Thursday, December 02, 2010

Being Counter-Cultural

A dear friend from my seminary days, the Rev. Rodney Graves, used to call me "bohemian". At the time I didn't really get it. I knew bohemian types, and while I admired them, I considered myself more a bohemian fellow-traveler than a real example of the species. We would have this discussion, and I accepted the compliment not very gracefully.

It took me a few years to realize that he was talking about being truly free, about being truly counter-cultural. Not in the standard view of one such. Rather, truly being an individual, choosing quite consciously to live one's life with a certain amount of integrity, including the strength to say "no" to that which is clearly unacceptable; these are the qualities that make one a true bohemian. One does not need to conform to some stereotype to be bohemian. Indeed, I have found again and again over the years that those who claim to celebrate real freedom of thought and life-choices are offended by those who refuse to play by the rules others insist are necessary to fit in to this or that category.

I am involved in several different on-line discussions, on-going in different platforms, that seem to center around a small set of issues that boil down to a single question: What does it mean to live a Christian life? All sorts of topics arise, opinions are offered, arguments ensue, but really I keep coming back to the centrality of that question. It is the question that forces itself upon me each day. I know that I answer it wrong as often as right. That doesn't worry me nearly as much as it used to, because I believe it is far more important to stay on the journey the question dictates. In any event, what has become more and more clear to me over the past few weeks as a wide array of discussions seem to converge, again and again, on this question, is how much of our so-called "Christian talk" is dictated by categories that have absolutely nothing to do with the life we are called to live as followers of the crucified and risen Christ.

It is impossible to discuss matters without falling in to the traps of left/right, liberal/conservative, secular/sectarian. It is impossible to discuss matters involving Christian ethics without being bombarded by discussions of conventional morality, petty issues of personal choice and lifestyle, or bigoted attitudes, particularly toward sexual minorities. Sometimes I am accused of not even understanding my own words, because I am clearly a non-Christian, Marxist, and was even told that I was on a moral par with Stalin and Mao, because I support abortion rights.

I have attempted in a variety of ways to escape these traps, and have found little success. Even those who call themselves Christian seem to use them without realizing they are a trap. All I can say, at this point, is that it is necessary to insist that being a Christian, if it means anything at all, means being in a very real, substantive sense counter to the reigning culture and its values and ethical, political, and moral demands. Even as we live within this broken world, we need always remember that brokenness lies as the heart of the inability for the Gospel to penetrate further than it has; we need to live in love toward those who seem hell-bent on making a mockery of the grace of Christ, and turning us against one another.

We need to turn our music up louder. We need to do what St. Francis did when his parents attempted to have him removed from a priestly calling - he stripped himself bare in court and walked out naked, symbolizing that he no longer wore the clothes of someone of this world. We need to be unafraid of saying that God doesn't really care whether or not I love a man or a woman as my life-partner; rather, God cares quite a bit that there are those who hate people who make what they might consider the "wrong" choice. We need to be unafraid to say that God created the world, created it in love, and to the best of our understanding did it billions of years ago in an event we call the Big Bang. We need to be unafraid to be the voice for those who have stopped speaking because no one listened to them. We need to be unafraid to say to those communities of which we are a part that they are broken, they are loved in their brokenness, and that we who call ourselves Church exist to help salve the wounds of that brokenness.

We need to be bohemians. We need to live out the freedom granted in the new life in Christ, recognized by St. Paul. Most of all, we need to remember that being Church, being a Christian, is serious business. It isn't about making sure we are all comfortable in the lives that are set before us by others; rather, it is about insisting that the new life offered in Christ is an uncomfortable one, a threatening one. As the lives of so many martyrs, past and present remind us, this isn't a game we are playing, and we need to remember that being Church, if it means nothing else, means living out a threat to the comforts of the rulers of this present age.

Being counter-cultural means no longer fearing death, because we have handed our death over to Christ on the cross.

We can discuss details, to be sure. At the end of the day, the call to follow Christ means our whole life is now lived under that shadow. We need to laugh because we who are Easter people see the cross is empty, the stone has been rolled away, and death has been defeated. I know of nothing more counter-cultural than to insist that death is not to be feared.

Virtual Tin Cup

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