March 23, 2016

The relevance of the impossible: a meditation

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Last week Mark Flory Steury stopped by my office with a small stack of books. Somehow he found out that I collect books about peace and peacemaking. While sorting through the book collection of his late wife, Mary Jo Flory-Steury, he pulled together some books to give to me.As you can imagine, I was really touched by his gesture, and said thank you. But then he stood and waited while I looked through the stack … and when I came to the last book I knew what he was waiting for me to find: a copy of “The Relevance of the Impossible: A Reply to Reinhold Niebuhr” written by G.H.C. MacGregor and published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, in London, in 1941.I opened the book and found the signatures of three previous owners: at the top Ralph E. Smeltzer, then Wendell Flory, and then Mary Jo’s. I was speechless for just a moment, then I asked Mark, at least three times, if he was sure he wanted to give the book away. He assured me he did, and I assured him I will treasure it. 

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

What a great cloud of witnesses, in one slim volume! What amazing witnesses to the power of choosing the impossible.

Ralph Smeltzer was a leader in the Church of the Brethren’s work for peace and justice during World War II and the Civil Rights movement. For those who aren’t familiar with his name, his groundbreaking work included many impossibilities: He volunteered to teach at the Manzanar camp, one of the camps where the US government interned Japanese-Americans during World War II, and he went on to help resettle Japanese-Americans in other parts of the country after they got out of the camps. He directed the Brethren Service program in Austria after the war. Then in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement he volunteered to work in Selma, Alabama, for about two years as an unofficial mediator attempting to bring about some kind of communication and mutual understanding between the black and white communities.

And then there’s the witness of Wendell Flory, Mary Jo’s father. He was a leader in the Church of the Brethren mission work in China and in India. Flory and his family went first to China as missionaries, but when staying there became impossible for American missionaries, the Florys went on to India instead of taking the easy road of just heading home again.

And the witness of Mary Jo. In recent years I have been impressed by what she did to encourage Brethren women to make strides in ministry and in leadership in the church. I expect there were days when she thought that was impossible–maybe especially on days at Annual Conference when election results are announced and it is clear how, sometimes, few women are chosen for leadership in the church.

And then there’s the witness of the Fellowship of Reconciliation during World War II. The fellowship was at that time an organization of Christians–now it is an interfaith organization. But in 1941 it was made up of Christians, including people from England and from Germany who joined together across political divides and across the frontlines and despite the war between their countries to advocate for peacemaking as the true path of discipleship.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation published this volume to assert the validity of Christian pacifism in answer to Reinhold Niebuhr’s support for the war. Niebuhr had recently published a booklet titled “Why the Christian Church Is not Pacifist.” True to its title, this little book from the Fellowship of Reconciliation claimed instead the relevance of the impossible–not least the impossible task of answering back to Niebuhr who was at the time the most popular Christian theologian.

Author G.H.C. MacGregor acknowledges the impossibility on the very first page: “To the nonpacifist majority in the churches his [Niebuhr’s] writings have come as a veritable godsend, and no one has been so successful in salving the conscience of the nonpacifist, and even in weaning the pacifist from the pure milk of his faith.”

I love the fact that there are notes written all over this book, and sections underlined and scored, in at least three different colors of ink, some even in pink! I’ve been trying to decipher some of the handwriting and wish I knew which of its former owners wrote which of these notes. Maybe it was more than one, or just one who got really excited by what he or she was reading.

There are still a couple of torn strips of old paper acting as bookmarks. One is at the start of a section titled “A true theology of crisis,” so I started reading this section. The first sentence is telling: “The estimate of human nature on which Niebuhr’s case so largely depends is one of pessimism and gloom entirely out of tune with the joy and hope of the whole New Testament.”

And it continues with a strong critique of Niebuhr’s attitude, which it says “seriously distorts the New Testament doctrine of the Incarnation, for it makes Christ’s nature exclusive rather than representative, and sees Him as a ‘divine intruder’ into an alien world rather than as ‘the first-born of all creation.’ It gives little or no meaning … to the Holy Spirit; and it makes nonsense of Paul’s claim that ‘we are fellow-workers together with God.'”

This section of the book goes on to say, “Certainly the world’s agony has taught us this much, that ‘progress’ is not the easy, inevitable evolutionary process of which we once dreamed. As C.H. Dodd has said, ‘the Gospel does not speak of progress, but of dying and rising again.'”

And now this book has fallen into my hands, in another time of crisis. This is a time of real change, if not crisis, for the Church of the Brethren and our work for the denomination. I believe this is a time of crisis for our nation, seeing the hatred and bigotry and misogyny spewed by leading candidates for the presidential election. This is a time of crisis for our world, as we face extremist violence in Belgium and France and Nigeria and Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the unprecedented numbers of displaced people and refugees, and never-ending wars. So many never-ending wars.

And now, just in time for Holy Week, this book has been given to me and I must grapple with the question it asks, in the midst of crisis: How relevant is the impossible?

I look at the simple, naive peace witness of the Church of the Brethren, and it does seem impossible in this horribly violent world. But I am challenged to ask instead, is it relevant? And of course, I have to answer yes. And the more violent our world gets, the more relevant it will be.

I’ve been looking at the dwindling membership numbers in the Church of the Brethren, and the dwindling numbers of baptisms, and I think about dwindling numbers in church on Sunday morning. Then I think about Love Feast this Thursday and wonder how many people will come. How many people are willing to do feetwashing? I wonder if itis becoming increasingly impossible to get people to kneel down before one another in discipleship to Jesus Christ. But that’s not the question. The question is: is it relevant? Yes! How much more relevant now, than ever, to kneel before each other in love and service.

I consider the cross of Christ, this Holy Week, and realize it is the ultimate symbol of the impossible. How impossible that Jesus could die, and be buried, and come back to life again? What could be more impossible? But should I continue to ponder the possibility or impossibility of the cross, and the resurrection? No. I have been given the task of asking instead, is the cross relevant? Or, in other words, does it really matter?

For me, the answer lies in another quote from MacGregor’s book: “The mystery of the cross … We must see in it the inevitable climax … to a consistent life-practice of meeting evil, not by violence, but by the way of forgiving and reconciling love. The faith that this is the only Christian method of overcoming evil is not a mere appendage to the gospel, but its very core and condition. If Jesus was wrong here [on the cross], then He was wrong in the very crux of His message, and it is a mockery to call him Lord.”

Isn’t this always the question of Holy Week: is the impossible relevant? Does the cross of Christ still mean something?

What does the cross mean … to me? To you? To our church? To the world?

This meditation was given for chapel at the Church of the Brethren General Offices in Elgin, Ill., on Wednesday, March 23, 2016.

Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren, and associate editor for Messenger. She also is an ordained minister and a graduate of Bethany Seminary and the University of La Verne, Calif.