(This essay began as the Opening Reflections for my webpage on Epiphany 5C.)
The call to discipleship is itself grace. In the face of rising authoritarianism in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s major statement was his book Discipleship (Nachfolge in the German, published in 1937), whose first chapter was famously about “costly grace” vs. “cheap grace”:
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.
It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. (p. 45)
Continuing to follow Jesus in a world that resists the healing of tribalism — where powers continue to seek entrenchment of tribalistic empire — means there will be bearing of crosses. The call to discipleship is a paradoxically gracious call to live under the costly threat of self-sacrificing death.
“How long, O Lord?” (Isa 6:11). The day’s First Reading from Isaiah 6 (Epiphany 5C) was embraced by Jesus to articulate his sense of call, in which disciples follow. Jesus quotes the oddest of verses in this text, not the dramatic call itself but the strange message:
“Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10; quoted by Jesus in Mark 4:12 and Matt 13:13-15, where Jesus introduces “parables”).
The fact that the Powers will continue to pursue tribalistic imperialism is a fact that God anticipates in calling prophets. Imperialistic culture dictates people’s worldviews, determining what they can see and hear and understand. For Jesus, this dictates the vehicle of his message: parables. The typical human way of making change by using violent force cannot itself be changed by using direct counterforce, even in messaging. Matthew’s Jesus doubles down on the quote of Isaiah 6 by quoting Psalm 78:2-3 in saying, “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (Matt 13:35).
Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World — the title of René Girard‘s magnum opus. Since the human species originates in both Us-Them thinking and Us-Them structuring of the cultures that nurture us, it is not easy to begin the healing of tribalism — possible, really, only through God’s gracious intervention via Jesus the Messiah. How does one begin that saving work without getting caught up with an oppositional Us-Them thinking that itself quickly descends into Us-Them thinking? Consider this “Catch-22”: “Us” are those who are trying to reveal and undo Us-Them thinking, and “Them” are those who resist “Us” by persisting in Us-Them thinking. A frontal assault on Us-Them thinking results in “Us” lapsing into yet another form of Us-Them thinking! So how does Jesus initiate healing? He begins not with a direct assault on Us-Them thinking but with an indirect parabolic language that turns the ‘normal’ upside-down and inside out.
But the Us-Them structuring of human culture will take much more than a strategy for teaching. It will require action that again does not use direct, forceful assault. It will mean nonviolent engagement that risks becoming a victim of violence. Eventually, it leads Jesus to choose suffering a direct assault of sacred violence upon himself. This is the costly grace that awaits those who choose to answer the call of discipleship — a commitment to nonviolence that leaves one vulnerable to those who still operate by violence. Jesus clearly tells us, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt 11:12).
“How long, O Lord?” The answer in Isaiah 6 is akin to the apocalyptic mood that Girard increasingly inhabited:
“Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:11b-13)
I propose that Isaiah 6 is not only a call passage, but it is also the first great apocalyptic text. How many rounds of our cities being laid waste has humanity endured since the Lord spoke these words to Isaiah? Since Jesus revealed what has been hidden since our origins? And we are in the midst of another rise of totalitarian imperialistic power-grabs. The holy seed has been sown for 800 (Isaiah) +2000 (Jesus) years. When will it bear the fruit of healing our tribalism to the point of rebuilding our culture into Us-thinking — into ‘there is no longer Us and Them, only Us’?
“How long, O LORD?” That Girard’s last major book (Battling to the End) featured apocalyptic reflections and was his most pessimistic is quite understandable. So much over the last century seems to speak to an escalation of the violence, or “escalation to extremes” (the phrase Girard borrows for Carl von Clausewitz’s On War as his book’s mantra). Yet I propose that our pessimism may be tempered if we highlight a movement over the past century which is a sign of God’s healing and saving Spirit. Just as humankind was entering a phase of world war, inventing Weapons of Mass Destruction, there also came about for the first time a mass movement of waging war nonviolently, explicitly as a means of following Jesus. It took a Hindu man in the first instance, Mahatma Gandhi, to take Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount seriously enough to imagine it as a mass movement, a new way to wage war nonviolently.
We began with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace” in the face of the rise of Nazism. While in London in 1934, Bonhoeffer made active plans to visit Gandhi — with the help of two Brits who knew Gandhi, Charlie Andrews and Bishop George Bell — and to learn the way of nonviolent resistance. Andrews encouraged Bonhoeffer to visit the Quaker center Woodbrooke, to “see our friends who both know and love India and also are trying to follow the Sermon on the Mount” (DBWE, vol. 13, London, 1933-35, p. 137; see this volume for more on Bonhoeffer’s plans, including a letter to Bonhoeffer from Gandhi himself). Bonhoeffer’s recognition of Gandhi’s work was another sign that nonviolent resistance as a mass movement following the way of Jesus is finally the ‘seed falling into good soil and bringing forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold’ (Mark 4:8).
Subsequent history has only highlighted its importance. Exactly sixty years ago (February-March 1959) Martin Luther King, Jr. went to India with Coretta to learn from Gandhi’s disciples. Many years later a taped message was discovered in India in which King emphasizes his intellectual debt to Mahatma Gandhi’s message of nonviolent social action. He says,
. . . if this age is to survive, it must follow the way of love and nonviolence that he so nobly illustrated in his life. And Mahatma Gandhi may well be God’s appeal to this generation, for in a day when sputniks and explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. Today, we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence. (NPR story of January 9, 2009)
The Civil Rights movement became the next major example of what we may characterize here as God’s working to heal the structures of tribalism — the tiny mustard seed ‘growing up and becoming the greatest of all shrubs’ (Mark 4:32). And it continues to spread its branches today with things like the Women’s March in response to the presidency of Donald Trump and Rev. Dr. William Barber II‘s revival of King’s Poor People’s Campaign.
“How long, O Lord?” There is plenty of reason for pessimism in answering this question today. My hope is that nonviolent resistance as a mass movement is finally a reason to hope that we might at least be witnessing the beginning to the end of violent tribalism as the way of human order. This isn’t optimism, because it involves terrible suffering. But it is faith in costly grace: “It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.” It is Christian hope.