In the world, not of it: Thoughts on countercultural Christian living
“Be in the world, not of the world.”
“Live countercultural Christian lives.”
“Be radical for the Gospel.”
Such mottos of countercultural Christian living have been ingrained in me for much of my life. Lately they have been going around in my mind like a record, while I have been pondering instances of divisiveness and polarization, both in American politics and around the globe.
I have been reflecting on my own maturation through counter-cultural behaviors and attitudes. I am a bit of an evolving countercultural creature:
I am a student of American ideals and a cynic of the American dream.
I am a girl who imagines I am a pioneer on an adventure.
I am a teen adorned with purple hair and an eyebrow ring.
I am not a hippy, a hipster or a beatnik.
I am not your average predictable nonconformist.
I will destroy your stereotypes; try to get to know me.
I will not fit in your box. I have no home on that spectrum.
I am not OK with injustice, violence, or environmental degradation.
I am an activist and a participant in social movements.
I am a joyful Christian and serious about following Jesus.
I am a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration; modern life, sacred traditions.
I will meet you where you are and love you for who you are.
I will not stop asking questions nor believing in Christ’s peace.
My tendency to evolve through varying countercultural attitudes does not make me unique. To veer one way or another is human. To be for something and against something else is a universal experience, for we naturally group ourselves into tribes of like-minded people.
Certainly, one does not need to go too deeply into news headlines and streams of social media to find evidence of how the human tendency to slide towards us vs. them thinking can have negative impacts. The debate of the presidential candidates. The climate change cynics. The extremism and lack of compromise among elected officials. The violence and extremism of ISIS and Boko Haram. The war in Syria. The global refugee and immigration crisis.
Our own lived experiences prove it too. Divisiveness impacts our communities, our church, the Body of Christ. I have had increased encounters with Catholic Christians who are dismayed by the mainstream culture (often for good reason) and therefore are more frequently uttering phrases like “fight against the culture” and “culture war.”
I have observed some Christians (particularly Catholics) who choose to be countercultural by separating themselves from the mainstream culture. This concerns me. If alternative, Christ-centered visions are lived out away and apart from all that they have issue with, then they are dismissing a possible communion with the dignity that is found in every culture.
Separation is at times appropriate and sacred. But, all counter-cultural Christian actions ought to promote the Gospel to the wider world and serve Christ found in all things (Col 1: 15-17). A Christian counterculturalism does not create a cocoon of safety and comfort and avoidance of sin and suffering. It does not place judgment upon all that is in disagreement with a particular vision of how the Gospel is lived.
Rather, Christian counterculturalism moves into the places of pain and injustice; for where people are suffering and oppressed is where Christ is found. It promotes the peace that Christ established in every hurting corner of creation.
As Pope Francis has stated in Evangelii Gaudium, the Catholic invitation is actually to evangelize the popular culture: “An evangelized popular culture contains values of faith and solidarity capable of encouraging the development of a more just and believing society, and possesses a particular wisdom which ought to be gratefully acknowledged.” (68)
Much of our life-long religious formation ingrains in us that Christians are called to be countercultural, and we have a lot of work to do in order to evangelize the culture like Pope Francis invites. But, if we are disciples of Jesus Christ, then our countercultural actions must be guided by how he sent us into the world to witness and proclaim the Gospel.
The particular notion that we are “in the world but not of the world” is based on the prayer of Jesus in the Last Supper discourses in the Gospel of John. Jesus said, “They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world” and “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world” (Jn 17:16-17).
We are sent into the world to witness and share the good news that we have come to know in Christ. Peace is possible. Love is real. All creation has dignity and is sacred and can bring us closer to God.
This loving witness is costly. We may stick out, or be misunderstood. We could end up like the one we follow and so we must embrace the cross. We may have to pay a major price for proclaiming prophetic messages. Christ, after all, is our model for countercultural Gospel living.
In his prayer recorded in John 17:22, Jesus declares that the ultimate aim of all countercultural Christian living is not actually division and separation, but unity:
“And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
As we live our countercultural Christian lives, may we remain rooted in this vision. May we always remember that we witness Christ’s love in order to more boldly manifest the union and love that is found in God alone. Amen!
[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]