By Jacques Ellul (1948, rev. 1988)
Chapter 1: The Christian in the World
Christians are in the world and must stay in the world and therefore, due to their communion with Christ, engage with the world’s “spiritual reality” (referred to in the New Testament as “thrones, powers, dominations”) rather than its “material might.”
Christians have a special role in the world that only they can fill. If they participate in efforts and causes and institutions of the world that they deem worthy of support but do nothing more, they fail in their mission. Because such participation is common to all, Christian or not.
The special role of Christians is made clear in the Bible. The Bible, per Ellul, calls on Christians to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and sheep among wolves.
As salt (harkening back to Old Testament themes), they are a sign of God’s covenant with humanity. As light, they separate life from death and “give meaning to the world’s history, what orients and explains it.” And, as sheep among wolves, they are a witness to God’s action in history in sharing the fate of Jesus.
Christian participation in the world also involves participation in the corporate sin of the world beyond their own sharing of an individual sinful nature with their individual neighbors. Sin for Ellul (as with his friend, William Stringfellow) is not primarily the evangelical Christian’s concern about the personal sins of themselves and others (e.g., lust, gambling, alcohol, greed, impiety) but systemic, structural sin such as represented in capitalism, fascism, communism, nationalism, racism, militarism, and the autonomous technologization of society).
Christians kid themselves if they think they have any individual freedom to remain incorrupt, pure, and remote from participation in the corporate sin of those powerful, systemic entities within which they are embedded along with their neighbors and co-workers.
In short, Christians must endure being in a scandalous position: unable to accept the sin of the world, unable to escape the sin of the world, and unable to lessen or cleanse the sin of the world to resolve their own extreme discomfort.
Forty years ago, when I was a student at Lehigh University, there was a joke: the three laws of thermodynamics for non-engineers.
Law One: You can’t win.
Law Two: You can’t break even.
Law Three: You can’t get out of the game.
THAT, to me, appears to be Ellul’s depiction of authentic Christian life in the world. Ellul sees Christian life as being involved in a continuing dialectical struggle between God and the world (understood as a world fallen into sin and death).
Thus we are caught between two necessities that form an unresolvable tension. On the one hand, we cannot make this world less sinful; on the other, we cannot accept it as it is. To reject either side is to reject the actual situation in which God has places those whom he sends into the world. Just as we are caught in the tensions between sin and grace, so also are we caught between these two contradictory demands. It is an infinitely painful position, it is very uncomfortable, but it is the one one that can be fruitful and faithful for the Christian’s action and presence in the world.
This tension must first be accepted and then lived out continuously. We must accept, in repentance, what is irreducibly scandalous about our life in the world, recognizing that it cannot be otherwise. To claim that it can be otherwise is hypocrisy! But to truly recognize our situation in the world assumes that we truly understand its problems. To be honest, we can not accept this tension of the Christian life as an abstract truth. We have to live it, and bring it to life in the most concrete and vital way possible. And besides, Christians must understand that bringing this tension to life is the only real way to help the world on the social, economic, and political level. (p.8)Another aspect of the Christian’s dilemma is that acting as the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and as sheep among wolves is that there are no formulaic answers or resolutions from an abstract theology, no specifically Christian ethics or virtues, by which one can escape this scandal of living and sinfully participating in a fallen world. They must do this knowing they cannot escape this scandal and that what they cannot change in the world is also what they must not accept in the world.
At the center, in fact, lies this idea that Christian ethics rests on an agonistic structure of life, meaning that the Christian life is a continual struggle, a decisive and ultimate fight. This is nothing else than the constant and actual presence in our hearts of both judgment and grace. Yet this fact is precisely what assures our freedom. We are free because at each moment of our lives we are under both judgment and grace - and thus we are placed in a new situation, one that has no predetermined program or satanic fetters. To go further belongs to the theologian, but this much is enough to show us that the whole Christian attitude has a direct relation to God’s action in Jesus Christ. (p.10)The title of the book is “Presence in the Modern World.” Presence refers both to God’s presence as well as the Christian’s presence as God in Christ’s ambassador to the world. They live in a foreign land but their citizenship is elsewhere. Christian ethics are existential. They involve the Christian placing themselves at the meeting point of God’s will and the world’s will.
The will of the Lord, appearing as both judgment and forgiveness, law and grace, commandment and promise, is revealed to us in Scripture, illuminated by the Spirit of God. It has to be explicated in the present time, but it does not vary. This revelation gives us the conditions in which the world can exist, that is, in which its preservation is in fact possible. (pp. 14 - 15)God’s will is always to preserve and save the world, “but this must become incarnate in a real world, and our actions as well as our words must be oriented to the world’s present situation…” Therefore the ethics of a Christian must always be provisional, existential, and rooted in one’s concrete, specific situation in history; that is, incarnate.
The concrete situation in which a Christian of any age finds themselves is the specific configuration of the world’s culture at any one time and place.
The world’s will is always a will to death, a will to suicide. This suicide cannot be accepted, and we must act precisely so that it does not occur. We need to know therefore what the present form of the world’s will to suicide is, in order to oppose it, to know how and where to direct our efforts.
* * *It is not our job then to build the city of God, to raise up an order of God within this world while remaining unconcerned with its tendencies and suicide. Our job is to place ourselves at the very point where this will to suicide is active, in its present form, and see how God’s will to preservation can operate there in the given situation.
And so, it is by placing ourselves always at this point of encounter that we Christians can be truly present in the world and perform effective social or political work, by God’s grace.
In the chapters that follow, we will attempt to inquire into some of the contemporary manifestations of this will to death, and the Christian’s attitude in the face of these realities. (pp. 15 - 16)Next: Chapter 2 Revolutionary Christianity
#capitalism #resourcebasedeconomy #ellulpresence