Life After Injustice in the Church

In a tearful, faltering, sobbing voice, the man cried out, “What should I say to my boy if I took money from you for our shame?”

Captain Snegiryov, Brothers Karamazov

Captain Snegiryov isn’t a major Brothers K. character at all.  He is publicly beaten by the hotheaded Dmitri Karamazov for no particular reason and yanked around Town Square by his beard.  All the townspeople laugh at the sight, except for the captain’s son.  He begs the crowd for help with tears in his eyes before kissing Dmitri’s hand and begging for mercy.  When Alyosha Karamazov, Dmitri’s kind brother, finds out what happened, he tries to make amends with Captain Snegiryov.  The man is poor.  He lives in a wretched shack.  Half of his family has disabilities, and none of them are capable of working.  200 rubles would change his life, and Alyosha (who runs in some particularly wealthy circles) wants to help… but the scene ends in disaster.  The captain realizes that taking money from one of the wealthy Karamazovs after his humiliation would prove to his son that the rich can do whatever they want to the poor, and justice is dictated by the powerful.  In a deeply conflicted moment, he throws the money on the ground at Alyosha’s feet and storms away in tears.  His integrity demands he not accept their money, but that same sense of integrity has doomed him and his family to a life of poverty.

His cry for justice resonated with me this week as I’ve been pondering how we address injustice in our churches.  Anybody who’s been in a church knows that sin happens, often in a way that never gets addressed.  Time passes and circumstances improve, tempting us to move on from our frustration and live into the new, comfortable norm.  But should we?  Does forgiveness involve letting go of injustices that will never be accounted for?  Or is accepting the new post-frustration reality the equivalent of taking our 200 rubles and selling out? 

A few asides before I investigate: I want to avoid the standard response of, “well, if mistakes were made in the church, you should seek out a leadership position and do your best to make sure they don’t happen again.”  Churches are massive entities, often with deeply entrenched power structures, and change takes years of work to realize.  Being wronged shouldn’t condemn the victim to years of work in the hope of making a difference.  And what about people whose talents lie elsewhere?  Should they be pressed into leadership because they were sinned against?  I hope not.  I also recognize that as a person in church leadership, I’ve made wrong choices. Not all of my decisions were the right ones, or even fair ones for that matter, and it definitely frustrated people. Leadership is hard.  Every decision has the chance of being unpopular or erroneous.  I hope the ones that I’ve made haven’t pushed anyone out of churches I’ve served in, but I am as much a perpetrator of injustice as I am a victim. I don’t get to rail against the authority, since I’m a part of it.

Onward to the question!

It’s not that sin within the institutional church is especially rare.  Gobs of famous saints were persecuted by other Christians.  There’s St. John of the Cross (thrown in prison), John Chrysostom (exiled), Evagrius Ponticus (anathematized after death and followers persecuted) , John Calvin (exiled, attacked), Martin Luther (exiled, anathematized, attacked)… you get the picture.  Churches are supposed to be beacons of hope!  The hands and feet of God!  The joy and goodness of the future on Earth now!  But here are some of our famous saints, beaten down by the very hands that were supposed to hold them up.  Some of the frustration can obviously be chalked up to the fact that they were usually persecuted by people who didn’t recognize them as properly Christian, but that doesn’t change the fact that institutional churches (full of people that bare the title ‘Christian’) have historically caused a great deal of injustice against the very people that they now recognize as worth listening to.

What do we do with the memory of injustice after we are hurt?  How do we honor our integrity while moving on?

All of this got me to go pick up Martyrs Mirror.  I stumbled across this Anabaptist classic during a day of community service about 10 years back.  I was assigned to washing windows throughout the town with a Mennonite lady.  I wasn’t much good at washing windows.  I swear I tried my best, but I was a 21 year old guy with a messy apartment and she had spent over 10 years as a housekeeper.  As you can imagine we had different standards of cleanliness.   I’d see a spotless window and she’d see a mess. In any case, we got to chatting as she politely redid my work, and somehow she brought up Martyrs Mirror.  I told her I’d never heard of it and she insisted that every Mennonite household owned one before sharing some stories from it.

