Monthly Archives: March 2010

Moravian Passion Week

Next week is Holy Week. I was teaching on the topic of Holy Week at a local Moravian Church. I probably should have written my thoughts down beforehand, but I could not have predicted what I actually said as we discussed why Moravians worship the way we do during Holy Week. Here is a summary.

We Moravians do not have the stations of the cross, like Catholics do. We do not have a passion play like the medievals did. We do not preach on the seven last words the way many Baptists do. We do something unique, which many biblical scholars say is wrong to do.

We gather every evening of Holy Week to read out loud from a harmony of the gospels, beginning with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and ending with the burial. Some things do get lost in such a harmony of the gospels, some of the differences and nuances get obscured, and we do not claim that the harmony is Scripture. There is no sermon at most of these services during Holy Week. Just readings, and lots of congregational singing. A single hymn verse is sung in response to each pericope. Sometimes there is simply silence.

What happens during this week is that we hear many of the teachings of Jesus in context, rather than spread out randomly through the lectionary. We spend a great deal of time sitting at the feet of Jesus like Mary listening to the teachings and controversies. We are there at the cleansing of the temple and have time to contemplate how Jesus would enter our sanctuaries. We read the last supper account from the synoptics as well as John and contemplate the significance of Jesus’ last instructions to the twelve, whom he loved. We are there when Jesus shares his bread with the betrayer, and we are there when he washes the feet of Peter who denies him. We see the anguish and grief, and we do not turn our gaze away at the end. We stand with the women and watch as a member of the Sanhedrin asks for the body.

We share in Holy Communion and we also share in the Agape meal. Many people find the passion week observances boring and a burden. Sometimes I find them boring and a burden. Many congregations have given them up, but when I was in Princeton without a community of faith, I found myself reading the manual to myself in my apartment.

The words and hymns are the same year after year, but the experience is different. Some years I hear the woes to the scribes and hypocrites directed at me. Some years I am Peter whose heart breaks at the crowing of the cock. Some years I am the beloved laying my head on Jesus’ breast. Some years I am Malchus in the garden caught up in things I do not understand and being healed of the violence I’ve participated in. Some years I am Pilate asking cynically about truth. Some years I am one who mocks, and some years I am Magdalene lost in grief.

So many sermons unspoken year after year, so much room for the Spirit to speak through an ancient story. So much to ponder from Palm Sunday to Great Sabbath. And then, we wait in the gloaming, before dawn to hear the words “the Lord is risen.” We gather in the cemetery to remember those who have died while we face the rising sun. We confess our faith in the midst of grief, and sing with joy in the midst of pain. We repeat words about redemption and reconciliation and we recommit ourselves to the service of the risen Lord.

And then we eat.

Moravians and Peace

Moravian Church as an Historic Peace Church

Craig D. Atwood

Originally published  in The Moravian, March 2010. Reprinted with permission.

The Unitas Fratrum was the first peace church.[i] Our church was founded in 1457 during a period of intense religious conflict and persecution. Brother Gregory and his companions were frustrated that the state church had beautiful worship and sophisticated theology but had forgotten the weightier matters of Jesus’ teaching. In a little village called Kunwald they tried to create a Christian community that followed the Law of Christ as presented in the Sermon on the Mount. Gregory drew heavily on the writings of Peter Chelčickỳ who insisted that Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors and our enemies is central to our faith. Peter frequently pointed out that it is impossible to love someone while killing or maiming them. The original Brethren were uncomfortable with the way churches use the violence of the Old Testament to justify violence. Even though the ancient Israelites had engaged in warfare, that does not mean that Christians may violate the commandments given by Jesus. It is the New Testament that should govern the lives of Christians.

