.

I mentioned in my discussion with my friend that the same principle applied to our understanding of the early church. In the many waves of persecution that swept over the Church, one effect of this was that moderate and tempered responses were not elicited from the ranks of the faithful. Origin’s mother had to hide Origin’s clothes so that he would not run outside to get himself arrested in order to be martyred. In the frenzy of pagan persecution, did all early Christians behave as though they were being invited to a game of lawn tennis? Not a bit of it. Consequently, in the early history of the Church there were many fanatics—but they are my people nonetheless.

The same could be said of asceticism, particularly the Syrian strain of it. For example, people sat on the top of poles for decades to avoid worldliness. Men and women would live together in celibate marriage, which caused consternation at different church councils like Elvira and Nicea. John Chrysostom, during his monkish stay up in the mountains, did not lie down, ever, for two years. He slept standing up, a fairly common practice among the monks. What good did that do? Well, during that time Chrysostom memorized the Old and New Testaments. In short, the first four centuries of the Church are filled with some glorious weirdos. In fact, one of the charges brought against John Chrysostom at the Synod of the Oaks was that he had called Epiphanius a babbler and a little weirdo.

Now, all these people, being Christian, are in the covenant together with me, over against the Hindus, say. Because of this, I have to “answer” for them in some sense. Because of the covenant link, I have obligations. Those obligations range from full support to manic opposition, depending on the circumstances. But whether I support or oppose them, our shared baptisms in the triune name mean that we have a shared identity. Triune baptism is never false—let God be true and every man a liar. An unsympathetic observer would say that I am “making excuses” for people I agree with, and that I am inconsistently hard on those I disagree with. No, I am simply saying that “identity with” or “lack of identity with” is the necessary context for all forms of support or opposition. I have a shared human identity with a Hindu (imago Dei) which would become obvious, for example, if we were working together to get people out of a burning building. I have a shared Christian identity with anyone baptized in the name of the triune God, which would be obvious over against Muslim terrorists. But other complicating factors can get thrown into the mix, like national and cultural identities, which sometimes are promoted to a level they should not enjoy. An American atheist and an American Christian might have an easier time of it sharing a meal in a restaurant than the Christian would with a Bantu Christian.

Now every such group “justifies” those inside, and refuses “justification” to those outside. I am not here speaking of justification in the theological sense as it applies to individuals. I am speaking of the impulse that makes us say, silently, “Yes, my sister is ugly, but you can’t say that.” In other words, “you” are outside the group or family and have no standing to bring a charge. The charge may be true, but “you” still do not have standing. This impulse to social justification s apparent everywhere. It is evident in racial hatreds, in nationalist collisions, and in religious disputes such as the one we are examining. Those in the “justified” group are judicially innocent, though they may be acknowledged as personally guilty. This is why we hear things like, “Yes, so and so did thus and such, but . . .” The yes acknowledges the personal guilt and the but leads into some acknowledgement of his social position among “the justified.”

Thus, a green activist will say, “Yes, shooting loggers is a bit extreme, but we have to remember our forests are being decimated.” The activist may genuinely be appalled at what his fellow green did, but that identity is still there, and he must function within the boundaries of this social justification—because the only alternative is going over to the other side. When this justification mechanism is operating on all cylinders, it can swallow the most horrendous and indefensible activities—which is what I see in the case of the suicide bombers in Israel. A bomber could kill everyone at a six-year-old’s birthday party, and the explanation would still follow. “Our group disavows this action, but . . .”

Far more is involved in this than craven excuse-making. In a way it is inescapable. It has its craven, sinful forms, but it is impossible to opt out of the system generally. As we discuss the issues surrounding the Reformation, neither of us comes at it as a disinterested party, or an “objective” historian. We justify according to the side that has our affections. I hope I have not muddied up a relatively simple point.

Now the issue between us is not the same as it would be if I (raised Protestant) were discussing this with someone raised Catholic. We are currently members of the same denomination, both of us. We are under the same authority. You have come to a threshold of conversion, which means that your affections have moved elsewhere. Reading over this last sentence, I see that I need to qualify. I am using affections here in this sense of social justification that I am describing, not in the sense of personal affection for particular individuals.

This is why we can compare the following sentences and see striking similarities.

“Yes, I agree that the Catholic church has been wracked with sexual scandal, but . . .”

“Yes, I agree that Protestant churches are shot through with individualism, but. . .”

If we climb into our respective propositions, we can play paradigm bumper cars all day long and not get anywhere. This is why I want all this to lead up to an appeal to your remaining Protestant affections, which, because you are not a machine made out of stainless steel, I know are still there. I am including the liturgy of worship in this (indeed as the foundation of it), but I am not limiting it to that. I am speaking of the worship of one Lord’s Day and all the week contains, in principle, until the next Lord’s Day, and so on, until the ends of our lives. The worship of God is to spill out into our work on Monday, the education our children receive, life around the dinner table, and so on.

Because your affections have significantly moved, I believe that you are vulnerable to the temptation to justify what you are moving to in the sense I have already described above. Because your affections have moved, you justify certain things, and have come to love a certain idea. But I want to bring this idea down to earth with a thud. This can be considered an ad hominem, but I do not intend it to be this in any insulting way at all. You may not be able to judge this from your contact with me, but over the course of my life I have spent a lot of time around Roman Catholics—my dearest friend in the Navy was the Catholic lay leader. I was the Protestant lay leader. I do not believe my judgments are those of an uninformed bigot. I have certainly been around Roman Catholics long enough to have a sense of the spiritual pulse, generally speaking. Doctrine aside, I am speaking of incarnational living—the level of Marian obedience.

Given this incarnational reality, if you continue to pursue the course you are on, who will your children marry? What will the character of their faith be like twenty years from now? Will your grandchildren love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ with heart, soul, mind and strength? Will they grow up in the faith in a way that goes beyond a mere assent to certain propositions? Will they love God in daily practical ways? I hope so, and I even think it possible. But if I were to measure by my experience, to embrace that possibility as a likelihood would be the triumph of hope over experience.

Bishop Sheen once sent a manuscript to the printers, and when the galleys came back to him, he noted that Heaven and Hell were all reduced to the lower case, heaven and hell. He dutifully corrected them, and sent it back. He got into a tussle with his editor over this, and his editor asked him why he wanted them in the upper case. “Because,” said the bishop, “they are places. You know, like Scarsdale.” I am asking you, as one who must give an account for your soul, and the souls of those in your household, where are you taking them? Where are you taking your grandchildren and great-grandchildren?

Cordially in Christ,

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