Another day, another tragic, senseless act of violence visited upon persons who have little to no ability to defend themselves. Today, the heretofore tranquility of St-Etienne-du-Rouvray, a suburb of Rouen in northern France, is beginning to come to terms with the brutal execution of Jacques Hamel, an 84 year-old Catholic priest who was murdered during morning Mass while four others were taken hostage. Fr Hamel’s killers are themselves dead. We will never know fully what made them choose him rather than another defenseless target. Perhaps the randomness of it is the point of those who seek to bring terror even to places seemingly far-removed from the centers of political power. ‘It could be anywhere next’, I suppose is the message they wish for the world to hear.
Lorries plowed into scores of spectators, young and old, in Nice; gunshots fired from the roofs of a parking lot and shopping mall in Munich; a knife attack on the mentally disabled just west of Tokyo – each of them, and so many more in Kabul and Baghdad and beyond, ruinous and repulsively callous losses of human life. Such acts have their roots in mental instability, anger, poverty, and a jingoism whose myopic vision of the world has only enough room for a narrow slither of human life. We live in a time saturated by violent imagery and ideology, where each outburst of rage chips away at the edifice of what we had once thought of as the common good.
So, what of the church? There are militant atheists who argue that religious tribalism is what has gotten our world into the mess it is enduring in the first place. Such thinkers, such as Richard Dawkins, claim that as a species we would make a giant step toward a more peaceable existence if we left religious thought and practice behind us. On one hand, it cannot be denied that religious institutions have proved to be effective vehicles for the human tendency toward extremism and exclusivism. On the other, it can be said that churches today in this age of terror have the opportunity to reach deep into their roots to be the alternative vision of life together that their vocation calls them to be.
When the New Testament writers elected to utilize the Greek word, ‘ekklesia’ to refer to the gathering of individual followers of Jesus in the first century, dispersed and diversified as they were across the earliest diaspora of the Jerusalem church’s missionary expansion, they chose to take a common cultural reference point and offer it a resistive twist. ‘Ekklesia’ was the common term applied to the political assemblies of the hellenistic world, most notably and longstanding in Athens. The ekklesia was most simply the people called out to assemble. Ekklesia existed when the people, called out, had gathered. The New Testament writers, though, developed the concept of ekklesia to mean that the people called out exist as an entity, whether assembled or not. Thus, their identity as those called out is more than merely an expression of their having come together in one place, but as a presence in society beyond their gathering, constituted as followers of Jesus
Such an identity was not neutral about the society it embedded itself in. In the steeply hierarchical world of patronage, from slave to emperor, socio-economic power was constructed via a pyramid of servitude, expressed in public displays of social power such as shared meals and other civic celebrations. Thus, the ritual meals of the early followers of Jesus, the dispersed and gathered ekklesia, with their radically egalitarian table fellowship, along with the ekklesia’s place for the leadership of women and freedmen, and the economic mutualism of one local ekklesia extended to another via Paul’s collection of monies for poorer communities, all offered a potent counter-cultural ideology and set of practices.
Like the walls of catacombs that testify to the resistive symbols of the earliest followers of Jesus, these people of the ekklesia literally left their mark on a society that was otherwise based on subordination and violently imposed control. These first ekkelsia were what Hauerwas today calls ‘communities of character’, collectives that seek to live into distinctive rules of life that engrave difference into the world, even as that world’s totalizing narratives of terror seek to deny room for difference to exist.
We need the church to be a diaspora of communities of character. We need people to be formed and to form a world that can articulate a counter-narrative to a culture of violence and division. We need a movement that will identify with its deep collective roots and live in the solidarity of those who are subjected to fear and loss. We need a church that will re-member the witness of the life of Jacques Hamel and hold out in the hope that the resurrection truth we have lived by will gift us all freedom one day: that life wins in the end.