What Do We Declare?
This week, Mennonites from across Canada will gather in Edmonton for our biennial nationwide Gathering. This year, the theme is taken from the opening words of 1 John: “We Declare: What We Have Seen and Heard.” What does it mean to speak of the good news and bear witness to the gospel of peace? A good and timely question, on the face of it, particularly in our disenchanted, polarized, guilt-ridden, merciless age. Do we still believe that we have any good news, for ourselves or for the world? Have we seen or heard anything worth bearing witness to? Is Jesus still worth gathering around?
Last Sunday, I spoke these words to our congregation here in southern Alberta. They are based on Paul’s charge to the Colossian church to not be “taken captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Col. 2:8).
In our day, the “hollow philosophies” are different. There is the bland secularism that floats about in the air in Canada and which many default to. There is a more aggressive form of “progressive” politics that many have labeled “wokeness” that attracts others. There is an equally aggressive conservative commitment to Christian nationalism in other quarters. There is what Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has referred to as “religion as interior decorating.” Faith becomes something like an accessory that we can tailor to meet the needs of the individual self. There are probably others. But whatever the rival philosophies are, the response, for Paul, is the same. Cling to Christ.
This is a word that we must never grow tired of hearing. Whatever the future might look like for Mennonite Church Canada, we must never cease to speak about Jesus as the centre of who we are and what we do. It is easy to become issue focused rather than Jesus focused. This is true across the Christian church, not just the Mennonite corner of it. It is easy to allow issues to determine how and when we will listen to Jesus rather than allowing Jesus to determine how we will become engaged in issues. In every domain in which Christians are properly interested and called to engage with thought and care, we must make sure we get the order right.
If we speak about peace but are hesitant to speak of the Prince of Peace, the one who came to proclaim peace, the one who died to bring peace between God and human beings and between human beings, then we cut ourselves off from the ultimate source of deep and lasting peace (not just the absence of conflict, but the presence of healing and transformation).
If we speak about and work toward social justice, but don’t speak the one who promises to one day beat swords into plowshares and usher in God’s final kingdom of shalom, we are no different than any other secular political advocacy group, and we risk descending into bitter conflict over competing visions of justice.
If we speak about evangelism but mainly a “church growth strategy” or a way to increase the budget, or with a narrow and individualistic conception of “saving souls” as the totality of the good news—then we risk treating people like objects, means to ends, instead of image bearers and we’re not much different than a slick marketing agency.
If we speak about human sexuality in a way that uncritically adopts cultural assumptions about human desire and subjective experience as primary aspects of our identity and defaults to extremely individualistic notions of freedom, if we are drawn in by dehumanizing lies about human personhood in a culture of hyper-sexualized advertising and entertainment, rather than looking to Jesus’ for our anthropology, then we will be sinking our roots into soil that cannot support the way we are intended to grow and flourish.
If we speak about racism in ways that treat the category of race as ultimate rather than our identity in Christ then we will be ignoring the liberating truth of the One who brings all tribes and tongues together as one, and who alone can heal the divisions and wounds that our sins of prejudice and xenophobia have caused.
If we speak about creation care divorced from God’s redemptive purposes for a groaning creation made known in Jesus Christ, then our horizons begin to shrink and we begin to think that everything depends upon us and our fragile and inconsistent efforts, rather than the promise of God who works in and among us, and who will one day do for us and for the planet what we cannot do for ourselves.
If we treat any of these important things as ends in and of themselves and we separate them from the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return of Jesus, then we have ceased to be the church of Jesus and have become indistinguishable from a political organization or a social club. We have nothing unique to say.
This is not to say that organizations that pursue these ends apart from faith in Jesus Christ are illegitimate or are doing bad work. They are not, even if they are often barely aware of how Christian their foundational moral assumptions actually are. It is simply to say that for us, as the church, we must speak about these things with our roots firmly in place. As the church of Jesus Christ, we are to live our lives in and through and because of the power of the crucified and risen Christ, rooted, established, and built up in him. Whatever else we might say or do, we must never lose sight of the fact that the church exists for and because of Jesus Christ and no one else.
To these words, I would append a few further observations as the Gathering approaches. A quick perusal of some of the synopses of workshops, keynote addresses, etc. reveals a familiar list of topics. Climate change. Indigenous issues. Young adult concerns. Sexuality and gender. There are others, too, but these float to the top of the pile. Or perhaps they just seem to because they so dominate our cultural discourse more broadly. Or because they’ve been central to conversations in the Mennonite Church for at least the eleven years I’ve been in the denomination.
These are all vitally important topics, as I hope I’ve made clear by now. But I was struck by what I didn’t see, at least not obviously. I didn’t see much about what for lack of a better term I will call the “existential urgency” of our cultural moment. When I look around my congregation, when I look at the young adults in my orbit, when I scroll through social media (back when I was still on social media), when I read the news, what I consistently see is that many people aren’t doing so well. Depression, anxiety, and addiction are rampant. People speak of crushing loneliness and social disconnection (this preceded the pandemic even if the last two years made it way worse). People speak about feeling rootless, adrift, purposeless, struggling to discover (create?) meaning in their lives, afraid of and lacking hope for the future. People scramble to create and curate ever more exotic and interesting identities to fill the void of meaning, treating as ultimate those things which should be penultimate at best.
Should the church not have something to say about these things? Does Jesus not meet us in the deepest parts of who we are, speaking healing, hope, forgiveness, and peace? Does not Christ pursue us, hunt us down, encounter us on the road, explaining to us and inviting us into the things of God?
Last week the Washington Post ran a piece by Amanda Ripley called “I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me — or the product?” It’s a fascinating piece which I suspect many will resonate with. Basically, marinating in a steady stream of horrible news (what other kind is profitable?) turns out not to be very good for human beings. Who would have thought?
Ripley says that there are “three simple ingredients that are missing from the news as we know it.”
This post is getting pretty long so I won’t elaborate on those three. I invite you to read Ripley’s reflections yourself. But as I read her article, a simple thought occurred to me: What if we were to swap out “the news” for “the church?”
What if, instead of focusing primarily on what’s wrong with the church or how we have failed and are failing, we were to speak plainly and unapologetically about the existential hope of the gospel? What if we were to speak confidently about the divine gift and calling of bearing the image of God in a world that treats human beings like human doings, as economic units and not much more? What if we were to celebrate the good that the church has done (even as we acknowledge and confess our sins) and to grasp our calling of faith, hope, and love with joy?
I hope that people will not stop “reading” the church because we are not giving them hope, dignity, and agency. I hope that we will declare with confidence and great joy what we have seen and heard, that we will echo John’s words from the passage our conference theme is taken from: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all… if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive and cleanse us.” This is indeed good news worth declaring, in Edmonton and beyond.