Cruciformity is Not Passivity

Several months ago, I reflected on teaching about cruciformity in various settings.  Some folks bristle at such talk because it sounds like passivity, resignation, surrender, or withdrawal.

I suspect this is the case because in a world dominated by violence, we can only imagine inflicting violence on others or being the objects of violence.  You’re either dishing it out or taking it.

It takes a thoroughgoing conversion of the imagination to discern and foster the cruciform patterns of life to which God calls his people.

It has nothing to do with passivity or resignation, but involves serious effort and sustained reflection on Scripture to forge new thought patterns, new ways of hoping, loving, imagining, and behaving.

Cultivating communities of cruciformity requires persevering creativity to adopt radically new relational postures and corporate dynamics that embody genuine eschatologically-oriented faith and gospel hope.

In Reading Revelation Responsibly, Michael Gorman states this beautifully:

Christian resistance to empire and idolatry conforms to the pattern of Jesus Christ and of his apostles, saints, prophets (like John), and martyrs: faithful, true, courageous, just, and nonviolent.  It is not passive but active, consisting of the formation of communities and individuals who pledge allegiance to God alone, who live in nonviolent love toward friends and enemies alike, who leave vengeance to God, and who, by God’s Spirit, create mini-cultures of life as alternatives to empire’s culture of death.  This is a Lamb-shaped or cross-shaped (cruciform) understanding of discipleship and mission (p. 76).

Revelation calls Christians to a difficult discipleship of discernment—a non-conformist cruciform faithfulness—that may lead to marginalization or even persecution now, but ultimately to a place in God’s new heaven and new earth.  Revelation calls believers to nonretaliation and nonviolence, and not to a literal war of any sort, present or future.  By its very nature as resistance, faithful nonconformity is not absolute withdrawal but rather critical engagement on very different terms from those of the status quo.  This is all birthed and nurtured in worship.  But we need to be diligent, because . . . we in the West are now largely like the Laodiceans, and many of us need to read Revelation as such.  [W]e are in very bad shape but do not know it, so conversion to true worship and discipleship will be a difficult journey (p. 79).

That lovely expression, “a difficult discipleship of discernment,” captures wonderfully the life-long communal conversion of the imagination to which God calls his people in the Book of Revelation.

6 thoughts on “Cruciformity is Not Passivity

  1. marknieweg

    Hi Tim,

    Your involvement with the various discipleship issues on government, the powers, and cruciformity are timely given the circumstances in which I find myself. My wife and I have been part of a Muslim community now for two years in America. It is heart-breaking to learn what this community has to deal with in trying to commend itself and its faith to the wider community, and what it has to take in the form of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, many times from the vocal conservative evangelical movement it hears in the news in the form of the politics. Can the real Jesus even get a chance here?

    This has bothered me so much that we have left evangelicalism pretty much altogether. Not the Jesus of the New Testament mind you; Evangelicalism.

    It has been impressed upon me by our “getting out more” to understand how those outside the church process the church in America, that much of what Jesus and Paul teach in cruciformity – the call to “walk as Jesus walked” for the same reason he walked it – has to do exactly with continuing his mission. When witness has gone from being a noun (you will be my witnesses) to a verb (witnessing) which usually means a tract, something gets lost in translation, both in substantive discipleship, and what message we can give suffers.

    To try to get across the charge of being “passive” I usually bring up the story of John the baptist in prison under Herod in Luke. John is already questioning Jesus about whether he is the one, or should they be looking for another. Jesus responds by telling them to go back to John and tell him just what he is doing. But it is the last line that caught my attention: “Blessed is he who is not offended at me.”

    Evangelicals I am acquainted with seem to only see the “proofs of Messiahship,” given as they are to apologetics. But you can miss so much when we use the scriptures this way. That is why I think many don’t think through the stories enough to get what that wants to tell us.

    I have never seen a good explanation for that last line of Jesus’. What offense is Jesus talking about? Then I considered putting myself in John’s place. Here he is, in prision under Herod, a Jewish despot no less, and Jesus, who he’s already warned everyone about that he would “sweep the threshing floor clean” in judgment, is allowing him to rot there!

    I have to wonder if the whole reason John sends his disciples to ask his question is because he is scandalized by his predicament. His faith is being tried. Worse, Jesus isn’t lifting a finger to do anything about it!

    Are we going to call Jesus to account for his “passivity” here? The bigger challenge becomes “will we be offended at him” if he leaves us “out to dry” as so many of his followers have experienced over the centuries?

    My take-away from this story is that to bear Christ’s humiliation in his mission by obeying him can be a cause of our temptation to be offended; much more should we expect the world to think we are “dropping the ball” in things they deem are the only responsible solution. It is an issue of short-sightedness, given the horizon Jesus has opened in his death and resurrection.

    1. timgombis

      Beautifully stated, Mark!

