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caligraphy pen, Petar Milošević, Wikimedia commons

Readers Respond: Issue 15

Letters to the Editor

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We welcome letters to the editor. Letters and web comments may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium. Letter should be sent with the writer’s name and address to letters@plough.com.

Winners or Losers?

On Peter Mommsen’s “The Church We Need Now,” Autumn 2017: Peter Mommsen claims that the Anabaptist Reformation not only “matters,” but “won,” and tells why. He knows that it is very unbaptistic to make extravagant claims that “we’re number one.” But he does point to three reforms, neglected or disdained when Anabaptist movements were formed in the sixteenth century, whose teachings and practices made them look like “losers,” or made them to be losers when the hangmen from the other four versions [of the Reformation: Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican, and Catholic] defeated or even killed them….

Is this boasting? At the end, Mommsen acknowledges some specialty weaknesses that do not deserve to be praised or copied. This cluster of Protestants did not “win,” as ­Mommsen’s article claims. But its witness is heard and its effects are still seen where religious freedom, nonviolence, and community are present in fresh ways.

Martin E. Marty, Chicago, IL
From the blog
Sightings: Religion and Public Life, November 27, 2017

Thirty years ago I wrote a book (Theology in Postliberal Perspective) suggesting that these three concepts – freedom of belief, pacifist nonviolence, and a communal ethos of mutual aid and support – were the central features of Anabaptist spirituality and practice, on which a church of the future could thrive. That book found much better reception outside of the Anabaptist churches than within, so I am quite heartened to read this essay by Peter Mommsen today!

Daniel Liechty, Normal, IL

The Church’s Politics

On George Weigel’s “Re-Forming the Church,” Autumn 2017: I am in agreement with George Weigel’s understanding of what makes authentic reform in the Church. I disagree, however, with his understanding of the example that he gives: the Catholic Church’s affirmation of religious freedom at Vatican II. According to Weigel, Vatican II’s declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, represented a rejection of the “thesis” that the best arrangement of church–state relations would be an “establishment” of the Church, in which temporal power recognized the authority of spiritual power and the truth of the Faith. His has been the conventional reading of Dignitatis humanae. But the document itself explicitly excludes such a reading, stating that it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” As recent interpreters such as Thomas Pink have demonstrated, Vatican II’s affirmation of religious freedom is fully consistent with the soul–body model of Church–state relations taught by popes such as Leo XIII.

Yes, what the Church needs most are witnesses on fire with the love of Christ. But such persons should be the first to recognize that loving Christ means ordering all things to him, including political societies. All political action is concerned with realizing the good, and things can only be adequately judged good with respect to the highest good and last end. It is therefore impossible for political action to be “neutral” with respect to the last end: either it will order itself to the true good in God, or to a false idol.

Weigel claims that establishment leads to secularization, whereas disestablishment leads to the Church prospering and growing. But it is hard to see how this claim holds up with a view to current trends. Secularization has only accelerated more and more since European nations gave up establishment. And even the United States, which once seemed exceptional in that regard, now seems to be catching up with Europe.

Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., Austria

George Weigel responds: Thesis–hypothesis was, as I understand it, not a matter of doctrine but of theological opinion, so my claims about Dignitatis humanae are not affected by the citation from the document quoted by Father Waldstein.

As for establishment contributing to the decline of Christianity under conditions of modernity, I offer Father Waldstein the examples of Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Quebec, where the Church leaned heavily on state support in one form or another – and the faith collapsed within two generations when the tidal wave of cultural sludge let loose in the Sixties overwhelmed those societies. Poland, where the bishops are too publicly identified today with one political party, might ponder this experience.

I would be interested to know if Father Waldstein believes (along with Father John Courtney Murray, SJ, one of the intellectual architects of Dignitatis humanae) that the natural law can provide a public moral grammar for the ordering of societies, one that can function amidst confessional differences. That would seem at least one possible alternative to either states becoming theological actors again, or the impending dictatorship of relativism of which Pope Benedict XVI warned.

As Father Waldstein may know, I am fully committed to the New Evangelization, a position I laid out in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church. But having President Donald Trump publicly recognize Jesus Christ as King of the United States of America hardly strikes me as something that would advance the cause of the gospel.

Last Christians in Iraq?

