Church history from a distance is beautiful and shiny, filled with daring stories of brave acts of gospel courage and bold stands for truth in the face of opposition. From a distance, we catch glimpses of the great figures of the past, near perfect heroes who courageously stride across the pages of history with gospel fidelity in one hand and impeccable morality in the other.
But then we peer closer at this flawless and oft-painted portrait of our saintly forbearers and there in the background we begin to see the slight imperfections and false brushstrokes of iniquity. Ever so softly accentuated as an insignificant detail. Perhaps the artist hopes we will miss it in the busy background? But something else is not right, and so we hesitantly pick at a clumsily daubed, and strangely out of place, paint globule. And there revealed are images so vile and so incongruent with the rest of the painting that we recoil in disbelieving disgust. How can these images belong to the same painting?
When we step back, though, the painting has changed. We can no longer see it as before. The saint no longer holds a central place in the image. Instead our eyes are forcibly and repeatedly drawn to this incongruous abhorrence which a multitude of artists sought to deny or downplay. The entire picture now reshaped and redrawn by this unwilling revelation. Can we even hang this painting anymore? Should we read the works of a man such as this? Can this person even be said to be a Christian?
In an honest reading of church history, we will find in the lives of even the greatest of saints, sin so pernicious and so dark that it will cause us to question even their very salvation. What can slave owning puritans possibly know of the gospel? Martin Luther may have changed the course of church history, but what could that Jew-hater truly understood about the gospel of grace? Surely the Western missionary movement’s complicity with colonialism ought to debunk the entire process? What can we make of white evangelical Christians who were silent in the face of apartheid? How do we deal with the well-meaning Christians on our Facebook wall who refuse to acknowledge systemic injustice, who “don’t see colour”, or who think we “should just move on?” Does the Bible not say that by their fruit you will know them?1 Surely this alone proves the poverty of their theology?
How then do we reconcile the rich theology of our theological ancestors (or our contemporaries even) with their participation in, or acquiescence to, terrible injustices?
1. We Expect It
The biblical doctrine of sin is such that we should expect to find the darkest, most horrific of sin in even the greatest of saint. Sin so heinous, so wicked that it should cause us to question even their very salvation. Sin so deep, so destructive, that the only cure is the death of the Son of God himself. I know this to be true because that darkness, that evil lives in me. Only grace can save and transform a wicked, sin blackened heart like mine.
Honestly it scandalizes me that grace could cover over their destructive, racist, in the name of Jesus behaviour. It offends me that I expect to see them in the new creation. But grace is not tame or neat, much to my hypocritical disgust. Our very inconsistency ought to drive us to the cross, for it is there, and there alone, that we may find any redemption, any transformation, any hope. The scandal of grace is that it is for sinners, and so until Jesus returns it ought not to surprise us that we find our churches filled with the wickedest of sinners, our greatest movements led by the worst of sinners, and our most beautiful theologies articulated by the most hypocritical of sinners.
2. We Recover the Practice of Lament
Notice I did not say we condone it, I said we must expect it. We must not be caught by surprise when it comes to sin but neither must we deny its existence or try to coverup the mixed legacy of our theological heroes. We must face the ugly and uncomfortable truth, including our own role as bearers of that terrible and yet beautiful legacy.
How then do we deal with this repulsive juxtaposition of beauty and malevolence? It is not enough to acknowledge it, we must grieve it. We must, Soong-Chan Rah contends, recover the biblical practice of lament. “Lament is an act of protest” where the lamenter is allowed to “express indignation and even outrage” concerning injustice. Lament provides “the space and time to mourn” and weep, with no attempt to explain away or justify what has happened. Lament is an act of “truth telling” over a church riddled with sin and inequity.2
The westernised, evangelical church mired as it is in a single-story narrative3 of celebration has robbed itself of the language with which to engage, deep, heart-wrenching evil, brokenness and suffering. We would rather “hide the stories of guilt and shame” than “acknowledge the reality of sins committed by the church.” The language of lament gives us the tools with which to express these realities, without denying, justifying or downplaying their depravity.
3. We Craft a More Beautiful Story
The biblical narrative though has a strange way of implicating us at the exact moment in which we would seek to implicate others. We are swift to rebuke and write off the failed Christians of the past, but what about us? How are we cultivating a more just society? How are we standing up for and promoting the rights of the poor and the marginalised? How are we, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetuating injustice? Where are we looking the other way?
The burden of justice cannot remain with those in the past. Wherever they may have failed, been naïve, ignorant, unquestioning or outright wicked, it is now our responsibility to pick up their chequered mantle and join the fray, not as detached observers of history, but as those whose story is inextricably bound up with their story. No matter how strongly that thought repulses us, it is a theological reality that in Christ, we are joined together with the vilest of sinners. Saved, not by our fickle attempts at good works, but by his grace, and his grace alone.
We must be honest about their failings and their sin. We must recognize that, as the inconsistent and weak people they were, they have bequeathed to us a mixed legacy of both greatness and abject failure. But it is our time now, not theirs. In truth, they have left us with much work to do. But without denying or downplaying our history the burden of responsibility now falls squarely on our shoulders. We must craft a more beautiful story of grace and redemption than they were able to. If our theology really is better than theirs what will our legacy be?
- Matthew 7:16-20
- Soong-Chan Rah, 2015. Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times. Kindle Edition. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books.
- I have borrowed this imagery from Chimamanda Ndichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of the a Single Story” https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story