As readers of this blog know, I have taken some comfort and instruction during this pandemic from the writings of Anglican clergyman and Oxford University theologian N.T. Wright. Churches may be closed, but the church–as the Christian people of God–still speak and act in the world. But what should this kind of acting and speaking look like?
In his book God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today, Wright writes:
…when God wants to change the world he doesn’t send in the tanks…he sends in the meek, the mourners, the merciful, the hungry-for-justice people, the peacemakers, the incoruptibly pure in heart. That was never a list of qualities you need to try to work at in order to get to heaven. It was always a list of human characteristics though which God would bring his kingdom on earth as in heaven. That is how God works. And by the time the bullies and the arrogant have woken up to what’s happening, the meek and the mourners and the merciful have built hospitals and schools; they are looking after the sick and the wounded; they are feeding the hungry and rescuing the helpless; and they are telling the powerful and the vested-interest people that this is what a genuinely human society looks like…
The church has another role in times like this.
Here is Wright from Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues:
From pre-Christian Judaism to the present, God’s people have claimed the right and responsibility to speak truth to power, sometimes with words, often with bodies. Martydom has frequently been the most powerful statement of all. The post-Enlightenment world has developed two other ways of speaking truth to power, but neither has done the job well.
On the one hand, we have opposition parties, which easily generate a two-party-culture-war polarization, which both Britain and the United States suffer from. Every issue is seen in black-and-white terms of us and them…
On the other hand, we have the electronic and print media, the increasingly complex world of journalism that takes on itself responsibility of holding government, and indeed the opposition, to account…
These two methods of speaking truth to power–official opposition parties and the media–regularly fail. As we all know, opposition parties often collude with governmental folly and wickedness, and newspapers can easily egg them on in precisely those areas where critique is most needed. The church’s vocation of speaking truth to power has thus been taken over by two systems that aren’t up to the job. We urgently need the voice of Christian wisdom to approve that which is excellent and to call to account that which isn’t. Of course, when we try to do that, the media regularly tries to rule the church out of order, not just because it doesn’t like what we might say but because we are treading on turf they took from us, and they don’t want us to have it back. So, once again, we have colluded with this diminishing role and God-given vocation; or, worse, we have been herded like sheep into the lobby of this or that party, swept along on agendas we assume too readily to be God’s agendas and unable to differentiate between the whim of the party and the conscience of the Christian.
Acts of love and mercy. Speaking truth to power. That is pretty good advice to build on.