On Andreas Knapp’s “The Last of the First Christians,” Autumn 2017: After working in Iraq over the past fifteen years with Christian Peacemaker Teams, I am always glad when people voice their concern about the people of Iraq. I was touched by the love Andreas Knapp showed in dropping his work to accompany his new refugee friend, Yousif, back to northern Iraq.

I have difficulty, though, with some of Knapp’s statements. Yes, large numbers of jihadists from all over the Muslim world came to Iraq in response to the 2003 US invasion, and threatened some Christians because they aligned them with the “Christian” United States, but Iraqi Christians were not their main target. They bombed mosques, especially Shia mosques, as well as churches. Other targets included sites connected with US forces and the Iraqi police forces as well as general public sites. The goal was to destabilize society and get rid of US occupation. In some places Muslims did take advantage of the chaos to drive out or even kill their Christian neighbors. But there was never a large-scale jihad or genocide against Christians.

What Knapp writes about protection money happened in some places, particularly in Mosul, but was not widespread elsewhere. I related to many Christians and church groups in southern and central Iraq, but had never heard of a Christian tax until ISIS took over Mosul and enacted it more widely there. ISIS gave most Christians in Mosul the choice of leaving the city or paying the tax.

Since the US invasion, criminal gangs in Iraq have kidnapped and sometimes killed many Christians for the purpose of extracting money, but not proportionally more than Muslims. When ISIS occupied parts of Iraq in 2014, it destroyed or took over a number of Christian churches. Violence against Christians increased. There were some Christians killed by ISIS, but in general Shia Muslims and Yezidi people fared worse. The Yezidis were the most systematically targeted, to the degree that this could be labeled “genocide.” That doesn’t make the times Christians were killed, threatened, or forced from their homes any less horrible, or lessen the witness of those Christians who were killed for refusing to deny their faith. But there hasn’t been, and isn’t currently, a widespread genocide against Christians or an attempt to stamp out Christianity in Iraq.

In spite of my concerns with this article, my hope for readers of Knapp’s book is that they will come away with more compassion for displaced Christians, Muslims, and Yezidis from Iraq (and for displaced Christians from Palestine, and the Muslim Rohingya people currently being killed, abused, and displaced), and become more committed to witness against such wars of aggression that led to the suffering Knapp describes.

Peggy Gish, Athens, OH

a woman looking surprised at a book and leaning against a blue wall René Magritte, The Submissive Reader Image from WikiArt (public domain)

Doing the Little Things Better

On Claudio Oliver’s “The Unplanned Church,” Autumn 2017: Claudio, your life and community continue to shape our own here in Kentucky as we, too, seek to be more faithful to our human vocation. I write this looking out over beds of winter greens, watching the chickens dig out the flesh from pumpkins, as songbirds flit from tree to tree, easily visible in the bare branches. We are surrounded by beauty and goodness – gifts of a generous and loving Creator. And they continually ask me: “Are my neighbors sharing in this goodness?” “What more can we do to share in this goodness together?”

Sean Gladding, Lexington, KY 

I love thinking of a sense of reduction as God’s call – as a church, when do we do too much? How can we simplify and do the little things better – welcoming neighbors, responding to needs, listening, and loving?

Nathan Hill, New Carrolton, MD

Both Old and Young

On Jin Kim’s “Time for a New Reformation,” Autumn 2017: I am thankful for the witness of the Church of All Nations, and the discernment that Pastor Kim has been given regarding the spirit of the times. Indeed, the church in America is suffering from an identity crisis. Have we grown tired and weary of trying to characterize and measure ourselves by a standard apart from Christ, and him crucified? No wonder so many leave the church: we are shaped by a culture that demands our own comforts and rights, and then we build churches that attempt to cater to these egoisms.

I’m grateful to be experiencing the kind of transformation Pastor Jin describes here in Chattanooga, as part of the New City East Lake community. We are seeking to be the body of Christ in an urban neighborhood that has historically been torn apart by the racial tensions and divisions typical of the American South. In addition, recent decades have brought a large contingency of Latino neighbors as well, adding another layer of cultural complexity. Our call is to witness to God’s promised kingdom as a worshiping community reconciled across these cultural lines by living and working together in East Lake.

