How Do We Become a Contrast Community?
By Derek Stoffels
[This article was originally published in a school newsletter but it applies just as much to our political action]
In a recent article in Clarion (vol 56 # 10) I read the report of a Canadian Reformed Teachers Association-West conference which reported that the speaker Mike Goheen said that as Christian parents/educators we educate our children to form a “contrast community”. This was defined as “aim to instill a sense of hope over against despair and consumer satiation, a sense of justice over against economic and ecological injustice, awareness of truth over against pluralism and relativism, and of selfless giving over against a culture or selfishness.” As I read this I thought, “Yes, Mike Goheen is correct about the need to be a contrast community, but wrong to suggest we make that aim our goal”. Setting the contrast community as the goal or aim will, I think, lead to other than the intended results. As I thought more about this statement I recalled two other articles I read recently, one which was apparently from GQ Magazine, the other from the most recent Covenant Canadian Reformed Teacher’s College(CCRTC) Newsletter. These three articles, along with a chapter from Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship, all came together. Hopefully in what follows I show the intersection clearly.
The question that started my musing was, “As parents, supporting members, and teachers/staff do we seek to educate God’s covenant children so that they form a ‘contrast community’?” Are we aiming for a community that makes social justice, care for creation, and confronting the world with the truth, its goal? Are we a community that stands out in contrast to the unbelieving world because of these goals? I absolutely agree that we must be a contrast community, that we must practice and demand social justice, encourage hope, care for creation, giving/serving and the proclamation of the truth. I am convinced, however, that by making this our goal, we will fail to achieve it.
Instead we are to set out or aim to be obedient and faithful to God’s Word. As we do, we will, by no merit of our own, become a contrast community. Rather than being driven by the world, we are to be driven by the Word, by obedience to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer (p. 157) says, “Of course it (righteousness) has to be visible, but they (Christians) must take care that it does not become visible simply for the sake of becoming visible. There are of course proper grounds for insisting on the visible nature of Christian discipleship, but the visibility is never an end in itself; and if it becomes so we have lost sight of our primary aim, which is to follow Jesus. And having once done that, we should never be able to carry on again where we had left off; we should have to begin all over again at the beginning. And that would bring it home to us that we were no true disciples. We are therefore confronted with a paradox. Our activity must be visible, but must never be done for the sake of making it visible.” (Compare Matt. 5:16 and Matt. 6)
We do not want to create an “Ark” (the Christian world created and parallel to the unbelieving world.) as author Walter Kirn apparently wrote in the September 2002 issue of GQ Magazine. He described the Ark as follows:
The old Ark, the biblical Ark, constructed to save the chosen from the Great Flood, had two of every creature in existence. The new Ark, the cultural Ark, built to save the chosen from the Great Media Flood also has two of everything I’m learning. You say you’re a Pearl Jam fan? Check out Third Day. The sound just like them –same soaring guttural vocals, same driven musicianship, same crappy clothes, just a slightly different message: Repent! You say you like Grisham- and Clancy style potboilers! Grab a copy of Ted Dekker’s Heaven’s Wager-same stick-figure characterizations, same preschool prose, just a slightly different moral: Repent! Your kids enjoy Batman, you say? Try Bibleman. Same mask, same cape, just a slightly different…
That’s the convincing logic of the Ark: If a person is going to waste his life cranking the stereo, clicking the remote, reading paperback pulp and chasing diet fads, he may as well save his soul while he’s at it. Holy living no longer requires self-denial. On the Ark, every mass diversion has been cloned, from Internet news sites to MTV to action movies, and it’s possible to live inside the spirit, without unplugging oneself from modern life, twenty-four hours a day.
Kirn sees the creation of the new Ark as a result of a lack of faith. He writes, “The problem is a lack of faith. Ark culture is a bad Xerox of the mainstream, not a truly distinctive or separate achievement. Without the courage to lead, it numbly follows, picking up the major media’s scraps and gluing them back together with a cross on top”. Right there he hits the crux of the matter, which is that Christianity cannot work as a reactive force: it must be proactive or courageously leading in the world. If we follow God by focusing on obedience to His Word we will end up leading in the world without even realizing we are leading!
Then we will be a “contrast community” in the sense so beautifully portrayed in Zechariah 8:23. “In those days, ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’” When we live lives of obedience people will see and hear about something wonderful and come because they want to learn more. I remember a sermon in which the question was asked “When is the last time the town council came to your church to ask for advice on a matter?” This is a striking and surprising question that clearly points in the direction of Zechariah 8:23 and in the direction of being a contrast community. So yes, I fully agree that we are to be a contrast community, but I don’t think we will get there if we make that our goal or target, because we would be allowing the world to become the motive force in our lives. We would in essence hand over control to the world rather than to God.
This is because when we think in terms of consciously developing a “contrast community” the focus shifts away from God or Christ as our centre, our all in all. We easily then try to “transform the world” instead of ourselves. Or, in that strange and impossible phrase, we try to “redeem” aspects of the world. We respond to evil instead of leading unswervingly in truth. We become too easily focussed on works and our efforts. The line between these two approaches is fine and not always clear. The line is easy to cross and hard to return. It is better to focus on active obedience and leave the transformation and redemption with God where it belongs.
The Bible teaches us that to be a successful contrast community we need to “die to sin” so that we might have everlasting life. We need to submit so totally to God’s word that our entire life, thoughts and conduct, are saturated with obedience. Think of Abraham rising early in the morning to journey to Moriah to sacrifice Isaac. Think of the apostles hearing Jesus say, “Come, follow Me.” and actually doing that. The demand for that kind of faith saturated life is not something that has passed away. God demands it of us today! Our goal is to glorify God. To know what that means we have only to read passages like Micah 6:8, Psalm 24, Isaiah 58, and James 1. When we live the way that is described in those passages the world will take note of God’s work. Our goal is not to see what the world is doing and then try and do it better or in a more Christian manner, as in “The Ark” as Kirn describes it. That would be starting at the wrong place.
This is where the CCRTC article comes in. In this article a new graphic was introduced to better represent the well-known church, home, school triangle. This graphic highlights that our Lord Jesus Christ is the centre or unity of the triangle. What I think is especially good is how this graphic has pulsating arrows moving out from the triangle into the world. The light of Christ shining through the church, home and school moves out into the world. This is the right order. In living in obedience we shine brightly into the dark world. We do not react to the world but rather we shine brightly like lamps on a hilltop. We may be guilty of having viewed the triangle as a fortress that we should never move out of, sort of like an old style walled fort like Louisburg or Old Quebec City.
So in conclusion, yes, Christians have to speak up in their communities and not leave it to secularly based organizations to promote economic justice and stewardship of creation. Without the Word to guide them these organizations go astray and distort God’s intentions. If we as Christians are living as we should, then we would have been there before Amnesty International, The World Bank, Grameen Bank, Greenpeace, or locally, One Sky. We would presently be having more faithful adherence to the mandates these organizations have. We as true disciples should have been so blessed by God, that people should have been coming and grabbing the hem of our robes and asking us about God as described in Zech. 8:23. The goal of living must be obedience, not contrast. By being obedient, contrast will follow because God is in control.