Ralph C. Wood
Almost all of the once-dominant Protestant churches in this country have gone into a panic mode over their steady decline in membership. Fear has been struck even in Southern Baptists, whose 16 million constituents have slidden for the fifth consecutive year. The American Baptists, the United Methodists, the Presbyterians USA, the United Church of Christ (Congregational), the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Episcopal Church have all suffered precipitous drops in enrollment. As you know, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John, just down Main Street, is temporarily if not permanently closed after 290 years of service in this city. Even the megachurches in Dallas, even Joel Osteen’s gleaming-gummed operation in Houston, have reached a plateau. They are beginning to learn that growth is not always good. Cancer also grows, and cancer kills.
Even the Catholics are ailing. It is often estimated that, of their 77 million parishioners, fewer than half are actually practitioners of their Faith in any serious way. At the 5:00 mass held last Friday at the Church of the Holy Ghost on Atwells—an ideal time for many Catholics to receive the sacrament before the onset of the weekend—only a small clutch of worshipers was present in that huge sanctuary. Nor am I confident that the Catholic cause will be enhanced by purchase of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. As you know, Robert Schuller’s church has gone out of business (the right word), and it has been sold to the Catholics. The prospect of its being refurbished as the Cathedral of Orange County makes some of us tremble. Lest we cluck, don’t forget our officially designated Cowboy Churches that are thriving in Texas, at least for a while.
Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic writer of remarkable short stories before her death in 1964, and she understood these matters well. When she received a generous Ford Foundation grant, she confessed her wish to visit California for about 15 minutes, there to enhance her sense of the freakish and the bizarre. She was especially eager to see Dale Evans, Roy Rogers and their horse Trigger attending a worship service in Pasadena. Think how loudly she would have howled in derision at this year’s Easter issue of Newsweek. It featured a cover article by the alleged Catholic Andrew Sullivan. There he made an unsurpassably stupid summons for Christians to “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.” We should do our own individual personal best, said the culpably ignorant Sullivan, to imitate Thomas Jefferson and Francis of Assisi.
To forget the church and to follow Jesus is the worst possible counsel. There is no Jesus apart from the Lord and Savior whom we encounter—first and last and always—within the Church. Let me illustrate. I often ask my students what it means to be a Christian. They often answer, “It means that I have Jesus in my heart.” I ask, in turn, how this feeling in their heart differs from heartburn caused by eating too many jalapeno peppers. They then answer, “I know that I have Jesus in my heart because I talk to him and read my Bible every day.” Sometimes they add, “I know Jesus is real because I ask him to find me a parking place and he never fails.” Hence my suggestion that at Baylor we develop own version of the famous Notre Dame claim prompted by the Jesus who seems to peering over the stadium with uplifted hands as when a team scores. Just as Notre Dame has “Touchdown Jesus,” so at Baylor we should have “Parking Jesus.”
When students also tell me that they object to formal worship because they want to have a personal relation to Jesus, I reply, “Well and good. Then get in relation to his Person, his Body called the Church.” I also quote, of course, the old adage that the Church is very much like Noah’s Ark: “The only thing worse than the stench within is the storm without.” In any case, it’s important to note that New Testament scholars are almost unanimously agreed about the significance of St. Paul’s often-repeated phrase “en Christo”–“in Christ, in Christ, in Christ.” He does not mean, “in our private walk and talk with Jesus,” but in the communal life with Christ and His people. Such faithful life in the Body, I propose, is our one true response to what seems set to become our slow slide toward death. We should cease wringing our hands and instead put our lives and our churches under the banner of the One Thing That Cannot Be Defeated.
1. David, Goliath, and the Question of Enemies
We usually read the David and Goliath story as an exercise in bravery and cunning. The crafty Israelite, a mere stripling, outsmarts the hulking pagan behemoth, slaying him with a slingshot and five smooth stones, then beheading him in a grisly fashion and feeding the bodies of his soldiers to the animals—all to prove that “there is a God in Israel,” and that he has placed his favor on David, the same David from whose lineage our Lord will emerge. Read in this way, the story of David and Goliath becomes a call to striking down the pagan enemies that besiege us on all sides.