It is not without much struggle, pain, and brokenness, but we are also seeking to be rooted in Jesus and the tradition of “radical faithfulness to the God of Israel.” I thank God for communities like CAN and the Bruderhof for keeping the fire burning.

Joshua Livingston, Chattanooga, TN

I wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that young people are searching for vocation, healthy relationships, community, concreteness in a virtual world, and authentic faith. But it’s not just young people – don’t count us gray heads out! In addition to being multiethnic, a vibrant Christian community must be multigenerational. Having said that, I admire what you are doing, especially that you are doing it within the framework of a mainline denomination! You have inspired me. But if I don’t find a framework, I might have to start something.

Al Owski, Commerce Township, MI

Jin Kim responds: I believe that a vibrant congregation will reflect the diversity of the surrounding context, including generational diversity. At Church of All Nations we are truly blessed to have every generation represented in our congregational life. The younger generation shows honor and affection to the older, the older generation passes on hard-earned wisdom to the younger, and those in the middle serve as pillars of support to the very young and old.

Where Is Your Hope?

On Rowan Williams’s “The Two Ways,” Autumn 2017: There is a close relationship between loyalty and hope. Dr. Williams has helpfully depicted the remarkable shift in allegiance that marked out the early Christian church. Jews and Greeks, Romans and Syrians, and many more surrendered their tribal and national and familial and religious allegiances and embraced, through baptism, a new loyalty to Christ. It may be better to say that through faith and baptism they were embraced into a new loyalty. In any event, it was indeed a new and, as Dr. Williams reminds us, an unprecedented challenge to the loyalty systems of the time.

This new loyalty to Christ as Lord carried with it a new hope. What else but hope could embolden a young Roman woman to seek out the Lord’s Supper at risk of life itself? What else but hope could take “death-cell philo­sophy” and fill it with gospel joy? If by faith and baptism God embraced these Romans into Christ, adopting them as children, and granting them citizenship in heaven, then theirs was the happy hope of “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven…,” for they were guarded by God’s power (1 Pet. 1:4–5). Loyalty to Christ and hopefulness in Christ cannot be separated.

But that carries a troubling implication: If loyalty to Christ and hopefulness go together, then what does it mean when hope deteriorates? Imagine a Christian community that is captivated by (for instance) the state: sometimes distrustful and hostile toward it, other times fiercely defensive of it, but always fascinated by it. Imagine further that over time the Christian community’s frustration and contentment rises and falls on the ­political cycle. Might this imply that the Christian community had atrophied in its hope? Could it be that such patterns implied that the state had become the object of hope rather than the Lord who embraced the church? And if this be granted, might it be that an atrophied hope implies a deteriorated loyalty to Christ?

I imagine a young Roman slave girl, walking early in the morning through the streets of Ephesus, eager to join her true family in the celebration of her Lord’s Supper. She is defying her state, but she does not hate Caesar. She loves Christ. And it is her love for Christ – her loyalty to the Lord who gave her true citizenship at his expense – that fills her with hope and joy in the face of a regime ready to put her in a death cell. Her hope does not rise and fall with the cycles of regimes, for her inheritance is stable and secure. She turns and looks at me, and I know the question: Where is your hope, and who is your Lord?

Jim Saladin, New York, NY

All Ploughed Up

The little congregation I am serving is deeply divided, not only politically but also in terms of how to respond and minister to gays and lesbians. I feel so incapable to be the peacemaker among them. I long for community and the Plough issues give me great hope and comfort, and I use excerpts as examples in my sermons.

Ruth Aukerman, Union Bridge, MD

I received my new issue of the Plough today. Once again, I’m floored by its breadth and depth, and the sheer integrity of the overall undertaking. I’ve been struggling a lot recently with health issues and with a concomitant shakiness of faith; the Plough goes a long way towards reigniting that light that George Fox so famously called us all to heed.

Chris Faatz, Silverton, OR

We love reading the Plough. Your graphics are so wonderful, and I’ve often cut them out. For example, we have your design of “God’s ­Grandeur” pasted on our mirror to have something to really look at and meditate on.

Willa Bickham, Viva Catholic Worker House, Baltimore, MD

a red haired woman in a yellow dress leaning on a table reading a book Aaron Shikler, Woman Reading (The Artist’s Wife) Image from readingandart.blogspot.com
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