Members of the Unitas Fratrum were forbidden to serve in the military or even to serve on juries since they might participate in the harming of others. This strict pacifism was threatening to rulers who expected the church to sanctify the violence of the state. As a result, hundreds of Moravians were harassed, arrested, tortured, exiled, or killed. As time passed, it grew harder for the Moravians to maintain such a strict pacifism and separation from the state. There were a few nobles who offered protection to the church, but only if members were willing to assume the duties of citizenship, such as serving on juries. Gradually the elders moderated the original non-violence. Members were allowed to serve on juries, but they were to temper justice with mercy. Eventually, Brethren were allowed to serve in the military, but only if they were forced by the state. Brethren could not be professional soldiers, and members who were conscripted into the army were instructed to seek out non-combat roles. If they had to fight they should try to wound rather than kill.

During the Protestant Reformation, the Unitas Fratrum established ties with the Calvinists in Geneva, and they drifted further away from their original peace witness. In 1618, some of the prominent members of the Unity participated in the rebellion against the Habsburg rulers. During the ensuring Thirty Years War (1618-1648) the Unitas Fratrum was destroyed by religion persecution and violence. Thousands of Moravians went into permanent exile; others tried to keep the faith alive in secret in their homeland. The greatest Moravian scholar in history, John Amos Comenius, lived during this violent era. He is most famous for his books on education reform, but Comenius also dedicated himself to the cause of peace. Toward the end of his life he wrote: “Mankind has had enough of folly and war, and it is to be hoped that the time will come when all men are exhausted with wars and return to peace.”[ii] Comenius revived the waning peace witness of the Unitas Fratrum and made it central to his theology, pedagogy, and ethics. Violence is contrary to the nature of Christ and should be banished from the church. He urged his readers: “Whenever you encounter one of your neighbours, regard him as yourself in another form (which he is), or indeed as God in another form, for he is the image of God, and God will be watching to see how reverently you treat him.”[iii]

Comenius tried to preserve the witness of the Unitas Fratrum through his writings, and he lived in hope for a better day when those who profess Christ would live as Christ commanded. Decades after his death, a new generation of Moravians chose to go into exile so that they could live according to the teachings of the New Testament. Under the leadership of Count Zinzendorf, they formed a covenant community called Herrnhut in Germany. The Brotherly Agreement they signed in 1727 stipulated that they would seek to live in peace with all people. Disputes were to be settled through conversation rather than violence. Although the Moravians did not condemn the military per se (and had many friends in the military) members of the Moravian Church were not allowed to enlist. Those who did so were generally removed from membership in the church. Moravians also did not participate in capital punishment, although they did not protest the state’s authority to try capital cases. It is not surprising that Moravians settled in the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania.

The pacifist stance of the Moravians was hard to maintain during the long years of the American Revolution. Some historians argue that pacifism was merely a way to maintain neutrality and to avoid the consequences of choosing sides in the conflict, but the commitment to the Sermon on the Mount ran deeper than that. The pastor of Hope Moravian in North Carolina was beaten up by an American militia because of his pacifism, and many of the younger brethren had to hide in the forest to avoid conscription. The church paid heavy fines to both the Americans and the British during the war, and the residents of the Moravian village of Gnaddenhutten in Ohio were murdered by an America militia without defending themselves. Some of the younger Moravians in Pennsylvania and North Carolina did enlist in the revolutionary army and were allowed to rejoin the church after the war.

As Moravian communities declined in the 1800s, it grew harder for the church to maintain its original pacifism. After the Nat Turner rebellion in 1830 every municipality in North Carolina was required to have a militia, and so the Moravians in Salem formed a regiment. For the first time the church sanctioned the study of war because of the fear of a slave revolt. During the Civil War, there were Moravians in both the Federal and Confederate armies. It is sadly illuminating that the first war that Moravians fully endorsed was one in which brother fought against brother. By 1865 the Moravians had largely forgotten their four hundred year history of pacifism. Some even denied that the Unitas Fratrum had ever been a peace church. Moravians on both sides of the Atlantic fought in World Wars I and II, thinking that their fight was just.

During the peace movement of the 1960s, some Moravians tried to claim the church was a peace church, but it was hard to convince the federal government of that since the church also had military chaplains. By 1969 the question of peace and war divided Moravians, and it remains a point of contention. Still, the fact remains that the Unitas Fratrum was the first peace church. For four hundred years the Moravian Church maintained a fairly consistent peace witness, but this was largely forgotten during the titanic conflicts of the past two centuries. The question we face in the 21st century is whether the Moravian Church should reclaim this identity and become a peace church again. This is not a question of history, but of faith, love, and hope. How will this generation respond to the Law of Christ?

