Toward an Apologetic of Mercy, Part 1
Apologia and Diakonia. Two Biblical Greek words that seem to have nothing in common with each other. And yet, they have increasingly become a part of Christian vocabulary, and for good reason. Apologia, loosely defined, is defending the faith, apologetics. Diakonia (or mercy), broadly speaking, is the Church’s work of mercy in body and soul.
When it comes to apologetics, many of the arguments and debates are familiar: How can a loving God allow pain and suffering? Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead? Are the New Testament Documents historically reliable? And so forth.
These questions come from the realm of the skeptics: everyone from the hard-line atheists to the ‘average-Joe’; from the cynic who revels in questioning authority to the individual with genuine questions about the Christian faith. And this is an entirely necessary. Christians ought not to shy away from hard-nosed, tough-minded intellectual debate and discourse so rabidly needed in our day and age, not only an age of skepticism, but out right anti-truth. Challenges to the Church come from both the alleged scholarly and genuinely intellectual arguments and everyone from popular writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to ridiculous op-ed films, such as “Religulous” by Bill Maher.
However, there is another side to apologetics. I call it right-brained apologetics. For some the logic and academic setting of discourse is less engaging. Maybe they don’t wrestle with particular intellectual questions about the Christian faith. For some, reading the works of the Oxford Inklings (J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, et al), discussing the finer points of the Chronicles of Narnia, listening to a majestic Bach Cantata, or browsing Lucas Cranach’s collection of Reformation artwork is just as winsome of a defense for the Christian faith as the hard-nosed argumentation is for others. To paraphrase St. Paul, “O, People of the theatre, bookstore, and concert hall, I see that you are very artistic! Let me tell you about the Word made flesh, by whom all things were made.”
The works of music, art, literature, film (and so forth) are not only God–pleasing vocations, whereby we serve God and the neighbor, they also form a “softer” under-belly to the watchful dragons of unbelief. The people are no less unbelievers. And the Holy Spirit is no less in charge – conversion is His from beginning to completion. Yet, in the midst of these various means, the goal is the same. One of the primary goals of apologetics is to break down barriers and answer objections that people have put in the way of the cross so that the scandal of the Gospel might be heard clearly. This is done all out of compassion and care for the neighbor in need, body and soul, whether that neighbor is looking for an intellectual discussion or a good book to read, there is always a way to speak the truth in love.
And it is here – in the realm of compassion and care – where diakonia meets apologia, where there is an apologetic of mercy at work in the life of the Church. To be sure, mercy is not primarily interested in defending the Christian faith. That however does not mean the Church’s life of mercy is somehow separated from a faithful witness to the truth of the Christian faith. It is, rather, quite the opposite. The two are inseparably related – an indissoluble union – in Christ Crucified. It is through love and care for the neighbor that apologetics sneaks in through the back door of mercy in the end.
Mercy is chiefly concerned with loving, caring for, showing compassion to the neighbor in body and soul. And because the Christian is set free from sin and death, the Christian is free to love the neighbor as Christ loved us. Or, in the words of St. John, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11).
Nowhere is this love more apparent, more fleshly, visceral and tangible than in Christ’s Crucified and Risen present in His Church in the sacraments, the Eucharist in particular. Christ’s Mercy flows from the altar and returns us back to it. It beckons us to come and drink, buy food and wine without price and then to give freely to our neighbor in need. “In faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another,” we pray. Thus, our entire Christian life revolves around the flesh and blood mercy in our Lord’s flesh and blood given in the Holy Supper. For the early church – as it should be today – any discussion, defense, discourse or actual diakonia must begin and return us to the same flesh and blood Diakonia that our Lord has poured out for the forgiveness of sins. A body-less and blood-less church is mercy-less church. A church that lives and moves and has its being in the Sacramental life of Christ has more mercy than she knows what to do with, our cup runneth over to the neighbor’s needs in body and soul.
The early Christians had a Biblical understanding of this, a diakonic worldview. Their worldview was vastly different from Greco-Roman (and modern) paganism and unique when compared to any other world religion. Already in the book of Acts a rich and vibrant diakonic worldview was first planted and then began to thrive as deacons (notice the root word diakonia) were appointed to care for the widows and the needy (Acts 6). They – like the church father Tertullian (ca. 220 A.D.) and even Luther, later in the 16th century – had a common treasury, a voluntary fund set up to provide for the needs for the poor in the congregation but also the surrounding community as well. Mercy, like salvation is given indiscriminately –Christ suffered and died for all; Christians show mercy to all. This was – and still is – radically different from the common attitude in the world outside the Church. Mercy given to all from Christ; mercy shown for all in Christ.
“The early Christians practiced called this practice, caritas – or charity – as opposed to the liberalitas of the Greco-Roman world. Caritas meant giving to relieve the recipient’s economic or physical distress without expecting anything in return, whereas liberalitas meant giving to please the recipient, who later would bestow a favor on the giver.” [endnote 1]
There was nothing inherent in the Roman pagan culture that motivated, taught or established any permanent work of mercy for those in need. Whereas, among Christians, all needy, sick, suffering, and dying people, whether pagan or Christian, had intrinsic value. Life meant something entirely different to the early Christians when contrasted with their pagan neighbors. When Tertullian wrote his Apology of the Christian faith to the Romans, he answered the accusation that Christian congregations and assemblies gathered the collection of common funds, not for drunken feasts and parties in good Roman fashion, but rather for the support of the poor, the sick, the orphans and widows.
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[endnote 1] Schmidt, Alvin. How Christianity Changed the World. p. 126. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.
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