tension

Ellul on Being Christian in a Disordered World

This entry is part 14 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

In last Sunday’s gospel reading, Jesus responded to a question about taxes with his famous remark to give to Caesar what is his, and to God what is his (Matthew 22).

Often when I’ve heard this gospel preached (usually around pledge time, coincidentally), it’s been framed as Jesus being clever — threading a needle so as not to offend the Romans, and risk prison, or the Jews, and risk dismissal as some sort of collaborator with the oppressing power.

I don’t think Jesus feared either of those things, and I sure don’t think he was spinning his remark like some shrewd political operator. Treating the remark in this way treats it too lightly, as does treating it as an excuse to talk about church tithing. I think it was a much deeper and more important comment than that, about the way in which Christians are to live in this world. So important that it was included in all three synoptic gospels — remember, the Virgin Birth was in only two!

This comes to mind as I move to the next section of chapter 2 in Presence in the Modern World, where Ellul says that, although it is a “well-known truth” that Christians belong to two cities,” it’s not something that is deeply understood in terms of daily living.

We are citizens of the nation where we live; we have social obligations, family obligations, governmental obligations; we must work to earn money, we participate in community and cultural activities. We’re not able to shirk these things, and importantly, we’re not called or commanded by God to shirk them. Nor are we called to “compartmentalize” and be Christians only on Sundays.

But Christians must consider their life in this world to be a temporary situation. They “belong” to a different city. They are something like foreigners temporarily residing in a country where they’re not citizens. They must play by the rules of the host country, adapt to the customs where necessary to get by, pay whatever fees or taxes are owed, conform with the laws; but still, their ultimate loyalty and allegiance lies with their own state, where they are full citizens, and to which they intend to return.

Ellul says that these Christians can be like ambassadors, defending the interests of their own city while living and working within a different city. Or he says it may be even better to think of them as spies, infiltrating the world and creating the conditions that will allow the Kingdom of God to burst forth.

No matter what a Christian’s situation in the world might be, their first loyalty must lie with God, yet they can’t abandon the world. It’s not their choice when to “return” to where they belong, so they must accept the inherent tension of belonging to two cities.

Ah, tension! Remember that from Chapter 1? There Ellul spoke of the need for Christians to embrace the tension that came from knowing that they could never make the world less sinful, but neither could they accept the world as it is.

This tension, of living in the world while not being of it, is actually the same tension, but, as Ellul writes, “transcribed into social, political, and economic reality.”

(Notice what he didn’t mention there? Cultural reality. But it’s almost always the cultural component that American Christians focus on when they talk about “being in the world, not of it.” If your argument against the prevailing culture leads to little more than the endorsement of a lucrative sub-culture, then you’re not embracing the tension, you’re just participating in the existing structures.)

This tension can’t be resolved. As Christians, though we are completely bound up in the world’s material reality, we must consider ourselves oppositional to that reality. We “must accept that the opposition between this world and the kingdom of God is total.”

But that doesn’t mean that we can sit smugly back, content that our side is “the right side,” and watch fellow humans suffer through the consequences of their bad choices. We can never forget that we are bound to our fellow humans, not only through social and economic and legal structures, but also because God has called us to be bound to them.

Christians, Ellul writes, “need to immerse themselves in social and political problems so that they can act in the world, not in the hope of making it a paradise, but only of rendering it tolerable.” (emphasis added)

It’s not our job to perfect the world (since we cannot), or to choose the right political party, or to try and create a utopia by forcing everyone else to live in accordance with our own cultural views, or even to “make the kingdom of God come.” It’s our task to try and ensure that the gospel can be both proclaimed and heard, so that “all people may hear truly the good news of salvation and resurrection.” (italics in original)

There are, Ellul says, three ways in which Christians must go here. It’s important to note that this represents a “strategic direction,” as David Gill writes in a footnote on page 29; Ellul thought it was impossible to create any sort of specific formula for Christian life and action.

