Lesson 1: The Question of God’s Presence

Jacques Ellul’s book, Presence in Modern SocietyAs I have previously confessed, these online lessons have addressed my own questions. Finding myself recently echoing the psalmists’ pleas for God to speak up and reveal himself in our present brutal society, I decided to do a series on God’s presence. As I was preparing by reviewing Jacques Ellul’s book, Presence in Modern Society, I came across Gandhi’s letter to Hitler that I posted last week. It proved to be a perfect example of Ellul’s thought, once I had the courage to understand what both of these men were saying.

Ellul ignores all the abstract theological theories and argues God is present in this world in the lives of those who follow Jesus’ radical teachings. God makes himself known through Christians who practice Jesus’ nonviolent way of life. A Christian life is the sign of God’s existence. Ellul then goes on to maintain that this will always be a revolutionary lifestyle that challenges the ways of every human society.

Ellul thinks in our day that means recognizing the Christian mission is not pursuing the most useful way to solve our present problems. That, of course, is exactly what we see most modern churches doing. They expend their energy supporting social programs that caring people think are needed by society.

Ellul claims the really distinctive Christian task is boldly speaking truth to power. That means witnessing in words and action to the difference between God’s will and society’s values. Of course, this will raise controversy and might even lead to persecution.

Nonetheless, Ellul’s arguments are easily supported by scripture that reports God very seldom acts directly in this world but instead chooses human instruments to carry out his work. Besides that, these servants usually end up suffering like Jesus.

Just as I was pondering Ellul’s thought, my friend sent Gandhi’s letter that I first dismissed as useless naivete. I could imagine Hitler giving it a quick scan before throwing it into the waste basket. Surely God expects us to find more effective and useful witnesses than this. Then I remembered King Jehoiakim listening to the book of Deuteronomy that the prophet Jeremiah had sent. Casually reclining on his couch, he used his penknife to cut off each column after it was read and tossed it into the fireplace until the entire scroll was consumed.

As my eyes were opened, I realized the significance of Gandhi’s words. He was letting Hitler know that he and his followers were totally committed to the doctrine of universal friendship that embraced all people regardless of race, color, or creed. He could address the Fuhrer as friend while still denouncing his actions as monstrous and inhumane.

Announcing his intention to convert rather than defeat, Gandhi invited Hitler to change his ways. However, he also promised he and his many followers would overwhelm the Nazis if they invaded India, just as they overwhelmed the British. They were “prepared without any ill will against the spoliators to lay down their lives rather than bend the knee to… the tyranny of violence.” Gandhi reinforced his promise by reporting he had trained huge numbers for 20 years so that an invader would have to slay “every Indian—man, woman and child.”

In the end Eisenhower’s and Stalin’s armies stopped Hitler’s Nazis by sacrificing themselves on the battlefields. There was never a need to test Gandhi’s masses, and the great prophet was silenced by assassination. Nonetheless, many of us think Gandhi was quite right in thinking the future of human civilization does not rest in the power of violent armies. We ignore his and Ellul’s interpretation of Jesus’ message at our own great peril.

For millennia, theologians have debated how God makes himself present in our world. I intend to discuss some of their theories in the coming weeks. However, Ellul and Gandhi set the standard that I shall use to evaluate them all.

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  1. Kerry says:

    I’m so looking forward to learning from you in this new series, Fritz. I don’t know Ellul’s book, but will get my hands on a copy. Thanks for undertaking this!

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