This is a confession about how I encountered Jesus at work in my home church and how, through this encounter, I now find myself on a plane headed to South Korea to volunteer with Mennonite Central Committee.
I grew up in a small town in Canada, attending a Mennonite Brethren church every Sunday with my family.
My father runs a successful small business with my uncle, and my mom is an elementary school teacher. So, when I went away to study Philosophy at secular universities, it made me different from my family and many of the people I grew up around in some important ways. My opinions and attitudes have been shaped in a dramatic way by my experience at university.
At the same time, however, my blue-collar background put me in a unique position to see how the concerns and opinions of blue collar people are not fairly represented and sometimes not even discussed in academic circles.
For example, in my experience, academics, when opining on business affairs, do not concern themselves with the specific pressures and responsibilities to clients and employees involved in running a successful business. In my opinion, specific responsibilities like these are the real meat of ethical reflection. Yet, rather than engage with the ideas of business owners like my dad, I found that my academic colleagues often simply treated the views of the working-class as too far gone to be calmly discussed in seminars.
This lack of communication between academic and blue collar people is part of the reason why I sometimes wonder along with Wendell Berry what it would be like if more academics returned home and became a part of the life of their home communities.
What if academics in Canada and the US returned to be a part the life at home? This might not be as visibly heroic or sexy as protesting each other, but maybe it is part of the path to healing the divide between working class and academic people in our countries.
Academics like me will, of course, think they have something of great value to contribute to their home churches. My confession below witnesses to the way Christians who wander from home at university can also gain wisdom by participating in church life at home.
I returned home from university with the strong pacifist convictions that the Mennonite churches I grew up in had left behind, as well as the analytical ability to back up and teach my new-found convictions. I was given a chance to share what I learned, by teaching a series on pacifism in Adult Sunday School and preaching several sermons.
I discovered that, quite opposed to the impression I received from university seminars, blue collar people often have very pointed, common-sense criticism of philosophers, who perhaps, at times, get caught up in their webs of abstract reasoning. As I taught my church about pacifism, one such criticism that kept coming up was “Yes, but what does this mean in practice?”
It was, and remains, a good point. I had so far only presented pacifism as an abstract ethical argument. But Christianity is not primarily a worldview to be believed but a way of discipleship to be walked.
Moreover, Christian pacifism presumes Jesus is king over the world, and that he will show up when we follow his example of nonviolent love. This does not mean that our efforts will always be effective in the short-term; rather, just as Jesus who was crucified is now alive, so too, if we are faithful to Christ’s example, will be included by God in bringing about his renewal of all things.
So, we read in Revelation 6 about the fifth seal opened by the Lamb, where the martyrs, whose blood has collected under the altar, wait for the coming of God’s kingdom. Their deaths are not in vain, even though it may seem so in the short term. They are told that God will not fully bring about his kingdom until their number is complete, indicating their inclusion by God in his work (vs. 9-11).
At least, that’s how I – the academic – would say it. But, in short, my church was right.
If I would never have returned home, I would never have been led down the path of discipleship that I am on now. (I will have to leave a discussion of what brought me to Korea in particular for another time.) In this way, church has been just as important a part of my education as university.
So, if we academics are presumptuous enough to think we have something of interest to contribute to our churches (and in writing for TTC, I think I, at least, am that presumptuous), we should also be humble enough to allow our churches to make us more interesting witnesses to Christ’s love on the cross.
(A version of this post first appeared on my personal blog about my time in Korea. Some readers may be interested in following this blog. Others may not.)