[i] This is explored in detail in my book The Theology of the Czech Brethren from Hus to Comenius (Penn State University Press, 2009).

[ii] John Amos Comenius, Panorthosia or Universal Reform, ch. 1-18 and 27, trans. A. M. O. Dobbie (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 57.

[iii] Ibid. 197-198.

Thinking about the Holy Spirit

Here are some notes from my theology class today:

One of the key questions in thinking about the Holy Spirit is what to do with the varieties of understandings of the Spirit in the Bible itself. There are references to the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit is the one who comes upon the prophets, but also came upon Christ. Christ sends the Spirit but is also proclaimed the Son by the Spirit. John talks about a Paraclete or Advocate. There is lots of material for creative thinking about the Spirit of God and the human spirit in the New Testament. It is important in formulating our doctrines of the Spirit to keep in mind the essential fluidity of the Spirit in the Scripture, tradition, and experience, but common to the church’s witness is that the Spirit of God is the same Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. Part of the role of the Spirit is make Christ real to believers. The Spirit is the one who makes faith alive and real. Or to put it another way, the Spirit is the one who helps us encounter Christ as Thou rather than simply as the metaphysical Logos or an historical figure. The Spirit is also the one who allows us to call God “Abba” from the core of our being rather than defining God as a paternal figure.

When we think about the doctrines of justification and sanctification, theologians get all twisted out of shape in arguing about the nature of grace or God’s forensics, while forgetting the weightier matter that we are made right with God through grace as communicated through the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of justification is not fundamentally about judgment and guilt; it is about the existential experience of being made right with God by God’s own work in reconciliation. The experience of justification is an experience of the Holy Spirit, and thus it is marked by wholeness, health, life, and movement. It is not always pleasant because sometimes we are so disordered in our lives that the fire of the Spirit feels like a scorching flame, but the result of the encounter with God is a sense of re-integration, a sense of being truly loved with a love that is beyond what poets describe, an awakening to a deeper reality that gives us a new insight into the world. It is an experience of the holy that can be radically transformative.

Some Christian communities have tried to define in precise terms what the experience of justification through grace should be. For some, it only comes through the sacraments; for others only through right belief; for others only through a conversion experience. But the witness of the church through the centuries has been that the Spirit and God’s grace work in many ways, just as God works in many ways through creation. What the church has consistently affirmed, despite many different theological formulations, is that the Holy Spirit is part of the process of justification and redemption. Just as creation was not a single act in the distant past; redemption was not just a single moment on Calvary; the Spirit is involved in the continuation of creation and new creation. There is an on-going dynamic process of the world, including human individuals, being reborn or remade. The Spirit draws us into the future and opens us to the possibility of a better future than our past would indicate.

When we think about the New Creation that Paul speaks of, sometimes in terms of the New Adam (we should think about the New Eve as well), keep in mind that we are talking about being more fully human, not less human. The work of the Spirit is, in part, the work of bring us ever more fully into God’s intention for humanity; to realize our giftedness as bearers of the image of God. There is very little talk about becoming perfect in the New Testament, although John Wesley made the most of the few passages. What we mainly see is the hope for the reclamation of humankind from the law of sin and death. Perfection would be an entering fully into life; into the life of God who creates; who loves the world enough to enter into the suffering and sorrow of the world; who brings hope and life and freedom.

Justification is the beginning of the process of the re-creation of persons; sanctification is the on-going process of living out of the knowledge that we belong to God; that we are the children of God and can live as dearly beloved children of God; that we are the living representatives of God in the world. Sanctification has too often been restricted to issues of self-discipline or even self-mortification without making the connection between the individual person and the wider society. Sanctification or becoming holy means entering into the life of God in our existential situation, and that means that we become living agents of God’s justice in a world disordered by the disease of sin and selfishness. This is why evangelism and the social gospel go hand in hand; why liberation theology and liturgical theology go together; why justification by faith and justice in the world are related; why redemption and reconciliation are political as well as spiritual goals.