Most of us don’t like that word “enemies.” When I used it in a recent lecture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, one of my respondents challenged me for having employed a sub-Christian term. It is very much, in fact, a Christian term. The Church does have enemies, and they are external no less than internal. As I tell my Baylor students, if we are faithful witnesses for our Lord, we will surely make enemies. The Irish theologian Herbert McCabe has given this matter succinct expression: “If [we] do not love,” said McCabe, “[we] are not alive. And if [we] do love, [we] will be killed.” He refers, of course to the love of God and neighbor—but also to the love of enemies.
The problem, alas, is that most of our enemies are not the enemies of God but our own personal opponents. We create enemies, not because we have been faithful, but because we have been jerks. As the late and much-lamented Pogo memorably said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” As usual, G. K. Chesterton is the best at crisply stating such witty wisdom. “Our Lord commands to forgive our enemies,” said Chesterton, “but not to have none.” Better still, said this merry jouster for the Lord, “Christ instructs us to forgive both our enemies and our neighbors, because they are usually the same people.” Hence his clinching aphorism: “We make our friends and we make our enemies, but God makes our next door neighbors.” It is the person across the street, or down the hall, or sitting beside us, or roosting in our own family tree—this is the person who is often most difficult to forgive. We know them and they know us far too well to confess sin and seek pardon. We fail because we refuse to follow the way of the One Thing That Cannot Be Defeated.
2. Lifting High the Downturned Sword
In my view, we Baptists will survive our present decline when we discover that our chief aim is not to remain distinctively Baptist so much as to become distinctively Christian. Ours will be an ever-more ecumenical age, especially as we confess that we Christians seem set to remain a minority faith, perhaps from here on in. We will come increasingly to acknowledge that many more things bind us together than separate us. We Baptists will need to make common cause with all sorts and conditions of fellow believers across denominational lines, as they learn from us and we learn from them. We have much to teach them about baptismal discipleship, and they have much teach us about the sacramental life.
Here, I believe, is the point at which our Old Testament and New Testament texts meet. In the David and Goliath story, we have seen God’s man defeat his enemy by violent, even gruesome means. There is no sanitizing of this unsavory matter. God is not a conventionally admirable deity. Nor is ancient Israel is a conventionally admirable people. We citizens of the modern nation-state hardly have cause to cast stones of accusation against the Israelites, since we killed more people by violent means in the 20th century than in all preceding centuries combined. Ours is the Ages of Ashes and ours is the Culture of Death because we have refused the better way embodied by Paul and Titus that we have encountered today in the second letter to the Church at Corinth.
There St. Paul points us to the One Thing That Cannot Be Defeated. He calls us to become co-laborers with Christ, not mere camp followers relying on the cheap grace of easy forgiveness. There is no waiting for tomorrow to get started. “Now is the acceptable time,” he all but shouts. See,” he repeats; “see, now is the day of salvation!” Then he adds the clenching line when he declares that, as the servants of God, he and his companions “have commended ourselves in every way.” Paul and Titus made true witness to the Gospel because they did not become stumbling blocks and hindrances to unbelievers. As my friend, the late Daniel Jenkins, confessed with deep humility, “I’ve spent my life trying to get out of God’s way.” He gave many people good cause for embracing the Gospel; so far as I know, he gave no one excuse for rejecting the Gospel.
So must it be with us. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the coming of God’s Kingdom insofar as we Christians form small bodies of fully dedicated believers living in radical prophetic and sacramental witness to the world. The ancient Romans said of our foreparents what should be said of us: “See how those Christians love each other.” And by “love” they did not mean sentimental affection but sacrificial care for the sick and the elderly, for the widows and the orphans, for the helpless and the unborn, also for the recalcitrant and rebellious. When we live by such radical Christian practices, our latter-day pagan friends and enemies come asking for entrance into our little enclaves of the faithful. Or else they will be so offended that they will persecute us. In either case, they will recognize that we are the Body of Christ.
We will commend ourselves to them very much as John Bunyan and the early Baptists commended themselves to their persecutors. The authorities in the Church of England ordered Bunyan to cease preaching in public. He could conduct private worship in the homes of his fellow Baptists in Bedford, but he could not seek converts through open proclamation. If he persisted in doing so, he would be both fined and imprisoned. This would seem a not unreasonable compromise. How much greater good could Bunyan accomplish by his person-to-person witness than by being shuttered in the Bedford gaol? Yet Bunyan refused this accommodation. Why? Did the man lack common sense? Was he rigid and self-righteous? On the contrary, Bunyan spurned the government’s offer because, like Paul and Titus, he wanted to commend himself to unbelievers. He did not want them to say, “Those Baptists are fair-weather radicals. They are all for drastic reform of the Church of England as long as it doesn’t cost them anything. And so when the government threatens to cage them, they hide away in their homes.” For 12 years, therefore, from 1662-1674, he remained behind bars in Bedford. Yet a divine irony emerges from Bunyan’s imprisonment. It was there that he first conceived his masterpiece, the Christian allegory entitled The Pilgrim’s Progress, and he actually began writing it during his later and shorter confinement in 1675. Many of us are here today because Bunyan held hard to The One Thing That Cannot Be Defeated.
