Subversives for Christ

The call of Christ is a call to service, or more accurately, a call to servanthood. Jesus pointed out that the way human organizations tend to operate — that is, in a top-down fashion (“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them”) is completely inappropriate for his community of disciples (“Not so with you; instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” [Matt. 20:25-28, NIV]).

Other passages, such as Mark 10:17-27, indicate the difficulty with which a rich man can enter the kingdom of heaven, or even one such as Luke 9:49-50, which suggests that a centralized church organization is likely, even at its most primitive levels, to exclude some authentic workers for Christ.

These passages appear to be woven from a common thread—a picture of the kingdom of God whose structure is not institutional but organic, whose power is not political but personal, whose strength is not in what it can command but in how it can respond, whose persuasive power is drawn not from any form of coercion but from the very freedom of those who are being persuaded.

It is an unfortunate reality of our world that human organizations, however noble their purpose, and however varied their particular structures, hold in common that tendency of which Christ spoke, to have leaders who “lord it over them,” and high officials who “exercise authority over them.”

This is true in governments, unions, corporations, and even (or sometimes, most notably) in religious organizations.

It is hard to imagine a world in which this would not be the case; yet its effect is that power within such structures becomes a nearly universal ambition, and the ability to acquire and exercise such power is admired as a virtue.

Seeing all this, how does a Christian, to whom Jesus has said, “it shall not be so among you,” behave, especially if, as is undoubtedly the case with most of us, he or she is already immersed to some degree in one or more such structures? This is a large question, with easy answers not readily available. Some directions are suggested by the gospel:

1. In the case of several of the Apostles, the initial answer was a clean break. Andrew, Peter, James, and John all left their nets (by which they were entangled in the socioeconomic order) and followed Jesus. To a rich young ruler who valued his possessions too highly Jesus said, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor; then come and follow me.” Failure to heed this particular call presumably prevented that young man from entering the Kingdom. (Note that Jesus did not say, “Give me all you have and I will distribute it ot the poor.” No centralized organizational strategy for redistributing wealth is suggested by the gospel.)

2. If the approach taken by the Apostles (at Jesus’ bidding) is a bit too radical for modern sensibilities, we might take comfort from some further observations. When Jesus extolled the faith of the Roman centurion (Matt. 8:10), he did so without placing any requirement on him such as that placed on the rich young ruler. there is also nothing to suggest with certainty that Zachaeus did not, after divesting himself of his illicit profits, return to the occupation that made such profit-taking possible. Isn’t it quite possible that the presence of a humble and honest tax-collector might be as remarkable a sight, and as effective a Christian witness, as a former tax-collector turned itinerant preacher (namely, Matthew)?

Nowhere does Christ call for an overthrow of the existing social order, though certain individuals seem called to specific forms of non-participation in that order. The rest of us, on some basic level, are called upon to reject the values embodied in it, to be aware that we are infiltrators and subversives in a system (=cosmos/world-order) that is at heart hostile to our own loyalties. We are in it, but not of it.

This infiltration is not of the sort we think of in the modern sense of political espionage, but is the infiltration, as Jesus put it, of sheep among wolves (Matt. 10:16). When our foremost goal is to make the love of God in Jesus Christ known to individuals, and we use our position within social, political, or business organizations to further that goal, we may well find ourselves, like it or not, subverting the organization’s goal of prestige, power, or profit.

A good case in how this infiltration works might be found in the Apostle Paul. He participated in many of the established institutions of his day: the synagogues, philosophical debates in Athens, temple worship at Jerusalem, and the Roman judicial system. Yet he used each of these for the “furtherance of the gospel” rather than any other purpose, and in fact he seems to have been exposed quite regularly as an infiltrator and subversive in the eyes of his contemporaries, for whom his manner of using the system appeared, to put it mildly, inappropriate. Rightly so, from the point of view of those for whom the preservation of the system was the first order of business.

From that perspective, someone who might use the system to gain personal power, (generally seen as, we have noted, a commendable motive) would become dangerous only when that power began to be great enough to threaten the structural integrity of the system; but equally dangerous would be the individual who, like Paul, used the system to promote a message that repudiates power-seeking. (For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake…. Love works no ill to his neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law.)

If we take seriously the command of Christ to let our ambitions—all of them—be ambitions to serve rather than to be served, we might well want to reexamine the way the Bible uses words like power, authority, submission, and obedience. We might, then, ask ourselves whether our lives, individually and corporately, conform more to our Lord or to the “lords of the Gentiles.”