One of the most important theological terms related to the work of the Holy Spirit is Vocation, and it is another one of those terms that we have allowed to degenerate over the centuries. When I say you need vocational counseling or vocational training, what do you think of? The word is just the Latin word for “calling,” and in the church it was specifically the calling of God through the Holy Spirit. The calling of the prophets, like Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures, was a paradigmatic view of calling, but in the NT calling is more than the calling of prophets. It begins with the calling of Jesus to disciples who leave one form of living for another. It was more than just the twelve who were called, and not all became apostles. There was the calling to the Samaritan woman, to Nicodemus, the calling to Lazarus to come out of the tomb, the calling to Mary Magdalene to health and then to recognize the risen Christ, the calling to Paul to give up violence and embrace love.

In early Christianity vocation meant the calling to be religious, meaning to join a religious order and take life-long vows of service and self-denial, but the Waldensians, Hussites, and then Luther turned vocation back to the originally idea of the calling of Christ through the Spirit to all who believe. Every Christian is called into life and abundant life. Every Christian is called to turn away from self-gratification into love for neighbor. Every Christian is called into community and into service. But every Christian is called in individual ways.


Umpires and Postmodernism

I’m attending the Theology After Google conference at Claremont School of Theology, and there have been many thought provoking sessions. One of the speakers used an illustration from baseball to explain postmodernism, which was intriguing, but I think is misleading. It is the old baseball anecdote about the umpire who says, “It ain’t nothing till I call it.” According to Stanley Fish, this is a recognition that it is the interpreter who defines reality, that balls and strikes do not exist in the game until an observers makes the call. There is no objective reality, only interpretation, and the community helps define the nature of the umpire’s call. It is insightful, but what is crucial for the story is that baseball has authority figures known as umpires who are entrusted “to make the call.” The batter in the story was not asking for a statement on the nature of reality; he was looking for the umpire to determine the next step in the game.

Contrary to the speaker’s assertion, baseball never worked on the illusion that balls and strikes are objective realities evident to all observers. From early days, the organizers of games knew there had to be a subjective observer appointed to “call the game,” and, more importantly, the community agreed to his authority. Even television failed to change this dynamic as slow-motion replays demonstrated times when umpires “missed the call.” Casual fans watching at home may have been brought into the secrets of the game, but the gnosis was always there for those who participated.

What we have in the umpire illustration is pre-modernism. The umpire is the tribal chief or elder who has been appointed to make judgments affecting the life of the community. This is the wisdom model of discernment. The elder/umpire uses all of his or her knowledge, including knowledge of the living community, to make a wise decision for the good of the community. Should these judgments consistently prove harmful, foolish, or random, the community may remove him or her from the seat of judgment. But the community cannot exist without an arbiter of disputes precisely because the participants know that there is no way to determine an objective norm. To put this in ecclesiastical terms, the notion that “It ain’t nothing till I call it” is the functional equivalent of the priest saying “It ain’t the body of Christ till I call it.” As long as the community accepts that subjectivity of spiritual authority, we have a catholic church.

Contrast the role of the umpire in baseball with the role of time-keepers in many other sports, such as bobsled. Here we have sophisticated measuring devices and electronic barriers set up to give an objective (i.e. mechanical) determination of who had the fastest time. We never see the time-keepers. We know there are humans involved, but the “human” element has been eliminated in the desire for an objective standard quantifying the notion of “fastest.” The community turned over the task of interpretation to machines, and many people long for a similar process in other competitive sports such as gymnastics. In baseball, I imagine, one could insert a sensor that would determine the “precise” location of the ball within a predefined strike zone, but the game as we know it requires the active participation of umpires.

