The Evangel in the Nihilism of our Time
The great playwright William Shakespeare wrote his dramatic play on Julius Caesar based on Plutarch’s “The Life of Marcus Brutus.” From that source, Shakespeare gave to Mark Anthony’s mouth the words, “Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war.” It was Mark Anthony’s cry to avenge the assassination of Julius Caesar. “Havoc”, it turns out, is a medieval military commander’s order giving permission to the victors to plunder the spoils of war. The phrase has become a literary descriptor for stirring up rage, chaos, and violence. In the vengeful state of his spirit, Mark Anthony pledges vengeance, and to plunder and lay waste the land of the enemy.
In the deeply polarized political, zero-sum, cultural climate that we inhabit right now, it is not an exaggeration to say that each tribe seems to shout, “Cry havoc!” In this environment, I would argue that the faithful community of faith remains the only viable space where transformative, redemptive conversation, and action can take place. Yet no authentic conversation can occur about religion apart from culture, economics, and politics. Like a big wave crashing into a rocky shore, explosively spraying sea water in every direction, the spirit of our times more than hints at nihilistic forces imploding within our body politic. An impeachment inquiry, for example, has just been launched by the US House of Representatives to investigate an already polarizing president of the United States, on allegations of violating his oath of office by soliciting help from a foreign country to smear an election opponent, by withholding its military aid that has already been authorized and allocated by the US Congress. Adding to the moral ennui of our polarized time, a (regretfully popular) segment of Christianity in America has failed to differentiate itself from the crucible of these nihilistic forces and openly aligned itself to partisan politics, turning itself into just another electoral voting bloc in the country to which politicians pander.
We live in a political and cultural climate where, heretofore, shared grounds of truth have shifted – or even have been deconstructed – especially those of basic moral truths. These are all characteristics of the conditions of nihilism, the viewpoint that since ultimate values are dispensable, or even meaningless, in day to day existence in the social structure, the destruction and profaning of basic norms are inconsequential and, therefore, expedient – even desirable for its own sake. So if the community of faith is perhaps the one last remaining incubator of everything that is good and beautiful in society, while itself remaining uninsulated from the principalities and powers of the world, how is it possible that it can be the last bastion of transformative and redemptive conversation and serve as a moral counterpoint in a time of moral havoc and chaos? This is where the faithful church becomes distinct from its other derivatives. How can the voice of the faithful church be heard? What is that voice like?
The message of the gospel – the evangelion – couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to the nihilism of our time. The first words from the angels heralding the birth of Jesus were, “Fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy!” The proclamation of the faithful church must announce this good news of the reign of God’s kingdom of love – love that seeks to reconcile the estranged, love that casts out all fears, and love whose power is embodied in kindness and just relationships.
The voice of the faithful is not only heard, but it must also be witnessed in its deeds. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount describes the landscape of the reign of God’s kingdom of love. It prescribes the ethic of the faithful follower, describing with clarity not only all that is antithetical to the profession of a Jesus follower, but sets forth the guiding posts of our aspirations to a transformed and sanctified life.
The work of gospel proclamation and witness in moments of nihilism is hard. It requires our utmost. And that work can often make us weary. I am reminded of what one of my most revered American Baptist mentors in ministry, Dr. Jitsuo Morikawa, who spoke to a group of us young seminarians, just as when I was personally struggling to find my own way in my newfound vocation, and at times still doubting my decision to follow my call to ministry, when he said that, “Weariness at the point of consummation is a companion of the Christian pilgrim.” Or, what my beloved father, the Rev. Moley Familiaran, once wrote from 10,000 miles away to encourage me during my seminary years, by teaching me to “trust my sufferings.” But the faithful church’s journey in the world is just that – it does make us weary at times, but “we do not faint.” While its work can be wearying, it is also joyful in the celebration of every life and every habitat that she transfigures for kingdom living along the journey. It is joy that renews her strength, that makes her “mount up with wings like eagles.” For where would life be now without the presence of the faithful community of faith?
The faithful church never submits to the Tempter’s wile, luring us into the pessimism of declaring, “Cry havoc!” The faithful church’s proclamation is “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2: 10b-11, ESV).” This proclamation is consummated in the grandest hope that history is already in the hands of God, “For the kingdoms of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever (Rev. 11:15, ESV).”
God brought into being life from chaos, until we humans messed it all up. There is order in the restorative power of God’s reign – a beautiful order, utterly new – “A new heaven, and a new earth”, that – while not completely consummated yet – is already here. When Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, it was not only a soteriological assurance. It was also to lay down an ethic for life, saying that in and through his person, his earthly life and ministry, we find the path that leads to the new life in God’s reign this side of heaven.