It’s turned out to be a great tool to help work through some of this.  The early Anabaptists (a broad category of Christians including modern Mennonites and Amish) were pretty much killed by everyone when they first popped up in Reformation-era Europe.  It didn’t matter if you were Lutheran, Calvinist, or Catholic; you probably hated Anabaptists.  Martyrs Mirror is their book of remembrance.  Here, they weaved together the accounts of their persecution with the historical stories of persecution from Christian tradition, both in the institutional church and outside of it.  On one page, there’s someone who died for witnessing their faith in a region where Christianity was punishable by death.  On the next, you’ll find someone who was destroyed from within the church for getting behind an unpopular doctrine or making the wrong enemies.  They moved beyond the triumphal stories of people who won handily in the church through sheer prestige and charisma (lookin’ at you, Augustine) and sought out the stories of the wronged to find solidarity.  In these pages, there’s no sense that good theology or good people will win the day.  If anything, bad theology and bad people win far more often than you’d hope!  Real Christians face real pain, both in the church and outside it. Faith isn’t always about thriving materially in this world, so much as witnessing beautifully to it.

The intro cuts right to the core of the work:

Most beloved, do not expect that we shall bring you into Grecian theatres, to gaze on merry comedies or gay performances… True enough, we shall lead you into dark valleys, even into the valleys of death (Ps. 23:4),where nothing will be seen but dry bones, skulls, and frightful skeletons of those who have been slain…Yet to look upon all this will not cause real sadness, for though the aspect is dismal ac-cording to the body, the soul will nevertheless rejoice in it, seeing that not one of all those who were slain preferred life to death, since life often was proffered them on condition that they depart from the constancy of their faith.

Martyrs Mirror, 10

You’re not about to get your happy worlly show.  That’s right out.  Instead, you’ll get something morbid: death.  But this death is livelier than anything that Homer could churn out.  This is the vital death of Christ that we have the privilege of living out.

The imagery moving forward is distinctly triumphal.  These are heroes, fighting in glorious combat, seizing the ultimate prize. At one particularly noteworthy part, they reference “the knight of Christ” (no idea who he is) who was killed.  The resulting theological poem, Accolade to a Champion, is downright Arthurian:

Climb up your golden height, champion of the band of holy souls, who followed God’s red banner of blood, in oppression and in the midst of misery; where naught but the smoke and vapor of human burnt sacrifices ascended to the clouds; yet thou, hero, didst go before them, yea, didst fight thy way through the strait gate to the wide Heaven.

Martyrs Mirror, 11

It’s worth mentioning that Anabaptists are traditionally peace churches.  All violence is considered to be a sin.  It’s better to die than to kill.  Here, traditional heroic imagery of the brave knight is subverted to make the murdered victim the hero of renown.  It’s certainly not an unheard of stylistic choice, but it seems especially powerful when it’s used by someone for whom violence was never an option.  You know that at they genuinely believe, even in tremendous suffering, that “all things work together for good to them that love God,” (Rom.8:28).

There’s a million martyr stories in this book, but one that I’ve always held up as particularly awesome (and that the window washing Mennonite particularly enjoyed) is the story of Dirk Willems.  Dirk got arrested for being an Anabaptist in the Catholic Netherlands.  He managed to escape the prisons by making a rope out of bed sheets, and he was running across a frozen lake to his freedom with a guard hot on his heels.  Dirk was so malnourished from his time in prison that he could run across the ice without trouble, but the guard had eaten well while Dirk starved.  The ice broke beneath him, and he fell in, screaming for help.  Dirk heard the guard’s cry for help and turned around. He pulled the drowning guard out of the freezing water.  His choice to help was a costly one: he was recaptured, tortured, and burned at the stake. He saved the man who doomed him.

There’s not many stories that illustrate injustice as well as this one, but Dirk isn’t remembered because the Catholic Church must now be punished, or because Anabaptists are now obligated to create structures that somehow correct the problems that occurred in this instance.  The remembrance isn’t a burden; it’s a joy.  Dirk was a hero.  We remember him because we hope to be like him, and ultimately, like Jesus.

