Sunday, 26 May 2013

Towards a non-defensive faith

In a recent conversation with me, Jim Longley contrasted the Anabaptist approach to theology and ethics to what he labelled the "defensive" approach adopted by much of the church.

My experience of Christianity supports that categorisation. The institutional church, especially the Evangelical variety, and many individuals hold a position that is profoundly defensive. It is a position that assumes we have to constantly protect ourselves from the creeping immorality of society, from doctrinal error, from financial risk, from sin and the resulting guilt, from those who are not "one of us".

I am not referring to a kind of defensiveness that contrasts with offensiveness. There are, of course, parts of the church that promote a triumphalism that declares (against what they admit is evidence to the contrary!) that the battle belongs to the Lord and that victory is assured if only we have the courage (the "faith") to attack. That very offensiveness is rooted in a war metaphor that sees the church circling the wagons to separate ourselves and "defend our way of life" against the infidels.

It's not that kind of military defence that I'm picturing, but rather a stance that holds tightly rather than releasing, that is closed rather than open, confined and isolationist rather than expansive, scared rather than embracing, rigid and controlling rather than freeing.

That is not how Jesus lived. In his relationships with others he was open, inviting, accepting. He took risks, exposed himself, dis-empowered himself, allowed himself to be vulnerable, and actively drew violence against himself.

He did those things from a position of inner confidence. Jesus knew that he had all the power of God and that is why he was able to wrap a towel around himself and wash his friends' feet (John 13:3-5). This is in stark contrast to an apologetic Christianity too scared to speak the truth, and in just as stark a contrast to the the right-wing Christian political agenda that attempts to force Christian moral requirememnts on everyone via legislation.

I invite any readers to help me to understand how this has happened. Why does so much of modern Christianity takes this defensive position?

How does that stance undermine our engagement with the world? (There's the defensive assumption again, right there! As though we were this little enclave of people who feel a need to "engage" (like a gear cog?) with the big bad world around us!)

And how would we act differently if we took on the pattern of Jesus? What if the life of Jesus was normative - the exemplar of being truly human? What if I didn't have to protect my reputation? What if I really accepted that all truth is God's truth and that I didn't need to fear or protect myself against the truth wherever it may be found? What if I allowed myself to act rashly and accepted that I will make mistakes? What if I was vulnerable and allowed myself to be hurt? What if I embraced the people around me regardless of their social or perceived moral status?


Derek said...

How much of this defensiveness is wrapped up in the defender's position of the Bible? If one subscribes to the notion that the Bible is both inerrant and infallible, then if the Bible is found to contain a single mistake or contradiction, then the inerrancy has been refuted, Not surprising then that such a defensive position is adopted, especially by evangelical Christians.

Matt said...

That's an excellent point I think Derek. That attitude makes people suspicious of anyone critical of the Bible because they are a threat to that belief in inerrancy. It also provides a very definite demarcation between insiders and outsiders. In many cases doctrinal statements make that explicit -- "if you don't accept inerrancy then you ain't one of us".