Moral Conviction and Our Christian Responsibility By The Rev. J. Barney Hawkins, IV

[Article from: Virginia Theological Seminary Journal; Fall 2012; Reading: Mark 9:38-50]

The Rev. J. Barney Hawkins, IV

The Rev. J. Barney Hawkins, IV

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is talking to John, who was asking for some clarification about casting out demons.  John may have gotten more than he bargained for.  It is a rather brutal text:  millstones and being thrown into the sea; amputation of the hands and feet.  “And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell….”  It appears that Jesus had not read the wellness literature of his time very carefully.

The concluding word from Jesus is about salt.  Jesus tells John—and I suppose all of us: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

What does it mean to have “salt in yourselves”?  This is a good question in this political season. What does it mean to be salt in this deeply divided country?  What about in our Church?

When I was studying at Duke in the 1970s, Paul Ricoeur was quite the rage.  Some thought he was a pacifist, others a Marxist.  Still others, a Christian existentialist who had the inside message we needed to hear.  Ricoeur preached a sermon at Duke which is in his book, “Political and Social Essays.” The sermon was entitled “Ye Are the Salt of the Earth.” Ricoeur examined the difficulties, the complexities of social action. Can the Christian avoid social action or politics?  Ricoeur thought not.  Ricoeur said the Christian always “runs the risk of looking like the gentleman who analyzes and blunts the revolutionary weapon.” Ricoeur wondered:  How does the salt keep its savor?  How does the Christian move beyond analysis to action?

Ricoeur concluded that the Christian must be an “idol-smasher, an iconoclast, a profaner of ideologies. It is the Christian’s function to restore truth to its rightful place, and thus to reveal the secular dimensions of history.” The Christian, in other words, is about “a task of purification and healing.”

What does being an “idol-smasher” look like?  Our middler Weston Mathews was recently elected to represent the student body on the Investment Committee.

Immediately, he started asking difficult questions — the kind you do not ask at a country club cocktail party (see page 48 for Weston’s article).  Do we have a socially responsible investment policy at VTS?  Do we have a theology of investment? Weston may not have read much of Paul Ricoeur — but he was taking his advice. Weston may be asking the right questions — about restoring truth “to its rightful place.”

On Monday evening another follower of Jesus offered his views on the dignity of human beings, touching on subjects from abortion to disability rights to the economy. In a wide-ranging lecture to a think tank in London, Rowan Williams offered an interpretation of his tenure

and said he “had no regrets.” He spoke about times when he had gotten in “hot water” — another way of talking about the work to restore truth to its rightful place.  Archbishop Williams discussed his comments on Sharia law, the Iraq War and the Coalition’s economic policy.  He was asked if he wished he had done some things differently. He quickly quoted a friend of Paul Ricoeur, the French singer Edith Piaf — “Je ne regrette rien.” He added: “I do regrets all right — but I just don’t think that it will do to be too cautious in a job like this.”

So what can we learn from Weston and from the Archbishop of Canterbury? At least two things: one, that Christians should be concerned, to quote Ricoeur, about “the constant pressure of moral conviction upon our sense of responsibility.” We must always hold up the life of our state and our Church to the light of the Gospel.  This is “truth restored to its rightful place.”  Secondly, we must live with the tension between the truth of the Gospel and the real world of the politics of Church and state.

As Christians, we should speak our minds and live our faith in the public square.  We must not be silent — but we must also live with the stressful tension that we do not inhabit a world of black and white.  We live in a world of grays and shades of grays — with good guys and bad guys on each side of the aisle.  Being salt in the world is not an easy matter. The truth is not easy “to restore.” All the bad guys are not in the Democratic Party.

I like where Paul Ricoeur took us in that fabulous sermon years ago in the splendor of the Duke Chapel, built, I might add, by the profits accrued from a tobacco fortune made by James Buchanan Duke and given to Trinity College, now Duke University. Ricour said:  “I should simply like to say that there must always be a Church of sacrament and prayer, to keep the tensions alive.  It would be a complete mistake to regard personal piety and commitment within the Church as opposed to commitment in the world.”

Yes, let us ask the hard questions within the church for the sake of the world — shaped by the Church’s sacraments and informed by prayer. Let us not be cautious. Let us ask the hard questions, the questions which have no answers.  Let us seek the truth — come whence it may.  And let us have few regrets — as we follow the one who is our hope and our future with God forever.

[Rev. J. Barney Hawkins IV, Ph.D., Vice President for Institutional Advancement]