What do we do with our injustices?  How do we remember them?  Maybe we don’t.  We remember the good that was done in spite of the evil that was wrought.  That’s not to say we’re barred from seeking change or finding a new community to be with if the hurt is too much to bear, but we can’t count on the institutional church to be just! It is limited by ignorance, sin, and flaws just as much as anything in this world.  The only way to move forward after injustice is the hardest way of all: be the Christian we’re meant to be.  Forgive the sinners. Shine with all the holiness that God offers and know that regardless of what our church did or what it does in the future, we are free to be what God called us to be: a saint.

Becoming God: Gregory Of Nazianzus and Theosis

Gregory’s poetry is inseparable from theosis.  If you can’t quite remember what that is, or don’t know, theosis is the Eastern Christian doctrine that the ultimate goal of humanity is to become God.  If your heresy alarm is going off, don’t worry.  Nobody is becoming a lightning-bolt flinging god in and of themselves.  It’s more nuanced than that.

A lot of the nuance comes down to understanding essence and energy.  Humanity is supposed to become a part of God’s energy (his action in the world), but is incapable of becoming a part of his essence (his core being). Consider the classic example of the sun.  Can you see the sun?  No, actually.  You can’t see it at all. You can see the sun’s rays.  The sun is that burning ball of gas that sends off the rays of light that we see.  All the same, when we look up at the sky, we don’t say that we see the sun’s rays of light.  We say that we see the sun!  The essence of the sun would be that burning ball of gas, while the rays would be the energy of the sun.  Both are considered “the sun,” but one is the sun proper, while the other is actually the product of the sun’s action that is tied to it’s identity.

Consider God to be like the sun.  God’s essence is that is so holy and beyond our understanding that we can’t look at him directly (Exodus 33:20).  We can’t be this all-powerful, all-holy, pure being! That is for God and God alone. But sometimes we might say, “I saw God today in that person’s actions!”  We didn’t see the burning, mind-blowing essence of God; we saw his energy, or the action of God throughout the world.  Through theosis we become God, but we don’t become his essence.  As creations, we participate in God’s energy, and thus become him since his action in the world is a part of who he is.

As cheesy as it is, we are not the Son.  We are the Son’s rays of light (which are a part of the Son).

It’s a very participatory understanding of God, and one that’s thoroughly ancient.  For example, Athanasius (the guy who usually gets credit for establishing that Jesus is actually God) coined the popular phrase: “God became man so that man might become God.” (54:3, On the Incarnation). 

Gregory’s writing is absolutely soaked in the same logic.  For example, who could read this line from On the Son without hearing the logic of Athanasius?

through Christ’s sufferings, you may become God hereafter (48-49, On the Son)

Similarly, his poetry on the Father and the Holy Spirit both include references to humanity’s ultimate theosis:

Oh Spirit of God, may you waken my mind and tongue
As a loud-shouting clarion of truth, so that all
may rejoice who are united to the entire Godhead. (23-25, On the Father)

God’s gift [is] his own divinity. (On the Holy Spirit, 54)

To properly understand the Triune God, he expects people to understand how they’re being asked to become a part of it. You can’t know God without knowing how he’s inviting you to join the divine life.

The theme of theosis isn’t limited to those God-centric poems either. In considering the world and humanity’s ultimate journey towards heaven, he writes:

Of these worlds, the first-born was that other heaven,
The region of those who bear the divine, perceptible to minds only,
All-luminous; To it the man of God wends his way from here
Later, once he’s perfected as god, purified in mind and flesh. (95-96, Concerning the World)

Again and again, waves of theosis crash over the reader.  We are expected to become one with God. 

Why is it so hard to imagine someone saying this in a Western church today?