      That’s precisely the interpretation Alan Storkey takes in his Jesus and Politics and it’s quite compelling. Jesus is embodying a radically different sort of Messiah than the people expected, and even John the Baptist ends up, in the sense you indicated, running the risk of being scandalized. In a sense, Jesus reports back to him, “this is what it is, John, and this is the sort of Messiah I’m going to be. There are no guarantees.”

      Thanks also for your words about how others, especially Muslims in our current cultural climate, experience contact with Christians. It’s appalling how badly we’ve (mis)represented the real Jesus to them, identifying them as “the enemy” and making certain they feel our disapproval and marginalization. Such conduct shows a lack of hope in the resurrection and a lack of faith in the Kingdom of God and its appointed Lord.

  2. Andrew

    The problem isn’t ‘evangelicals’. It isn’t even ‘liberal Christians’ (use use a tired label). It’s that Christian’s have trained themselves feel more affinity with non-Christian’s than Christians. We’ve lost our sense of fellowship.

    Even here, who exactly is being criticized, but fellow believers. That other Christians love the same Saviour we all profess, and share the same eternal hope, and even advocate for the same purposed evangelism, even if we don’t all agree on how best to achieve that; none of this is enough to shield other believers from the judgement of fellow Christians.

    This may be a non-popular message but the problem isn’t evangelicals, it’s not Calvinists, emergent types, or liberals. The problem is that worldly values, and the world itself is waging a war against Christian values and Christianity (of whatever ilk). That means that those we are trying to evangelize to are (like it or not) are already inclined to be hostile to the message, and no contribution on the part of Christianity is culpable for that. That also means (believe it or not) that those Christians who are sensitive to this hostility, openly acknowledging it, are not necessarily wrong, and are not the antagonists. Islam and Christianity cannot co-exist if Christian (or Islam) is to spread. Moslems know this (even if some Christians don’t).

    I have lived amongst Arabs, Palestinians, and Pashtuns, and not for brief periods – so I know Islamic culture. With the exception of the Pashtuns, I agree that Arabs, by-and-large, are warm welcoming people. However whatever faults you see in Christianity, is found amplified in Islam.

    To look at the defects of fellow believers and blame them for the lack of reception of the Gospel, or the rate of slowness in its propagation, brother, with the greatest charity, and with love I have to say you’re missing the point.

    1. timgombis

      I don’t think Mark is trying to identify “the” problem, but just speaking about his own experience of a kind of Christianity that hasn’t embodied cruciformity. I’ve know this sort of Christianity, too, one that operates from a worldly strength rather than from a cross-shaped orientation.

  3. marknieweg

    Hi Tim.

    I wanted to say you’ve got me right. Do you check out Brian LePort’s blog (Near Emmaus) at all? He is also looking at McKnight’s and Modica’s book. I posted there referring to your current posts:

    You might find it interesting how the commenters are interacting there. Very helpful in getting a gage of where some Christians are in how they look at things from their own vantage points (this does not mean I’ve risen “above it all” :-)). Learning how individuals think of their life in Christ from where they sit is crucial to helping communicate the challenges Jesus brings to his followers. We may think we are faithful with respect to those around us, but I tend to think that a kind of “parochialism” keeps us from getting the bigger picture – maybe best stated “from God’s perspective of His world.” I like to think of the Kingdom of God as a “parochialism buster.” But as long as something else – nation, race, economics, power, etc. – is our horizon, that kingdom gets lost in all those “identity forming” choices. And because discipleship has lost any sense of discernment because the Kingdom of God is not clear, we are in the predicament we are in. This happens to us all if we are not cognizant of it.

    My last words to my elders (they thought it best I should leave) was
    that we don’t really believe Jesus will “remove our candelstick” or “spit us out of his mouth.” I gave an example of a friend of mine who was trying to get across Jesus’ kingdom to a Palestinian who had to sneak his one year old son across Israeli checkpoints in order to get him here to be with his family, as he was going to the university here. This Muslim had actually become an atheist because of all the “religious violence” – so my friend had double-duty to at least try to have him reconsider this. He spent six months talking about the Kingdom of God, and this resonated with this man. My friend thought in order to get his church to see the people around them, he would take anyone interested with him for a visit. But as it were, the kingdom of God to that person was little different than Republican party politics. Of course, the Palestinian man had a different perspective on this – given the impact on his life (which was lost on the person from the church), and in fifteen minutes what took six months to establish was gone!

    Jesus had the most searing words to his own people just because of this type of thing. I really try to temper my anger and my frustration. That I can’t bring anyone from the church into my own situations without first “clearing” them is disappointing at the very least.

    When I see blog posts dealing with nation, flag, etc., it continues to affirm to me the state of things. I call the last thirty years (a whole generation of Christians) influenced by what was started by Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority (a new moralism divorced from covenant) – Falwellian, much as Orwell’s name was used after he wrote 1984.

    Tim, what you do here is VERY important. Please don’t get discouraged as I have.


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