It has often been said that the church is not the building but the people. Which I think is true, but there is a different nuance in the word ekklesia that we have tended to miss. We’ve come to think of that people (in the same way that we think of the British people) as a people out there all doing different things, and united by the nebulous identity of simply being the Church. The word ekklesia however, as borrowed from the Greeks, specifically meant a public gathering of citizens for some kind discussion or deliberation. And so, while the term has rightly developed its greater and mystical theological meaning, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the word refers to a public gathering of the people… a place “where two of three are gathered.” It’s one thing to consider it as a transcendent entity, or as an identity, but it’s also a phenomenon instituted by Jesus which occurs in time and space and matter. It’s a fine thing to speak of the Church, but it is an underestimated thing to speak of the churches.
Here’s Noam Chomsky writing about the churches:
“There are institutions which it has as yet been impossible to destroy. The churches for example, still exist. A large part of the dissident activity in the United States comes out of the churches, for the simple reason that they’re there. So when you go to a European country and you give a political talk, it may very likely be in the union hall. Here that won’t happen because the unions first of all barely exist, and it they do exist they’re not political organisations. But the churches do exist, and therefore you often give a talk in a church. Central American solidarity work mostly grew out of the churches, mainly because the exist.” (Media Control, p32)
Here, Chomsky writes about the way the powers reduce the possibility of popular resistance, resilience and change, by suppressing or undermining the public sphere, or places of public discussion: “As long as people are marginalised and distracted and have no way to organise or articulate their sentiments, or even know that others have these sentiments…[people] assumed that they were the only people with that crazy idea in their heads.” (p31)
We are now living in a time when an ethos of individualistic consumerism and private domestic comfort have pushed the localised public sphere almost out of existence. So much of the technological and social development of the last half century have segregated us from each other and eradicated vibrant public life. Consider the motor car, the supermarket, the ipod, the online store, and so on. Progress has been partly about freeing ourselves from other people.
The power of the public sphere as the entry point of change is apparent in the role of the internet in the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, The 2011 riots, and the recent riots in Sweden, Turkey and Brazil. Where there is a public forum there will be radical action of one kind or another. The criticism leveled at most of the above movements is that they were a mile wide and an inch deep. Some used the internet to coordinate actions that many of the participants couldn’t actually articulate their reasons for.
That doesn’t mean the reasons didn’t exist; far from it. But for sustained movements of change borne out of deeply held convictions we have to begin with a localised public forum where the people can meet in actual (and not virtual) space, to discuss and explore the issues of their own time and place in history, to work together to organise their response and action, and to then network with other communities elsewhere. This is necessary because deep change doesn’t come from protest and riots alone – deep change comes all the more profoundly when everyday people work together to re-organise the way they live their own lives. The former appeals to the power of the elites to change some law or other, but the latter appeals to everyday people to bring change by re-orienting their own lives together, and is thereby the more profound kind of empowerment. Their resistance is lived out in daily practice… in the sacrament of living.
The churches are uniquely positioned in Western society, to able to facilitate this kind of prophetic action and resistance. Chomsky talks about the presence of the churches as merely incidental – it is “simply because they exist.” But the ability of the churches to resist the deconstruction of public sphere and public life begs the question how? What is the unique character of the churches that they of all things have remained?
While the order of the day mostly approves of the kind of public gatherings that numb or distract consciousness in some way, we Christians are only faintly and indirectly aware of how subversive our practice of the ekklesia is. Our awareness manifests itself mostly in a feeling of shame, that our meeting together on Sundays, or our gathering in the week at that strange and very Christian phenomenon called a house-group, is something slightly awkward to own up to. Until recently it had completely passed me by how subversive an idea the church house-group is. Meeting together socially, without (usually) the buffer of any intoxication, to discuss our deepest thoughts and impulses, to discuss what it means to be a human being here and now, and to discuss together – in light of the love of God – the question that can barely help but become revolutionary if taken seriously: how should we live.
There is no suggestion here that the churches become the forum for any and every agenda. The Churches are not neutral. Their agenda lies with the Kingdom of God, as found in Jesus Christ. But a renewed seeking of the Kingdom here in history – here in time and space – and a renewed awakening to the fundamentally oppressive character of many of the norms of Western living – in which we are complicit – will reveal the points where the churches must become the fulcrum of resistance, resilience, change and radical action.