I’ve seen a few writers attempt to answer that question by blaming the way Westerners think about knowledge.  Western knowledge is often understood to be knowledge about something.  This type of knowledge is a dispassionate, supposedly objective, factual sort of understanding. Science textbooks are full of this kind of knowledge.  For example, if I look up knowledge about an apple, I might learn where it best grows, what it’s Latin name is, and how many of them were sold commercially last year.  All of this is technically true, but removed from the more intimate knowledge that comes from a genuine, firsthand experience with an apple. People who have knowledge of an apple know what it tastes like, they know the tension of an apple’s skin beneath their teeth, and they remember the shine that reflects off an apple as it’s held up to a light.  You can’t find that on Wikipedia!  That’s a different kind of knowledge; knowledge that is usually relegated to poets and artists. It might even sound more like feelings than art, but both are valid ways of gaining knowledge about something. Westerners just favor knowledge about over knowledge of.

If the apple feels to far removed from relational knowledge that you need to consider in Christianity for a being such as God, just think about how you could know a friend in the same ways: “my friend has brown hair,” (knowledge about) or “my friend is delightful,” (knowledge of).

In any case, the claim that has been made that Westerners are so concerned with knowledge about (represented by scholastic theology) that they have little interest in direct knowledge of God (as reflected by mystics and monks). Since theosis is an experiential, intimate knowledge of God, it wouldn’t really appeal to the Western mind as a worthwhile, valid source of theology.

I think that claim is completely wrong. I would even go a step further and claim that it’s biased enough that it was probably written by an Easterner that was explaining the importance of their traditions without full knowledge of vibrant Western Christian traditions.  We have no shortage of influential mystics (Julian of Norwich, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John of the Cross, etc.) and I’ve met people that passionately seek God without any scholastic bent.  There are whole traditions that (sadly) actively deride an academic approach to faith!  And even if there were some hint of truth to the claim, I do believe that knowledge about God in the scholastic sense is important.  We need both types of knowledge to really thrive as Christians. Pitting one against the other isn’t helpful. To use the example of an apple again, if I only had personal knowledge about apples, I probably wouldn’t be able to grow apple trees.  I wouldn’t know the proper climate, anything about how they’re fertilized, or the best variety to grow for my region.  If I’m really desperately passionate about apples, both kinds of knowledge are crucially important.  The same is true with knowledge about people.  I know what it’s like to spend an evening with my wife.  If, however, I forget her birthday because I don’t value knowledge about her, then I’m going to guess our relationship will suffer for it.

No, the “Westerners don’t appreciate personal knowledge” explanation both derides some very good sources of knowledge and doesn’t speak to the vibrant Western sources of spirituality that actively exist.

My guess is that a large amount of it comes down to language and culture.  The essence/energy distinction sounds very platonic (something derived from the works of the Greek philosopher Plato) and understandings about theosis flourished in places that had close contact and influence from Greek culture and writings (Russia, Greece, etc.). Could it be that an idea with roots in Greek thought made more sense to places influenced accordingly?

The West wrote and spoke in Latin.  The essence/energy distinction was not only unexplored; mindsets shaped by Greek words and philosophies were less common.  Things simply were what they were!  God was God, and not-God was not-God.  Essence defined identity; energy translated as something like “action,” and it was not linked with identity.  The creature-creator distinction ended up being considerably sharper as a result.

Of course, the energy-essence distinction wasn’t officially given as a teaching until the 12th century, but words usually bubble up out of pre-existing logics that require definitive explanations.  And here we see Gregory talking about theosis readily, and he’s all the way back in the fourth century! The Greek language and mindset made theosis reasonable.  The Latin language and mindset made it sound heretical.

In any case, it’s a teaching that inspires me.  It’s intimate.  It’s close beyond close.  To imagine that I might not just achieve a certain level of goodness, but might reflect the actions of God so well that he and I are inseparable?  It captures the idea of being transformed by the Holy Spirit so perfectly. The fact that the guy who helped establish Jesus’s divinity (Athanasius) and one of the fighters for the Godhood of the Holy Spirit (our dear Gregory) are both onboard makes it seem like a crucial truth that we’ve forgotten. Were we made to become divine?

What would it take to make full use of the doctrine of theosis in Western churches?  And is that something we should be aiming for?  It’s a doctrine that is complicated for the Western mind, but one that illustrates the closeness of God and the importance of our transformation so well.  At minimum, I love that Gregory’s forcing me to consider a divine destiny for humanity, and, even with my little explanation, I keep pondering why it’s so hard for us to imagine.