Part 2: Christians in the World


In the introductory material to Part 1 of Engaging the Powers (Website Introduction and Introduction to Part 1), it is suggested that the churches have a long and honourable tradition of supporting those who are the victims of natural catastrophes, misfortune and oppression. But it is also suggested that Church people seem unwilling to take this further and critically examine the activities of ‘the Powers’ which so often are the causes of misfortune and oppression though they usually manage to conceal this fact from public gaze; ‘church people’, of course, share this characteristic with the rest of society in the UK and the rest of the Western world. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a little time ago, put the matter very succinctly when he said that ‘the churches are very good at fishing the bodies out of the river but not so good at looking to see how they got there in the first place’, suggesting, perhaps, that it might be a good idea if ‘church people’ could step ahead of the rest of society and give a bit of a lead in this direction.

The papers in Part 1, including the set of New Papers are aimed at uncovering the harmful activities of ‘the Powers’. It is perhaps worthwhile drawing attention again to the special, distinctive feature of this collection of papers. All of them are based on published texts but a key feature of this project is that the texts are offered in a substantially reduced format, presenting a book of perhaps 200 pages in a single paper or a set of papers each of which is typically 8 to 9 pages in length. Here is an opportunity to discover ‘what is really going on’ vis a vis ‘the Powers at a fraction of the reading time that the original published texts would require.

Part 2 of Engaging the Powers looks at the reasons embedded in the Gospel and in the mainstream interpretations of it why this further step is indeed an integral part of the Church’s mission. Part 2 consists of four sets of papers based on the work of four well known theologians. The first set is based on N T Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God. These important scholarly texts provide a vivid picture of the thought-world of the Jews in first century Palestine. Against this backdrop, the ministry of Jesus takes on a quite different complexion from traditional interpretations which see Jesus as a rather disengaged ethereal figure who avoided open conflict with the Powers. The second set of papers is based on the American, Walter Wink’s trilogy on ‘the Powers’. There is particular emphasis on the third of these books, Engaging the Powers which also provides the title for our website project.

The other two sets of papers in Part 2 extend the scope of the project as a whole to examine the question of the relationship between church and state or, put a little differently, the role of Christians in the world. As with the Wright Papers, the third and fourth sets indicate the need for a radical review of what the authors see as the current ‘received view’ at ordinary church level.

The two books on which these further papers are based are Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and Resident Aliens by the Americans Stanley Hauerwas and William H Willimon; both of these two are university professors involved with training and supporting ministers. Both books are concerned with current practice among serving ministers in the Protestant churches, which the authors see, in both cases, as too inclined to accommodate secular social needs and insufficiently focused on the gospel narratives and their implications for Christian living.

The authors of both books look to three elements which could lead to the churches fulfilling their vocations more satisfactorily. This analysis and the conclusions reached in each case are remarkably similar though the authors approach the problem by quite different routes. First, the sense of the church as a community which provides essential support and guidance to its members; the idea of ‘the church’ as merely the building in which Christian individuals come together is inadequate. In a chapter on Mission, Newbigin discusses the relative merits of ‘word’ and ‘action’. His observations point to the vital element of ‘the Church’ which lies beyond its functional utility:

First, it I clear that to set word and deed, preaching and action against each other is absurd. The central reality is neither word nor act but the total life of a community enabled by the Spirit to live in Christ.

Second, the training of ordinands needs to be made relevant to the situation in which new clergy will find themselves; preparing them for the world as it used to be is not an option. And following on from that, thirdly, and most fundamentally, Christian communities, their ministers and the trainers of ministers all need to understand just how the world has changed in the past twenty yours or so. For Hauerwas and Willimon, this is a matter of recognizing that the compact between church and state originally forged by the Roman Emperor, Constantine, has now come to an end. Christians are no longer the key people in a country which is at least nominally Christian; they are ‘resident aliens’ in foreign territory. For Newbigin, the problem is rather different but just as difficult. For him, we are dominated in the West by a ‘reigning plausibility structure’ which reserves the status of ‘knowledge’ for that which can be ascertained through the senses, particularly the findings of the natural sciences. All else is mere ‘opinion’, and that includes belief in God. At first sight this looks like an academic quibble, but in fact getting it wrong has profound consequences for anyone with a religious attachment. In the received view, Christianity, indeed any religion, is relegated to second-class status; it is not hard currency in the marketplace of knowledge. Newbigin challenges all this, but to do so he has to dig deep into the realm of philosophy, for the ‘reigning plausibility’ is deeply embedded in the public mind even though it is usually neither recognized nor articulated. Newbigin, drawing on some of the most influential thinking of the mid-twentieth century, succeeds in overturning the view that religious belief is less ‘hard currency’ than scientific knowledge. The prize is the possibility of a radically more confident church in a secular world.

It will be noticed that all the books comprising Part 2 were written more than 25 years before the compiling of the present project. Might they, perhaps, be rather out of date? The fact that they are the texts selected for Part 2 of our project suggests there is evidence that they are still highly relevant today.

It is the modest aim of this website project to encourage churchgoers to come to grips with the information needed to understand just how ‘the Powers’ operate in today’s society. It must be emphasized, however, that it is inevitable that not all churchgoers will be in a position to respond. It is really important that any appeals made in the church context for people to read these papers must indicate that they won’t be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’. What I say in my own church when drawing attention to the papers is that they are ‘for those who are comfortable dealing with papers of this kind. Anyone else should feel free to by-pass them’.

This line of thought, however, leads on to ground which is highly contentious. It suggests some kind of cultural, occupational or educational hierarchy – a concept which the Church, understandably, is most reluctant to contemplate within its community. I suggest that, whether acknowledged or not, there is a wide spectrum of different backgrounds amongst members of church congregations. It might be wiser to preserve the ‘blindness’ towards these differences which the Church habitually demonstrates, but it is unavoidable that the present project makes reference to them since reading papers of the kind which make up the main substance of the project is an activity which not everyone is going to be comfortable and confident in tackling. If nothing is said on this score, there is the risk that appeals to get engaged with the project are going to leave some people feeling uncomfortable and ‘got at’. Obviously, any notion of hierarchy is unhelpful; ‘differences’, on the other hand, should be manageable within a Christian context bearing in mind St Paul’s view that all humankind is of equal value before God, but that we come with different gifts to contribute to the community, and all those gifts, too, are equally valued even though some may have wider and more visible application.


Overview of the papers