Henri Nouwen asks how Christians should live in the world

Have you heard the expression that Christians are to "be in the world but not of the world?" I say "expression" because there is no actual Bible verse that states this word for word. These verses make mention of the concept:

Romans 12: 2

John 15: 9

John 17

For centuries, Christians have asked how they were supposed to be in the world but not of it. Denominations  and sects are even formed around what believe the concept means for them. Think of the Amish - Christians who use 19th century methods to travel, farm, dress in order to not be part of the world. Others choose not to drink, smoke, chew (or go with girls who do! Sorry, I'm a Nazarene, it's our joke; I had to do it), go to movies, associate with certain people, dance, dress in a certain way, etc., etc., etc., in order to live out this concept. Christians get into debates, even arguments, over the issue. The issue can and does separate us.

The real question should be how can we Christians live like Jesus wants us to in a world system that is bent on not following God? 

When spiritual writer and priest Henri Nouwen lived in Latin America for six months, he asked that question: "The Christian is called to live in the world without being of it. But how do we know whether we are just in it, or also of it? My feeling is that every Christian who is serious about his or her vocation has to face this question at some point." Nouwen wrote this in his journal "Gracias! A Latin American Journal."

For many years, Latin Americans have struggled with deep oppression. There was and might still be a wide divide between the upper classes and the poor. There is some middle class like we mentioned in our last post, but the controlling factor in Latin America's economic and governmental structures was largely in the upper classes. Rampant capitalism marginalized the poor and worsened their condition. In the 1960s after Vatican II, leaders of the Catholic Church in Latin America and of Protestant denominations began discussing the problem and what to do about it. What became known as Liberation Theology became a  movement of consequence in Latin America. Unfortunately, that meant that Catholics and Protestants supported some tenants of Marxist philosophy, but the pendulum of capitalism had swung so far to the right that radical social change was needed in order to bring balance to the situation. Many church leaders became involved in political causes, leaving some to wonder if the Latin American church was becoming too political. For example, in Nicaragua, four priests who participated in the revolution became part of the Sandinista cabinet.

When Christians participate in a revolution for social change, because of the nature of revolt, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish whether or not they are doing what Christ would do.

"Will we ever know whether we are living witnesses to the light or serving the prince of darkness?" Nouwen asked.

This question is relevant for today. How far can Christians, or the church, for that matter, get into politics before it no longer is a witness for Christ in the world. We see this today with the pro-life movement and the unfortunate murders of doctors who perform abortions. We see it with the Christian Right who are willing to give false information about the history of the United States and to whip everyone into a state of panic with false e-mails, web sites and exaggerated new stories in order to have Christianity "restored" as our national religion ("...this is a Christian nation ..."). It is certainly good for individuals of faith to enter politics as long as they have mentors and prayer and accountability partners to keep them on the straight and narrow, but for a church? An institution that is supposed to lead people closer to God? Yes, I believe a church can address moral issues but telling its people who to vote for, or otherwise becoming politically partisan does not sit well with me. 

Sadly, this phrase is true:

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely in such manner that great men are almost always bad men."  John Dalberg-Acton

Throughout history, politics have corrupted the church and vice versa. The Bride of Christ must be careful about who she chooses to befriend.

I do like how the church in Latin America stood up for the the poor and enacted social change so that they could participate in society at large. As Christians we must stand up for the poor and marginalized in our societies. But how do we do this and not become corrupted by the power in politics that can easily entangle us?

Nouwen wrote this and it is good advice:

"How, then, are we to find the right answer for ourselves? Here we are called to discern carefully the movements of God's Spirit in our lives. Discernment remains our lifelong task. I can see no other way for discernment than a life in the Spirit, a life of unceasing prayer and contemplation, a life of deep communion with the Spirit of God. Such a life will slowly develop in us an inner sensitivity. We certainly will make constant errors and seldom have the purity of heart required to make the right decisions. We may never know whether we are giving to Caesar what belongs to God. But when we continuously try to live in the Spirit, we at least shall be willing to confess our weakness and ask for forgiveness every time we find ourselves in the service of Baal."

What do you think?

Source: A Concise History of Liberation Theology by Leonardo and Clodovis Boff