  • First, understanding what God has revealed to them about humanity, they must “seek out the social and political conditions” that allow human beings to “live and develop” as God has commanded.
  • Second, they must recognize that God has placed them in “a certain setting” for God’s own reasons, and so they must accept the limitations of that setting. They are to work so that God’s desired order “might be embodied in particular, existing institutions and organizations,” without actually causing “the society that they live in to be destroyed.” (The original translated text is a bit confusing here; it sounds to me as if Ellul is saying that Christians are not called to be either docile societal sheep or “burn-it-all-down” reactionaries.)
  • Finally, the above points only mean something if everything is “oriented toward the proclamation of salvation.” This means that the top priority of Christians is to ensure that these institutions are not “closed” and that they can’t “claim to be complete, absolute.” These institutions cannot be allowed to prevent people from hearing the gospel. (This is not, I think, the same thing as requiring people to listen to the gospel, which does not lend to hearing “truly.”)

In following this strategic direction, Christians will fall victim to two fundamental errors, Ellul says. One, they will assume that constant progress will lead to the establishment of God’s kingdom. And/or two, they believe that if they achieve certain outcomes or reforms, “this order that God desires would come about.”

Nope. To repeat yet again, there is nothing that we can do in this world that will perfect it, or even meet God’s demands, which are “infinite, as is his pardon.” All solutions to economic, political or social problems are temporary. This is why Christians are in a permanent state of revolution. They are always called to “continually question” everything that is “termed progress, discoveries, facts, established results, reality, and so on.”

(I have to admire “reality” being thrown in there to be questioned right before “and so on.”)

Remember, the world has a will to suicide; no matter its current order, the world is “moving constantly toward disorder.” It’s a world in which Christians have no choice but to live, and we must accept our obligations toward that world and to our fellow human beings (which includes joyful obligations). To “render unto Caesar.” But if we forget that we belong to God, not the world, and lose ourselves in the world’s political and economic realities — or if we compartmentalize and keep separate our faith from our material life — then we will fail to “render unto God.”

Ellul: The World’s Will Is Always a Will to Suicide

This entry is part 9 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Let’s see if I can wrap up my notes on Chapter 1 of Jacques Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World. In the last post, we discussed the redemption of time, and how it depends solely on Christian “behavior and preaching.”

Ellul concludes the chapter by noting that, if Christians are going to participate in the world’s preservation, they must put themselves at the point where two different wills collide: the will of the Lord, and the will of the world.

God’s will is revealed in Scripture, and it is both “judgment and forgiveness, law and grace, commandment and promise.” God’s will never changes, even if it must be explained in a way that makes sense during each era.

There are no political, economic, or social conditions through which the world can preserve itself on its own. In other words, there can be no heaven created on earth no matter how mightily we strive toward the justice that the gospel demands, because the world’s preservation depends on salvation. Ellul: “For God is not preserving the world on the one hand and saving it on the other. He is preserving it by saving it, and he is saving it by using this preservation.” (italics in original)

The will to preserve the world, and the way it will be preserved; and the will for the world’s salvation, and the way the gospel will be proclaimed — these are the same thing. Christians have to make this will “incarnate in a real world,” the present world in which we live, through actions and words alike.

This means that those actions and words must be oriented toward the actual world in which we live, not a world that no longer exists, or that we imagine used to exist. Yet even as we live fully in the present reality, and seek to reach our fellow humans also living through the same moment, we must remember that God’s will never changes.

Neither does the world’s will ever change. “The world’s will is always a will to death, a will to suicide.” If the world is not moving toward God — and it cannot be, it is burdened by sin, a fallen world — then it is moving toward death. Those are the only options. If we try to build a “City of God” here on Earth, and ignore the fact that the world is heading toward its demise, then we will fail. Remember, the world cannot preserve itself; its preservation depends on its salvation. We can’t make the world less sinful by human means.

Instead, our job is to place ourselves where this world’s suicidal will is most active, and apply our efforts toward promoting the world’s preservation and salvation right there, where it is most needed. When we do this, “we understand that the work of preaching necessarily goes along with the work of material redemption.”

We end with a more full understanding of the tension into which we must live as Christians. I read it as:

  • The world is sinful, and we can’t accept it the way it is, but neither can we make it less sinful.
  • The world’s will always leads to death, but we are still called to work toward “material redemption” and the preservation of the world.
  • We must proclaim the gospel in a way that makes sense in the context of the world’s current situation, without distorting the content or unity of God’s unchanging will.
  • We must do our work where it is needed most, living fully in the present reality as it currently exists, not placing ourselves outside of it.

Ellul says that the following chapters of the book will look at the “contemporary manifestations” of the world’s suicidal will and explore a Christian response to each. I may not note each chapter as granularly as I did this one!