The Word Encountered
The Contest of Faith
“I gave them your word, and the world hated them.” (Jn 17:14)
Love is not easily given. Nor is it easily received. And yet the mystery of love is the heart of Christian faith. Its basis is, as the First Letter of John tells us, God’s love for us.
This, for starters, is problematic. God’s plan does not mesh with ours. Contrary to our hunch, our primary task is not to do good works but to believe in God’s love for us revealed in Jesus Christ. Our faith in this love, the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel tells us, is our fundamental work. When we work to believe in this gift, we accept our salvation. And once we accept it, we are empowered and sent to love others. The gist is this: “God loves you, Johnny, so be good,” not: “Be good, Johnny, so God can love you.”
Messages like this can irritate us, especially if we are self-made men and women. We prefer to earn our gifts and grace. Having achieved our salvation, we can then compare ourselves to others, those lesser people who do not make the grade, those publicans and prostitutes. We can also be jealous of those who seem to have gotten more than they deserve—laggards who came in at the eleventh hour.
An even more disturbing aspect of the gospel of love is that we are supposed to give it to other people. Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, called this notion singularly nonsensical. Even to love one’s neighbor as oneself he deems absurd: “Anyone who follows such a precept in present-day civilization only puts himself at a disadvantage.”
The harsh realities of life counsel us that if we love others, they will make a doormat out of us. In fact, the realist in us may suggest that Jesus himself was made a doormat. Had he used our methods, he would have grabbed the world by its neck. He would have mustered armies, enlisted geniuses, and aligned himself with bright strategists. He would have educated the elite and manicured the mighty. No such luck.
The reality principle of the world around us often has contempt for the mystery of love. Its scorn is revealed in those special insults: “You do-gooder,” “you bleeding heart,” “you good Samaritan,” “you turn-the-other-cheek-er.” The most telling ridicule the world heaps upon a believer appropriately slurs the gospel. Of course, “God so loved the world as to give God’s only Son.” But the world also rejects the Word made flesh—and his ilk.
Praying to the Father, Jesus says: “I gave them your word, and the world has hated them for it; they do not belong to the world, any more than I belong to the world.”
As Christians, we are sent into the world as Christ was sent. We are an incarnate people. In terms of our civil societies, we are a people of inculturation. Our faith lives in and through the cultures we inhabit. Herein lies the splendid diversity of all the ways our faith is celebrated. The one mantle of baptism is arrayed resplendent in Leeds, Galway, Nairobi, Santa Fe, or Seoul.
But the Incarnation is also about realities beyond this world and its ways. It is a testimony to truths that extend further than the reach of the earth or any culture. This is why the world will hate the bearer of Christianity. Or at least it should.
Inculturation is not the same as “acculturation.” To become acculturated is to capitulate to the wisdom, myths, and reality of a culture. It reduces the faith to a mere function of ethnicity or ideology, a mere handmaiden of revolution or capitalism. Faith must always resist acculturation, or it will have nothing to say to the world or to the culture. Acculturation tames faith; it makes it a lap dog for pop, rap, or politics.
Herein lies the conflict between faith and culture. Is our culture the last word on reality? Or is there some other truth, some other wisdom which defies our cultural wisdom and dogma? Many resist the possibility. “Face the real world, Father. Money talks. Power talks. If you can’t accept the facts of life, you’re not going to make it in this world.” (Was Judas—the one who would be replaced by Matthias—just being a realist when he deserted the cause?)
Be realistic. “Everybody’s getting a little on the side. Everyone has a price. You have to look out for number one.” Such are the dogmas of cultural indoctrination. They intimidate believers into submission. Cultures that wield such clubs will spurn the gospel and its bearers.
So it happened in the Rome of the Caesars and the Florence of the Medicis. So it happened in Communist Russia and militarized El Salvador (what a strange combination of words). So it happens in capitalist America, where our young are taught that to follow the gospel is to be an unrealistic goof. The world which evangelizes hate will always hate the gospel of love.
Jesus knew this. He prayed for our strength and our protection: “Consecrate them by means of truth—your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
We would have settled for an easier job.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University