Communities come in all shapes and sizes: families, churches, clubs, neighborhoods, towns, states, regions, nations, occupations, places of work, all shapes and sizes. They have values shared among their members, and some of them are core, essential to their identity as a community. When enough people recognize that community core values are being threatened, grass roots movements are likely to rise in their defense. Sometimes, those core values, however important they are to the community, are detrimental to their long term well being, obstructing alternative core values that could be even more beneficial to them. Changing core values is difficult because they are core, essential components of self identity. They are not easily given up.
The churches in Galatia were nominally Christian. Giving up old religions, or no religion, to follow Christ was, I think, sincere. They weren’t pretending. But being known as a Christian didn’t offer social or economic rewards. When it came to core values, their communities valued above all else public respect and recognition as seriously religious people. However important Jesus was to them, following him was not a core value. Paul’s letter, and his work among them, was meant to redirect their understanding of Jesus as the one above all who must be the most important core value in their lives. Public respect and recognition as seriously religious people were not.
What was true for the churches of Galatia remains true for us today. Within the Church there is tremendous tension between competing forces, each claiming the name of Jesus, and each suspecting the others of submitting to demands of popular culture. Some want their churches to be symbols of patriotic America within the context of culturally traditional Christian values. Others want them to follow Jesus by liberating the oppressed and restoring justice, proclaiming it the way of the cross. Among both are those who use the name of Jesus to clothe agendas dedicated to core values displacing from the center the Word of God made Flesh, in whom and through whom all creation exists.
Paul understood, and I try to understand, that Christians, by keeping Jesus at the center of everything said or done, discover there are always ways for conservatives and liberals to work their way through other issues, not always resolving them, but always maintaining the faith that binds them together as disciples. There are also those who can only win or lose, kill or be killed. For them Jesus is never at the center no matter how often his name is used. For them there is always something of greater importance. Whatever it is may be very important indeed, but when Christians allow anything to displace Jesus as the center, the center cannot hold. Interpreting Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” Christians who displace Jesus from the center can no longer hear God speaking above the hubris of their own voices. Whatever they’ve placed at the center cannot hold. It unleashes a form of anarchy that comes when human rules and regulations displace what God has commanded. With enough momentum, it leaves the best of us unsure about where our convictions lie, and fills the worst of us with “passionate intensity.”
No doubt that turns Yeats scholars apoplectically blue. They’ll get over it. In the meantime he described well the Galatian fallacy Paul worked so hard to correct. It’s the same fallacy that infects so many of our congregations and denominations today.
It’s not hard to understand why we easily fall into the Galatian way. Most of us want to live peacefully where a sociopolitical equilibrium predictably holds things together. Jesus was, and continues to be, what is meant by today’s favorite management buzzword, a disrupter. Jesus never ceases to call his disciples to follow him as he breaks down walls of separation, repairs damage caused by injustice, heals the sick and broken, doing it all in the name of God’s abounding and steadfast love. There’s a temptation to let it become a branch of secular progressivism, which is just another way to displace Jesus from the center. It can become the “passionate intensity” that defines the worst of us, both conservative and liberal. Is “all things in moderation” the answer?
The way out is not to be lukewarm. As Jesus said to the church in Laodicia, “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot…because you are lukewarm I am about to spit you out.” (Rev. 3.15ff). To follow Jesus is to follow on the way of the cross, which is the way of life and peace, but it’s a turbulent kind of peace, not at all the sort of peace that comes with a comfortable sociopolitical equilibrium. As John cites Jesus, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14.27) It’s a strange kind of peace, a turbulent peace, but it’s God’s peace that Christians are called to live into.
Sociopolitical equilibriums are never in equilibrium. They’re always coming and going. Whatever they’re able to offer can be enjoyed for a time, but it can never be the center of all. The center of all must always be God, and God alone, whom we Christians know by following where Christ has led. The words Martin Luther King, Jr. used, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” describe the way of the cross. It exists as a part of whatever sociopolitical milieu it finds itself in, but it’s always pushing that milieu toward God’s justice of love and reconciliation. It will always be a disrupter.