Such discussions, I think, are needed in the church; and these comments are offered more as a suggestion of the sort of thing that might be fruitfully explored than as a dogmatic statement of any type. We who seek to faithfully follow our Lord would do well to explore the notion of servanthood as something central to the personhood of Christ, the message of the gospel, and the role of the Church in the world.

Robert C. Buehler


[The above article was published in Vital Christianity, vol. 108, no. 6, on May 18, 1986. It appeared on page 13 clearly marked “Opinion.” Except for a poem or two, it was the author’s only published material for ten or more years thereafter.]

A modern prophecy

Thus says the Lord:
Woe to the ones who are satisfied with their comfort,
and do not regard the discomfort of their brothers!
Woe to those who prepare for war in the name of peace,
who shut the door in the face of the poor
and call it security.
Woe to thoe who scheme their own safety.
They shall not be safe.
Woe to my people who would throw off the oppressor
with the tools of oppression.
They shall reap oppression as their reward.
But here is how you must fight,
And here is how you must survive:
Seek not your own survival
But the survival of the one who cannot ask for it.
Resist those who do wrong by doing right,
Openly and without fear; do not be like them.
The thief cannot steal what you freely give him.
No anger can survive in a house of kindness.

Faith, Theology, and the Question of Truth

So, the bottom line is, that —first of all—no amount of theology can substitute for faith; second, no amount of theology is prerequisite to faith. How then does hearing come by the word of God?  Simple:  the word of God is the word that God speaks, which is personal and immediate, rather than the words spoken about God, which are general and to some degree impersonal.  What value is there then in theology?  That is like asking what value there is in breathing.  The man of faith can no more avoid doing theology than he can avoid breathing.  This is no more than to say that man is a rational creature and by nature applies thought to all his experiences.  But one cannot gain an experience by thinking about it; nor can he think about an experience in a full and meaningful way until he has had it.  Certainly he can talk of it, based upon the testimony and experience of others who have had it (or claiim to have had it), but he can in no way speak, as we say, with any kind of authority concerning it.  In other words, if we may be as blunt as possible:  Faith happens when one encounters God, and such an encounter can be described (in some measure), meditated on, discussed, used as a basis for all kinds of logical conclusions; but none of those descriptions or discussion or conclusions can produce faith.  Only God meeting man can do that.

On Faith and Understanding

“Faith is a present awareness of the living Reality of God. It is not an intellectual assent, based on the reasonableness of an argument; it is not a willing suspension of disbelief, despite the unreasonableness of an assertion. It is possible to exercise faith in the absence of any understanding of it; but to seek in faith to understand it, to give it reasonable expression, does not destroy it. But to imagine that the understanding of faith will do for faith itself is to destroy it, for this involves reliance on the understanding, not on God. To speak of faith at all is in fact to risk being misunderstood, to risk misunderstanding oneself; to remember faith also is not faith, for faith is the encounter with the eternal, which can never be removed from the present moment. Nevertheless, to remember in faith one of faith’s experiences is to bring that event, which belongs to eternity, into the present moment; so it is that the command to “do this in remembrance of Me” can be obeyed in faith, for in faith the remembrance becomes the present experience…”

—R. Buehler 12/4/84

The paradox of man

The following fragment is transcribed from yellow notebook paper and was probably written in the early 1980s…. I’d guess at around 1984.   Hence it is backdated here accordingly.

Man is an amazingly paradoxical creature.  Sin and holiness, greed and generosity, covetousness and contentedness can seemingly coexist within the individual.  A man can speak of sacrificial love while neglecting his family — of brotherhood while tolerating all kinds of prejudice — of respect and virtue while lusting after the body of a young girl….

If it were not true that Love covers a multitude of sins, then there would be no escape, not for a moment, from all kinds of sinfulness…. it is obvious that Grace, Mercy and Peace must needs be multiplied toward even the best, the wisest, the holiest of people…. or even they would destroy each other with Law, Severity, and War.

The only possible source of real joy is a living God … for it is only with such a God that all things are possible… and the gates of hell can only prevail when there are no possibilities….

(I cannot help but hope that in the heart of God there remains yet a mystery, an enterprise of Love more costly than yet has been imagined, to bring a light to the outermost darkness and sanctify the flames themselves, so that wrath and judgment will themselves be seen to be vehicles of grace and works of redemption.  Not that I imagine these things to be less terrible for all that… but if my heart can hope against all hope, then the God of hope himself must be (I hope) the source of that.  At any rate, we’ll see.)

