Being only 46, I’m too young to remember the mid 60’s – mid 70’s with much context beyond the news clips and documentaries. I’ve been blessed in recent years to meet regularly with a few (older than me, but far from old) ministers over morning coffee. Not infrequently, conversation inevitably drifts to this unique period in U.S. history – not simply the memories of men who observed from a safe distance, but as those who in one aspect or another were deeply engaged with the era. One even went from being a substance supplying combatant in Vietnam to a Christian commune resident after being radically transformed by an encounter with Jesus (and finding himself largely unwelcome in the churches he tried to visit). I find their stories utterly fascinating. I should probably pitch the idea of writing or otherwise documenting their experiences – don’t know that there’d be a market for it, but as a full-time observer of culture and one who fancies himself as a bit of an amateur historian, the stories are too compelling to leave untold.
As I reflect on their recollections, the era as I’ve come to know it, and life today, there are two themes that strike me as particularly relevant to the church today – ghetto (I’d say commune, except the idea is generally too far removed from most of us) and counter-culture. It’s within this distinction that I think we find the point of Jesus’ comments in Matt 5:13-16 – being salt and light.
Please note that in my description of the ghetto, I am strictly speaking of the American experience of the phenomena (and then only in a very limited capacity), it would not serve, for example, as an appropriate description of the conditions experienced by many European Jews in the first half of the twentieth century. That said, for most Americans today, when we use the word ghetto we’re usually referring to a crime-ridden, dilapidated section of an urban area – usually inhabited by impoverished blacks or Hispanics (forgive my ignorance if I’ve used the inappropriate terminology at this point, no offense is intended). There are exceptions of course, but this seems to be the predominant image. Of course, historically, the term also applied to other sections of the city that were almost exclusively inhabited by a single distinct cultural group – usually where particular immigrant groups ultimately settled (be they of Jewish, Irish, Italian, Polish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, or any other descent). However we picture the ghetto, there are some common characteristics. The ghetto may or may not be impoverished or dilapidated or composed of ‘people of color,’ but it is always concerned with preserving a particular, and very rich, culture – one that is quite distinct from that of the greater surroundings. Influence from the outside is strictly guarded against (often for good reason) and ghetto activity that may potentially influence the surrounding region is an irrelevant concern – unless it serves a direct economic purpose. Well intended, and often needed assistance from the outside is viewed with distrust (it could inadvertently corrupt). Any engagement with the outside world, even economic, is strictly monitored. Consideration of ideas, art, media originating from outside the community is strongly frowned upon – and usually rejected out-of-hand. It is, so far as possible, an entirely closed system. Attempts to leave the ghetto are also frequently met with strong resistance from those inside. Of course, this kind of dynamic applies to more than just ethnic groups. It might (at least in part) be applicable to the present phenomena in which upper and upper-middle class retirees retreat from mainstream culture and move into communities only accessible to people over a certain age (and we wonder why older Americans of this economic strata often feel disconnected from and ignored by the rest of society). It’s also applicable to religious groups, especially among more conservative strands – to include Christianity.
Of course, unless we’re part of an Amish community, the Christian ghetto is rarely framed in terms of geography. However, much of the description applies to certain segments of the Western church. Little contact is made with outsiders, even neighbors – except in the cases where employment requires it, but even then only with great care. Consumption of media and culture outside the particular brand of ‘the faith’ is strongly discouraged. Separate education and recreational tracts are developed (leaving us with the curious creations of things like church softball leagues and Christian youth football). While evangelism is theoretically encouraged, its only engaged in under tight controls and close supervision (except, of course, by the trained professionals among us). The Christian ghetto is a wonderfully safe place to live, raise families, and insulate oneself (and loved ones) from the potentially corrupting influence of the world. However, Matt 5:13-16 calls for the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven (which is now at hand) to be salt and light. Salt flavors and preserves, light shines and reveals, it stands out. Our good deeds are to be evident to ALL so as to bring glory to the Father! AND, Matthew places this teaching of Jesus on the heals of announcing the arrival of the Kingdom AND after the last of the beatitudes – the one that depicts the present likelihood of persecution and slander and such. It’s as if Jesus is saying “Yes, the Kingdom is here, but the reality of the Kingdom today will be challenging and possibly dangerous. However, hiding behind safe lines is not an option – that IS NOT part of the program.” Note – this WAS part of the Pharisaic program and the more ethnocentric elements of the radical ‘Zionists’ of the time (I’m using the term loosely here), both of which were soundly rebuked by Jesus throughout His ministry. This reality insists that the good impulse to guard and protect our distinctness, our beliefs, and our vulnerable MUST somehow mesh with our obligation as salt and light. Blending-in is not an option, as losing our saltiness ultimately means ceasing to follow Jesus, ceasing to remain a citizen of heaven’s kingdom (Matthew’s & Jesus’ picture, not mine). So neither retreat into the ghetto, nor blending into the dominant culture are options. This brings us to the second theme under consideration: the counter-culture.
While not geographically confined, the counter-culture shares many of the concerns of the ghetto – at least in part. Both are committed to ideas (if not entire cultures) that stand in sharp contrast to the dominant culture. Both are concerned with guarding those distinctions with great care. Both are willing to forego certain conveniences in order to protect what they believe to be important. There are likely other similarities. However, there is at least one very significant difference: the counter-culture expects to engage the dominant culture and seeks out ways to transform it. Popular media, art and culture? Don’t run away from it, discover what speaks to the masses or difference makers and produce better versions (not cheap knock-offs) of the same to declare your message. Cultural institutions? Whether its education, the academy, news outlets, or various levels of government commit to immerse yourself in it for the long-term, however long it takes, to ensure that your message is heard – not just in volume, but with great thought and excellence. New ideas? Embrace them and position yourself on the leading edge of implementation – even if it means backing off older approaches and long-held structures, so long as the foundational message is preserved. The counter-culture knows what the ghetto can’t even imagine, without frequent and meaningful engagement with the dominant culture, the movement will starve and die – perhaps quickly, perhaps agonizingly slowly, but it will inevitably die. The ghetto may feel safer, but that feeling is deceptive as the ghetto ultimately finds itself presiding over its own funeral. Meanwhile, the counter-culture gathers to share encounters, learn from experience, and reinforce nonnegotiables (which are necessarily very few indeed) and lives to see another day on its way to another victory – be it far or near, be it partial or complete. Note closely, effective counter-culture endeavors do not replace the dominant culture with something else (usually), rather they take the elements of the culture and transform them for its own use. As for the church, does that mean that we don’t build separate structures and institutions (schools, arts, news, etc)? Maybe, maybe not. What it does mean is that whatever structures we build to safe-guard our young or otherwise vulnerable we must ALWAYS wrestle with the question: are we still engaging our world and neighbors in a meaningful way? Are we still acting as (and training our young to be) salt and light?
– Pastor Jim Kushner