The other day, I watched as an interfaith band of clergy linked arms and marched up to a group of militant protesters made up of emboldened white supremacists and neo-Nazi’s gathered to “unite the right”. There the clergy knelt and prayed in the face of hatred and hostility. The vitriol of the group had been aimed, generally, at counter-protesters and anyone who dared to favor removing a Confederate Monument. But now it was aimed at the clergy, who boldly knelt and prayed.
I had to ask myself: had I been in their town, in Charlottesville, would I have linked arms, marched, and prayed? There’s no question that their action was an heroic, inspiring depiction of non-violent courage. As they knelt and prayed, they were shouted at, spat on, crowded, and, generally intimidated. “I could handle that,” I thought. But then I heard things were thrown at them, too. Soda cans that were filled with concrete. Ouch. Thinking about a soda can filled with concrete hitting me in the face while my arms were linked did something to my insides. Where would I find the courage?
That is not a rhetorical question.
Oh, and this is not just a thought exercise for me, either. Jacksonville has a monument debate going on, too. The possibility of being invited to march and kneel in the face of militants is quite possible. And I have many whom I love who militants despise. I count among my friends Muslims, Jews, African- Americans, Liberals, and Immigrants. And some are close friends.
So let me be clear about this. I have a great deal of respect for those who do what they did. When someone does something hard that I myself may lack courage to do, they earn my appreciation and respect.
But there was a problem. It was all clergy. Where were the everyday followers of Jesus? Why was it clergy only? Why did not every member of that group have one, two, or a half-dozen of their disciples with them? Granted, I may have missed something – but I only noticed clergy on the video.
Maybe they were simply being like Jesus – facing evil alone as a group. Maybe they were saying, “This is what Jesus would do.” But Jesus had a dozen (and more) disciples who spent most of the time learning to do exactly what he was doing. They abandoned him at his time of testing. It may have been according to God’s plan, but the disciples were ashamed they weren’t with him.
Back to the video: it recorded an excellent opportunity for publicity and a missed opportunity for discipleship.
The lack of disciples doesn’t surprise me. Over the last few years, I have learned that discipleship, actual discipleship, is rare in American churches. Bible studies, support groups, care groups, classes, great teaching, and powerful preaching are common. But discipleship as Jesus modeled it is as rare as a drama free worship band. This is not how it should be.
Let me explain. As Jesus modeled it, discipleship was life on life. And that takes time. Jesus spent a lot of time with a small group of disciples. He shunned crowds, withdrew from people, told his family to get lost, and even left the country to pour himself into his disciples. It was a priority. Most clergy spend most of their time working on preparing and delivering quality preaching and teaching. They also administer programs and overseeing the operation of the business side of the church. They also visit the sick, counsel, and connect with others. It’s demanding work, and it is completely necessary to maintain your typical institutional church. Ironically, if they do the work well, the demands of the job grow.
The work they do touches many but the lifestyle that goes with it actually works against discipleship because it squeezes out time for life on life. Many pastors sense something is wrong but don’t know what to do about it. I know this because I was one of those pastors. And I have some good friends who pastored like that. They have noticed the same thing.
Discipleship requires time.
Discipleship, as Dallas Willard defined it, is learning from Jesus to live like Jesus. In practice, it’s learning how to live like Jesus from someone or from a small community that lives like Jesus. It requires organized meetings and appointments, sure. But it also requires hanging out together. Something my teenagers are much better at than me. But it requires hanging out with a sense of purpose – with a sense of being involved in the Kingdom. It involves organized missional activity – like going out to serve together. But it also involves developing a recognition that we could be called on to join God in the work He’s doing at any time.
Like how God was inviting his people to represent him in Charlottesville.
Do you know what really cost the counter-protestors in Charlottesville? Some of them looked just like the militants. Another video I saw involved people pushing, shoving, and swinging clubs at each other. No surprise. But honestly, I couldn’t tell which group was which. I understand. It’s normal to return evil for evil. That instinct is in me, too.
So let me ask: Where will your everyday counter-protestors learn to practice that most effective nation-saving type of non-violence? Well, clergy, if you go out and do it alone, they may be inspired and they may cheer you on, but they aren’t likely to pick it up. A sermon is helpful, but training is required. They will need time, lots of time, with someone or a small community of people who know how to imitate Jesus in the face of hostility – like maybe their pastors, local clergy, who are willing to link arms and march up to the face of hatred, kneel, and pray as soda cans filled with concrete are thrown at them. And they could learn more in the process, like how to pray, serve, forgive, love neighbors, love enemies, and how to recognize when the Kingdom of God is at hand.
But there’s no time for that. I think the pastor’s busy in her office looking up the perfect Martin Luther King quote for this Sunday’s bulletin.
My sisters and brothers, we have important work to do. Much is at stake. Let us choose wisely how we live.