Another modern prophecy

Thus says the Lord:

Why do you multiply arguments and opinions
and neglect my clear commands?
Surely I have indulged your willful blindness
and your excessive self-importance. Do not presume upon your Father
that his love extends to you only
and not to those whom you oppress by your negligence.
Are you here to no purpose
But to grow fat and comfortable
And play games with your knowledge about God?

But you have not yet known me,
or you would follow after me.
As it is, you cannot distinguish my voice,
though it be like thunder,
From the confusion that surrounds you:
because you do not want to hear it.

Let me tell you simply:
He who strives to preserve his life at another’s cost has killed himself.
But I want you to know that if you follow me,
you are already dead
with regard to those things that could have threatened your life.

An attempt at a narrative Style

An attempt at a narrative Style

We took the night train from Edinburgh to Birmingham, on our way to Stratford-upon-Avon. One encounters an interesting class of people in an economy car at night. Some read, many sleep, a few write furiously in their notebooks. Others talk loudly and carelessly, with no apparent concern for anyone but themselves. A group of these sat across from us, drinking beer and playing cards, and I watched them through the reflection in the window.
They were soldiers, obviously soldiers. They wore no uniforms, but by their haircuts, their careless, worldly manner, and the duffle-bags each had slung on the rack overhead, it was impossible to mistake them.  Probably they were on leave, on their way to the city to spend their money in whatever wild ways they could find.
And, they were young.  Nineteen, I guess, or twenty, not more than that. I rather doubt that most of them had to shave yet every day; probably all of them did anyhow. One I watched for a long time who seemed younger than the rest.  All I could see in my window was the reflected image of his profile, the right side of his face. From that profile I gained the impression that he still retained some of the happiness of childhood, ready to talk and listen about any subject, not questioning what was said to him and taking genuine pleasure in the fellowship of his companions, and seeming unaware of their worldly-wise coarseness and cynicism. All this was communicated to me by the smoothness of the right side of his face and forehead, his right eye which was wide open, and the simple upward curve of the right side of his mouth.
Only once or twice did I glance at him directly across the aisle, and saw his other profile in the window to his left. Here his mouth was still curved, but with a slight wrinkle to it; his left eye somewhat narrowed with the eyebrow tilting toward the nose; his forehead slightly lined. How subtle the difference, yet how total the change! If I had met that right profile at a party, I would have instantly recognized a friendly, open person, but young and perhaps in need of some protection and encouragement; yet that left side revealed a suspicion, a cynicism, a self-sufficiency, a youth not untouched by the rough edges of the world, but on his guard and hostile to my strange and prying eyes.

The Anabaptists

The first real academic research paper I ever wrote, as as undergrad in 1977. For what it’s worth, the subject matter has helped shape my understanding of history and is important today for the public discourse about separation of church and state, among other things. Continue reading “The Anabaptists”

Living Water

June 13, 1976, 12:42 AM, Anderson, Indiana

 To meditate on God, His Word and Wisdom, is more rest to me than many hours’ sleep.

 O God, sleep has left me tonight.  Yet weariness, also, seems far away.

 My thoughts have been of you.  Oh, the books of theology, the hours of sermons, I could write & preach, from these nocturnal meditations!!  Yet let me not grasp at them like Alice at the reeds, lest I too find the loveliest just beyond reach, and those that I collect melting away in my hands.  For if these thoughts must go in a book, I think I can trust You to give again what I have lost…. and if indeed I must preach on these same topics, still must it not be Your Word, fresh and new, and spoken to me just as freshly by your spirit, lest I give, instead of the Bread of Life, stale crumbs from my own attic?  How easily is Living Water transformed into a stagnant pool!  One has only to stop its flow and try to store it for later (as with Midas and his gold, or even certain Israelites with their manna).  

Witness the miserly one going daily to drink of his little pool, finding it daily more stale and muddy and distasteful…. till he complains against the One who first promised him and gave him that Living water which… if he would but turn and look…. is still springing from the Fountain, free for whosoever will.

 What needs to be destroyed is the work & labor of his own hands… namely, that dam he has built that would keep the water from flowing where and as fast as it would.

This is the parable.  If I have eyes to see, when I read it again, the interpretation will need no explanation.  1:17 AM