You have been exceedingly patient with me during these last four weeks, as I have repeatedly subjected you to poetry with which you are probably not familiar and perhaps not inclined to enjoy. Today that poet is G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton was to the Catholic world what C. S. Lewis was to the Protestant: they were most famous converts in their respective traditions. Chesterton actually visited Providence in 1921, and a splendid comic event occurred when he lectured the Providence College community from the balcony of Harkins Hall. Too large to stand without props, Chesterton gave his address from an alcove while leaning into its doorframe. After he had finished, it was discovered that he had become stuck and had to be wedged out of the literal jam he had gotten himself into. Today we examine one of his two hymns, this one written early in the 20th century, long before he had become an orthodox Christian:
O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
For sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.
Tie us in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.
Chesterton penned these vivid lines as if he were addressing our own time of decline. They rightly address God as both creator and redeemer: the God of the planet and the God of the supreme sacrifice. As with the psalmist, so do we here ask God to incline his ear to our plea, much as he bowed down in the Incarnation to become Human. In singing and praying these words, we ask God for deliverance, beseeching our one and only Help against stumbling political shepherds as well as their sheep-like followers. Chesterton laments the way we are embalming ourselves in personal wealth, as well as killing each other in public strife. And so he beseeches God to remove our worldly arrogance, yet not to silence the thunder of our divine urgency. He does not ask God to turn us into religious invertebrates lacking spiritual spine. On the contrary, he calls us not to cower before terrorist threats, nor to be comforted by clever-tongued politicians and truth-trimming journalists. Their soft comforts are in fact hard cruelties. He also damns the political corruption that comes through the sale of public honors. A hundred years later we call them vote-bribing lobbyists the multi-million dollar “superpac” campaign contributors.
Just as we had to qualify our embrace of David’s beheading of Goliath, so must we put limits on Chesterton. At this stage in his life, he still believed that Christendom might be restored. England might yet become a Christian nation though the union of the state (prince), the church (priest), and the people (thrall). He later came to repudiate this idea, and to acclaim the disestablishment of the churches from governmental control. And so we must substitute “a living church” for “a living nation.” And yet we must retain the indissoluble link between smiting and saving. God does not heal without wounding; he will not save without striking evil out of us. And God sets us free by making us his faithful slaves.
Above all, we must modify Chesterton’s call to fight for the holy cause in wrath and elation. He knows that there is a terrible thrill, a shiver of delight, to be found in slaying our enemies, whether by word or deed. “I love war,” said General Patton. “God help me, but I love it so!” Patton wielded the upturned sword. The sword becomes a Christian instrument, as Chesterton would later acknowledge, only when it is pointed downward. Only thereby does it form the shape of a cross. The Church is not called to offer itself as a holy saber, so that God might use us to slay the enemy. Rather are we to lift high the downturned sword called the Cross.
Ian McIan, the protagonist of the novel entitled The Ball and the Cross, voices one of Chesterton’s most luminous and memorable claims. It’s a statement at once simple and profound. “The Cross cannot be defeated,” declares McIan, “for it is defeat.” The Cross is not a weapon of victories won through the slaughter of enemies. It is, instead, an instrument of defeat—of Christ’s own submission to the cruel death wrought by human hatred and violence. It thus becomes the Church’s instrument for enabling our own death to sin, and thus for bringing peace and reconciliation to a world of hatred and violence. Total self-surrendered love of God and neighbor can never be a losing cause. To be reconciled to enemies, even as God has reconciled us to himself, can never be cause for regret. To commend ourselves to the world through suffering and sacrifice can never lead to despair over our shrinking status. On the contrary, we will live in the confidence that Christ and his Church can never be extinguished. For we shall march forward under the banner of the Cross: The One Thing That Cannot Be Defeated.