A postmodern view of baseball would see the umpire as one center of power/authority within the game, but recognize that there is much more going on during a baseball game than balls and strikes. Each player is a center of power, performing carefully articulated roles. Any individual may play a determinative role in the final outcome, but no one who it may be. In fact, you can never with integrity say that any one player won or lost the game because the game is an aggregate of dozens of pitches, swings, throws, etc. each potentially a game winner. Even those who do not play are centers of power in a drama that fans follow in the sports media. Will the centerfielder be on the injured reserve list? Has the coach benched the third baseman?

But even this barely scratches the surface because what is “really” happening in a baseball game is much bigger. Thousands of people are involved, but few are focused intensely on the game itself. People are talking to each other, eating, drinking, dreaming, keeping records, talking trash, remembering previous games, reliving their childhood, creating childhood memories, participating in one of the rituals of Americanization, exchanging money, encouraging capitalism, encouraging competition, advertizing brand names, admiring athleticism, having sexual fantasies about players (never umpires), and a thousand other things. Most of those fans know that most of the time it does not matter whether a pitch is a ball or strike. It matters sometimes, and any given fan will miss the moment. Even that does not matter, those who missed the moment will feel the excitement of the crowd and watch the replay.

What does matter is that the umpire makes a call so the game can continue. That is why the batter had to ask the umpire whether it was a ball or strike. The umpire had failed momentarily in his essential role in the game, and doubt set in. But the umpire quickly reminded the player (and scholars like Stanley Fish) that he (rarely she) is essential to the game in a way the player is not. Had the player protested too loudly and undermined the authority of the umpire, the umpire would have asserted his power dramatically by ejecting the player from the game. Again, this is a pre-modern system where the authority may be questioned, but only up to a point. Then naked power is revealed. That is why coaches, fans, and players repeat this particular anecdote as a piece of tribal wisdom. Every fan has the right to dispute a call, but we do not decide balls and strikes by consensus or the will of the fans. Players and coaches may protest, but not to the point of undermining faith in the game itself.

There is more, of course. The umpires, coaches, players, fans, and commentators all know that individual games do not matter in a 162 game season. Only a few games for a few teams at the end of the season really matter. That is why the nation watches the pennant race and the World Series. And most of those participants, even those making millions of dollars, recognize that even those games do not really matter. There is always next year. There is always the cycle of birth and death. What matters is that the game is played. This may sound postmodern, but it is also pre-modern. It is tribal. “In the spring of the year when kings go off to war,” says the writer of II Samuel. The postmodern turn in baseball is recognizing all of this, but still choosing to participate in the masquerade of balls and strikes because you know that the umpire is literally and symbolically a “part of the game.” And if you do not like that, you are free to choose another game with a different structure of rules and judgment, like curling.

So, how does this apply to the Church or to churches? We no longer have umpires that we give authority to call the game of faith for us. We do not even have a consensus on what the game of faith is or what truly matters in the game. We cannot even identify for sure where the centers of power are in the Church or who are the players and who are the fans. We are not even sure whether the game is played in the sanctuary/stadium or somewhere else. The premodern wisdom model of pastor as tribal elder has largely been rejected, in part because of modernism. The modern notion of an objective set of rules (Scripture, confessions of faith, books of discipline) is being overthrown, which is revealed by how desperately some cling to it. Some theologians and churches are struggling to adopt insights from postmodernism, but it is not yet clear if it is possible to have a postmodern community of faith since postmodernism is suspicious of all three of those words: community, faith, and of.

Theology after Google

I’m attending a conference called theology after google at Claremont School of Theology. It is an effort to get theology (especially progressive theology) out of books and into the virtual world. One of the questions we raised was whether texting makes it harder or easier to communicate the gospel. There is much talk about how different the world today is from the world of the past, especially with instant global communication. Much of this good and useful, but there is a tendency to see things too dualistically. At times, it sounds like we have forgotten that people, ordinary people, used to communicate instantly. It was called talking. The academic elites never truly controlled thought and speech. People have always created theology through dialog, discussion, and conversation. The Reformation took place in the workplace, with Flemish cloth workers talking about law and grace, in taverns as manifestoes were read aloud, in homes where mothers sang hymns to their children.