In the past weeks, I have discussed the ways in which the Gospel offers us a way beyond the violent culture of our age. By understanding our God as the Suffering One, and seeing ourselves as personally powerless in His image and likeness, we can build a new culture—what I have termed a co-suffering culture—in which no one exerts his or her power over another because we are all equally powerless.
I wish today’s Christian communities could offer living examples of co-suffering cultures. Sadly, most do not. Despite the calling of the Gospel, we Christians have often chosen to take the opposite tack and define ourselves in enmity with others. The Koran-burning in Gainesville and the deadly counter-protests in Kabul are an example of what happens when this latent tendency is taken to its logical extreme.
Given that we contemporary Christians have a limited understanding of the challenge of our own Gospel, fresh insight must come from unexpected places. Where better to look for a co-suffering culture, then, but among those who are more acutely aware of their own powerlessness, and who seek freedom by sharing a common struggle? I am speaking here, of course, of recovering addicts in the 12-Step program.
I have often spoken of the 12 Steps, which are rooted in the Gospel and present the heart of Christianity in ways that are practical and accessible, not just for addicts, but for anyone seeking spiritual clarity. I will add here that the 12-Step program is not a substitute for historic Christianity, but a prophetic reminder—when we are tempted to forget—of the Gospel’s inner meaning. Similarly, 12-Step recovery groups are not Church substitutes, but offer a vision for the conduct of authentic Christian community.
Let’s consider specifically one of the fundamental rules of every 12-Step meeting: ‘no cross-talk.’ In 12-Step lingo, ‘cross-talk’ is defined as directly addressing advice, comments or questions to someone else in the group. In the 12-Step context, the absence of cross-talk is essential so that members can feel safe to share freely and completely, without risking judgment, criticism or unwanted attention.
At a deeper level, the ‘no cross-talk’ rule has a spiritual purpose: it ensures that members are not tempted to exert power over others with their words. Each person can only share from his or her own human experience without prescribing how another should behave. As a result, the only authority permitted in the meeting is that of the ‘Higher Power’ of God, while everyone else speaks simply as one of His servants.
We can perhaps see how the ‘no cross-talk’ rule might speak to communities well beyond the 12-Step program, beginning with churches. Imagine a Church community where no one offers advice, platitudes, judgments or criticisms. Imagine Church leaders whose authority is rooted only in service and example.
Now imagine the ‘no cross talk’ rule applied to all human communities, so that members no longer seek to exert power over each other legally, financially, socially, religiously or sexually, but instead relate to each other simply on the basis of their shared human experience. Imagine governments whose rule rests on their service to their people, rather than on the drive to control them. Imagine nations that no longer seek to pursue their ideological or economic interests at the expense of other nations…
None of these are new ideals; they exist already, enshrined in many of our Church doctrines and social constitutions, and they all derive ultimately from the New Testament itself. The ‘no cross talk’ rule acts simply as a lens to focus us on those Gospel elements that are most essential and yet most easily forgotten.
As we strive to build a Gospel culture, however, we will encounter those who won’t abide by the ‘no cross talk’ rule. They insist on asserting their power over others through violence, or try to cure violence by violent means. How do we respond?
In my estimation, pacifism is not the answer. When someone invades my home and threatens my family, I am obligated to respond, violently if necessary. If a government starts murdering its people, the international community must intervene, violently if necessary. The difference lies in our attitude. Do we justify our violence using quasi-sacred words like ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’? Do we continue trying to invest our violent actions with moral legitimacy? Do we depict Qaddafi and his supporters as monsters so that our own bombings and killings can shine with a self-righteous light?
The culture of co-suffering calls us to a different attitude. If we must shoot and bomb, we have to do so in full knowledge that we are not just ‘neutralizing’ tanks and anti-aircraft guns, but killing men, making widows of their wives, and orphans of their children. We must weep for those whom we have killed, and our direct role in destroying the lives of their families. Finally, our violence must lead us repent of the rivalries and power struggles in our own lives, and turn towards the One who told His disciples, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt 26:52)
In short, the path to a co-suffering culture is neither easy nor clear cut. It is not simply a matter of more legislation or better education or more effective social or evangelical programs. Rather, it begins in each and every human heart. With time and patience, with steps forward and steps backward, people transformed into the image and likeness of the Suffering God can begin to build communities based on their shared identity in Him, so that slowly, heart by heart and community by community, across regional, national and international boundaries, a new world of compassion, peace and joy may be born.