Life in God, Life in the Mire

By now Owl readers will have heard that Christian life is life for others. What we usually meant by that is easy enough to summarize: Jesus’ identity with the hungry, thirsty, naked, or sick; strangers and prisoners (Matthew 25:35–36); prophetic justice to protect widows, orphans, and resident aliens; religious and secular efforts to make the world better. All these things are undoubted goods, among the duties of Christians and everyone else if we are to have life together.

But there is a deeper meaning that takes us to where Jesus’ ministry took him, to the death of an outcast. From eternity, the Crucified One is the type, the definition of true humanity. We are the antitypes. Our true life is not to be social engineers with a prescribed plan, but to know that we have died, and our true life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). The earthly manifestation of that life is Jesus Christ utterly condemned, and we sinners with him.

This flies in the teeth of the naïve notion of Christianity as the safe pursuit of moral victories. People of faith know that is a vast oversimplification, and carry out their godly vocations in spite of that, among the anxieties and compulsions of this world. They are ready to lay down life for others, knowing we have another that we cannot lose.

In debates about what is Christian political action, there arise questions affecting more than any individual’s good intentions. For example, our country keeps a military presence, ostensibly defensive, in many other countries. An argument can be made, with a certain Christian cast, that the nation should scale down its defenses and accept a degree of vulnerability. On the other hand, the argument is made, there are real dangers to our people at home and to peoples who need our protection where they live. They cannot be abandoned in order to support our idealistic judgment of ourselves.

Fine for you, my friend; you may be prepared to accept death, but many people around you are not such spiritual heroes. What of them when they are attacked, be that by specific foreign enemies, or other more common things: pain and disease, hunger, loneliness? These things make people small and spiteful, not noble and generous. What about preserving the structures we have built to defend them from their smallness and spite? Are they not worth defending? Does that not bring us back into the death business?

At bottom, the authentic humility of a Christian might be this: we are not permitted to pretend we are above the mire, to pretend that we really live free of death, as if we had the kingdom of heaven in our grasp. We do not. We are bound by all sorts of constraints, like the centurion in Matthew 8:5–10: “a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” Hearing this, despite the man’s role as an oppressor, Jesus pronounces him faithful.

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