I was passing time on a recent plane flight by reading Rowan Williams’ book Why Study the Past and found it to be an interesting and worthwhile read. His discussion of the identity of the early church was particularly interesting given that so many of the debates in the current controversies seem to be, at their heart, debates over the identity of the Church or of a particular community of Christians. I was especially interested in this bit, when he’s discussing the martyrologies and the way the early Christians had to grapple with apostasy:
We tend to see this as an issue about rigorism over behaviour; but we need to acknowledge the deeper and more elusive motivations that had to do with fears about the loss of the Church’s sacredness. The holy body, like Polycarp’s body in the arena at Smyrna, must be one that is consumed by the divine; when other links and loyalties are at work, you cannot intelligibly argue about how the Church is really an assembly of the citizens of heaven and holy in virtue of its repudiation or relativising of other kinds of citizenship. (p 38-39)
I read this not long after watching the movie Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace for the first time–this writing on the lives of the martyrs and the meaning of their martyrdom led me to consider the issue of divided loyalties in our own day. It is clear that part of the radicality of the the Christian faith that it disallows or relativizes all other commitments. Anything that threatens to trivialize this commitment, to place it on a par to other loyalties, is in fact idolatry–whether it be commitment to material wealth, any number of voluntary associations or political parties–the idea that any ideology could challenge or over-shadow one’s obedience to Christ is antithetical to the Gospel.
Yet such a conviction is easier to explain than it is to keep and it may be that it is observed more in the breach than in the keeping in our own day. We live in a country where we are blessed to enjoy freedom of worship and gathering, the ability to read our Bibles and share our faith, a country where we are most likely not going to face the same dramatic choices that some of our brothers and sisters over-seas may have to face. Very few American Christians are going to face the choice between renouncing their faith and being beheaded–even those of us that come out of backgrounds hostile to the Christian message, such as Islam or some other religions, usually have only to worry about the repercussions of family negativity or estrangement. Yet, because our choices are so rarely extreme in the same way, the temptations facing us are subtle–the song of the siren rather than the club of the tyrant. Rather than being hauled before our accuser and offered the clear choice: “Do you continue to proclaim Jesus or do you relent and accept our alternative?”, we are faced with a series of small, seemingly insignificant choices every day that, when combined, can set us on our way toward apostasy. This may be the failure to pray openly because of fear of embarrassment, or to speak out against a clear evil because it might give offense. How many of us are willing to allow our values and actions to be shaped more by the surrounding culture–by movies, music, political platforms or self-help gurus than by the values of the Gospel and the authority of Scripture? In my own life I am continually amazed at how many habits I have and assumptions I make that I have never taken the time to examine in light of the gospel, to lay bare before the Lord and pray for correction, only to find when I do that I have been motivated by some sin or ignorance that has no place in Christ’s kingdom. It is in these small things that all-together amount to rejection that we find out path to Idolatry–and we’re under judgment for it whether we recognize it or not.
[Listening to: Siddhartha's of Suburbia from the album "The Future That Was" by Josh Joplin Group ]