Monday, January 12, 2015

Death by a Thousand Smaller Compromises

In his book, Disruptive Grace (2000), George Hunsinger writes about the Church. It doesn’t face raging battles, as it might have in Martin Luther’s time (1483-1546); instead, it faces a last battle, as suggested by C. S. Lewis (1898-1963). The Church is not challenged yet robust; instead, when faced with the challenge of nuclear weapons, it collapsed. Today, in this third essay in a series on George’s book, we will reflect with him on why this collapse occurred.
George begins his reflections on this collapse with a quote which we will simply repeat:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that person is a thief and a robber. I am the door; if anyone enters by me, they will be saved” (John 10:1, 9).
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”

These words were written by Karl Barth and are the first article of the Barmen Declaration. Some background: Adolf Hitler took control of the German state in January 1933. He soon made clear his goal of taking control of all German churches as well. An embarrassingly small number of church leaders objected to this goal to the point of organizing themselves in opposition to it. These protesting church leaders met in the city of Barmen in May 1934. At that meeting they voted in favor of issuing the Barmen Declaration, written by Karl Barth, in which they publicly declared the difference between Jesus and Adolf and pledged their loyalty to Jesus.
Let us note that, from 1933 to 1945, Adolf was just another ruling minion representing Jupiter the god of politics. At Barmen, an embarrassingly small number of church leaders publicly affirmed their loyalty to Jesus and opposition to Jupiter. Their example remains as instructive to us as it is rare among church leaders and Christians today.
Of those words declared at Barmen, George says: “Let them rise as a cry of need…Let them judge our lives as ruled by other events and powers, other figures and truths” (94).
He also wants them to serve us as a “cry of joy…Let them gladden our hearts at the grace that does not desert us” (94) just as it did not desert the otherwise abjectly disloyal German churches of 1934.
George then reflects on the four main points made by Karl Barth about the meaning of the Barmen Declaration.
First, Karl insisted that being a Christian means being exclusively loyal to Jesus. As George summarized, “Either Jesus confronts us with this exclusive claim or he does not confront us at all. When we bind ourselves to him as he has bound himself to us, no other power need be honored and feared as way, truth, life, or door” (95).
“Second, compromises of loyalty will slowly devastate the church. The church prepared to offer binding loyalty to Hitler was a church which had died the death of a thousand smaller compromises …Whether reason, conscience, the emotions, history, nature, or culture, some second authority was continually proposed and ratified alongside the first. But no…second authority, however apparently benign, could represent anything other than an exclusive and competing counterclaim to that of God’s Word” (95). As Jesus put it, no one can serve two masters.
“Third, in spite of the history of compromise, the Word of God remained” (95). Miraculously, Jesus spoke once again and gave his church the wisdom, strength, courage, and good cheer it needed to affirm its exclusive loyalty to him, for at least one brief shining moment, after two hundred years of steady compromise.
Fourth, most people even within the Confessing Church “lived in mortal fear that they would be accused of disloyalty to the nation” (96). In other words, they feared being shunned or attacked--especially by fellow Christians--for being disloyal to Jupiter. But when they allowed that fear to limit their witness to Jesus, their one true lord, “no other attitude could be reached in practice than that of continual and partial retreats and compromises” (Karl in George, 96). In contrast, when they remained firm in their loyalty to Jesus as the one Word of God, they enjoyed a daily renewed ability to respond creatively to the adversities they faced.
A cry of need: as in the days of Barmen, the Church today has fatally compromised its loyalty to Jesus. It devotes itself blindly, enthusiastically, and hypocritically to the false Olympian gods of politics, war, technology, sex, money, and consumption.
A cry of joy: abjectly disloyal to Jesus, Jesus remains steadfastly faithful toward his body the Church. Even today he is freely calling people to live anew as prophetic witnesses to him. Let us rejoice that even today he calls and enables us to discern one compromise after another and repent of them. Let us joyfully share the increasingly obvious distinctions between the false Olympian gods and the one true but odd god with our neighbors, and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, for their good and Christ’s glory.

Copyright © 2015 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.