A countercultural gospel

Sometimes the church's most radical message is not about peace and justice, but God's love

Open Bible with Scrabble letters spelling "love," next to a pair of glasses — Emmanuel Phaeton on Unsplash

The world today remains full of warfare. Military invasion and illegal occupation, civil wars between armed factions and the Western powers ignoring or fueling an escalating human toll. We Anabaptists, members of the historic peace churches, bear a unique responsibility to proclaim our message of peace and proclaim justice ever more loudly than before.

Having said and affirmed that, though, would it sound abominable to our nonviolent legacy if I say that sometimes the church’s most radical message is not either about global peace or social justice? 

I live in southeast Iowa, a rural state. This part of Iowa is close to Iowa City, where the University of Iowa is located. Iowa City’s population is just 75,000, not a major metro area at all, but it is largely a university town, with teachers, staff and students and their families, as well as those doing business with them. University towns in politically conservative states create their own cultural enclaves, and Iowa City is no exception. 

In this predominantly White state, the town is a home for many from around the world. Open lectures and speaking events of different kinds are always available, and they are undoubtedly progressive, politically speaking. Students often demonstrate for various social causes publicly. This is a nice, comfortable environment for a highly educated, professional class of citizens. For those of you who live elsewhere, think for a moment of a place like Iowa City, big or small, and think what it means to conduct “local cultural analysis” and to contextualize the gospel there.

A university town (or an academic “hub”) is a hospitable place for messages of peace and justice. Short of embracing pacifism, many are critical of hawkish United States foreign policies and are sympathetic of the plight of the vulnerable on a global scale. In such a cultural context, it is relatively easy for historic peace churches to find allies (if not converts to the faith) for their antiwar statements and to advocate for the same causes side by side. Let us thank God for the collaboration. In the meantime, the churches often neglect to share a more subtle message about human value and worth through divine eyes. 

People attend colleges and universities to improve themselves, to elevate their skills and qualifications, to secure respectable positions in society and to gain something in return. In academic settings, both students and teachers are expected to prove themselves worthy by passing exams, obtaining degrees and winning promotions or research grants. Acceptance is always conditional, and success is elusive. Students and teachers must demonstrate their worth through their work.  

Advancement, progress and achievement shape the main language of many people living in a university town on any given day.  All the while, I witness that there are many struggling to survive on the outskirts, in the shadow of vibrant student lives and rigorous intellectual pursuits.  I also discover that there are many inside the meritocracy feeling fatigued and spiritually bone-dry and anxiously looking for a place where a different language defines their true dignity and worth. 

How effectively can Anabaptist churches reach out to these people and invite them to the heart of the body of Christ? Can we openly talk about the life-changing power of God’s grace that is entirely free? Some in the meritocracy may be wondering: What if I can’t advance in a program as fast as I need to?  What if I fail to progress as far as I am expected?  What if I am not achieving as much as other people?  Who am I, then, and where can I belong? The Christian gospel answers those fundamental questions, and it is a countercultural message of unconditional love.   

Higher education contributes much to human flourishing, and yet we must not forget that we do not have to climb higher on the ladder society sets up for us to catch the eye of God. We must remember that God came down to us in the person of Jesus to share our human condition intimately, and our Lord lowered himself like a servant. Unless deeply rooted in a particular local environment, the church cannot share universal messages beyond its walls. 

Wherever the gospel gets embodied (in a university town, a financial center or a remote fishing village), preaching the unconditional love of God is the most fundamental and radical task of the church and often the best way to establish its presence in local ministries. This is not to suggest that we Anabaptists preach less for peace in word and deed, but to ground our peacemaking efforts in God’s love for every human being. 

Otherwise, as Henri Nouwen cautioned, we must resign ourselves to a life of constant anxiety and restlessness, as if living life were a painful test to prove that we deserve to be loved.  If that becomes the case, what kind of good news are we proclaiming?

Shuji Moriichi

Shoji Moriichi is a member of First Mennonite Church in Iowa City, Iowa.

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