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Who are We? A Christian Response to the Narrative of Violence

Wednesday, 3 August 2016  | Mary Elizabeth Fisher

Scattered across five continents, some Christian friends and I are currently discussing what cultural forces, priorities and choices shape us as human beings.

We are all living in the midst of political changes and yearn for more reflection on who we are to be in today's world.

We are considering what foundational narratives, what ideas of justice, what concepts of who we are as persons, what innovative hopes for business and cultural life, what ideas of community and what views of mercy shape us as we live in our local communities. We are discussing how men and women relate in society, how our local communities relate to other communities and how these relations can change for the better.

And we are all experiencing dismay at the levels of passive, and sometimes deliberately active, institutional violence around us.

How can we shape peaceable, hospitable, flourishing communities?

We inhabit countries where violence is carried out in our nations' names in distant countries. As a result, war has continued to rage in Afghanistan since 2001. Fifteen years later, military violence still is a normal daily event in that land. Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Poland invaded Iraq in 2003. Today in Baghdad no one knows where or when the next car bomb will explode. And with the vicious chaos of multiple military powers and terrorist groups warring on multiple fronts in Syria, our government has chosen to send the Australian air force to drop bombs.

The majority of Australians have never experienced such violence. However, both major political parties have instituted the draconian detention of refugees escaping wars across two continents. Murderous oppression, such as the Hazara suffer in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, continues, and the oppressive totalitarian regime in Iran creates further refugees, whom we then detain indefinitely in prison-like detention camps. The Manus Island and Nauru detention centres are a violation of every decent view of justice we Australians claim to uphold. And this occurs while Australia's chaotic immigration policies favour the wealthy.

Adding to echoes of violence across the globe, recent publicity about the horrific treatment of Indigenous Youth in a Northern Territory detention centre, removed from the gaze of most Australians, tells of our societal and institutional shame. Living standards and incarceration rates among Indigenous Aboriginal communities reflect the ongoing failure of Australian society to ensure the well-being of the original inhabitants of the land.

Meanwhile, there is no political action by our major political parties to address key environmental issues relating to climate change and the mining industry.

So violence against human persons, and against our natural habitat, continue unabated as the normative framework for engagement, shaping the Australian psyche in destructive ways. And the verbal slanging that is so much a part of our political campaigns is simply a refection of the violence that underpins our political realty.

And so, with Christian friends across five continents, I ask a basic question: are our governments, civic institutions and businesses – and our political discourse, TV screens and movies - forming us as a people who accept violence as normative? Are we becoming a more inhospitable, more violent people?

In response to this question, we are all persuaded that the Kingdom of God, inaugurated in the Incarnation, requires that we live contrary to this unacceptable, violence-shaped status quo. Our response is premised on four foundational truths.

First, our foundational identity is as followers of Christ.

Second, we are human persons, whose calling as disciples involves transformation through the renewing of our minds through the life-giving Holy Spirit gifted to the church.

Third, and by deliberate choice, we are residents of multi-cultural communities seeking to shape peaceable communities.

And fourth, we acknowledge that most of us come from privileged backgrounds.

What are the foundational challenges we need to keep in mind as we choose to become inhabitants of peaceable communities?

First, we agree that every human being is shaped by communal narratives. We need to be sensitive to how these narratives have shaped us.

Second, for a range of reasons, local community life is breaking down, and individualism increasingly permeates societies across the globe. Globalism brings strangers from different communities to our shores and, in a very driven and busy world, most communities are not trained in ways of relevant intercultural hospitality and welcome. As a result, the strident voices of racism and exclusion are increasingly gaining traction.

And third, in the face of increasing refugee crises and globalisation, ‘tolerance’ is simply insufficient to defeat inter-communal tensions and increasing moves toward exclusion of the ‘other’.

So how then do we, as Christians, proceed?

Establishing a communal understanding of our canonical narrative, climaxing with Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom of God, is foundational. A narrative not only orders our conceptual understanding but also places us within the particularity of the narrative.

The Protestant narrative has tended to emphasise doctrinal purity or experiential enthusiasm as markers of our faith. Forensic categories of atonement as undergirding justification by faith, and life in the Spirit manifest in charismatic or Pentecostal worship, have been central to the self-understanding of worshipping communities, with the Gospel too often couched in terms of ‘life after death’.

In the biblical narrative, however, the Incarnation and baptism of Jesus are the ‘hinge of history’ (to quote NT Wright), when God in the power of the Spirit inaugurates the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, the start of the New Creation. Jesus, this last Adam, is announcing His rule in the world and showing us how to live as servants of the Creator God - a new kingdom of forgiven persons, a priestly people who live as a Spirit-empowered community:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)

Stanley Hauerwas, in The Community of Character, has emphasised our responsibility to retell the Jesus narrative well. But in the individualist dualistic spirituality of the Western church, too often we have not told it at all. Too often the Christian community is just another societal institution to which religious individuals belong. And yet, in the Incarnation, the coming together of Heaven and Earth has started. So how are we to retell this narrative?

In his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays challenges the church to be a cruciform community. We are to be marked by the way of the cross. And so, we retell the narrative of Jesus through our service of each other and as we seek the flourishing and well-being of those around us who do not know Christ: ‘Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others’ (Philippians 2:4).

Luke Bretherton reminds us that the welcome of the Creator, the Covenant God of Israel, is a welcome of radical hospitality, as manifested by Jesus towards those who are ‘outside’ the acceptable covenant community. This means moving beyond ‘tolerance’ to active engagement with those with whom we disagree, in hospitality and truthful dialogue. This is contrary to the contemporary narratives that so quickly deteriorate into accusations and ways of violence. If the church fails to be such a community, the increasing violence of the world will engulf us.

If we truly inhabit Jesus’ Kingdom story, the way of the cross is not optional; the commitment to a cruciform-shaped local community is not optional; the Good News heralding the resurrection life of New Creation is not optional; and being shaped as people of the peaceable Kingdom is not optional.

Rather, this Kingdom story is a call to be embraced by the radical hospitality of the Creator - Father, Son and Spirit – who, while we were at enmity with him, stretched out his arms in an hospitable embrace all the way to the cross. It is a call we are to live out as the holy community that Luke Bretherton describes as marked by ‘hospitality as holiness’.

The question is: which narrative will shape us? It will be one or the other. There is no third alternative. And the narrative we choose to be embraced by will determine who we are.

Mary Fisher was a journalist for The Courier Mail before spending eight years in the People's Republic of China. In 1988-1994 she was Associate Director of Missions and Urbana for InterVarsity USA, and in 1994-2005 she served on faculty at Asbury Theological Seminary. She returned to Australia in 2005 and has lectured part-time and been on the pastoral team at Sydney Chinese Alliance Church. She also spends time with Muslim friends.

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