Author: Bergen, Rachel
Date published: April 2, 2012
"If any want to become my followers, I let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" Jesus' words from Matthew 16 have had many varying interpretations throughout the ages, Robert Benne, Ph.D., said in his lectures at the annual"Proclaiming the Unique Claims of Christ" series at Canadian Mennonite University last month.
Benne, the Jordan-Trexler professor emeritus of religion and director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College, Salem, Va., challenged those in attendance not to think that this means to deny oneself everything, but that this radical call isn't just meant for radical contexts. "Very early on in the church's life, [a person would] leave the world, become a hermit, deny themselves everything and live in prayer and contemplation," he said.
Another interpretation leads people to be radically obedient by becoming priests, monks or nuns, and taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as ways of denying themselves and taking up their cross.
In most Protestant groups, this call means leaving everything and pursuing missions and following the great command, Benne said. "There's always been that radical response to Jesus' challenge," he said.
On the other hand, Benne believes that the radical call of Jesus is in the heart of every lay person who is living in the world. The doctrine of vocation applies to everyone and in many ways doesn't relax any of the radicalness of Jesus' call. "It just puts it into a different context," Benne said.
Most Christians take the worldly route of obedience, Benne said. This includes exercising faith, love and hope in marriage and family life, work, public or political life, voluntary associations and church.
"We don't have to wander around looking for places to exercise our obedience," Benne said. "They are often given to us in these places of responsibility that God sustains in the world."
Although these places of responsibility can increase Christians' love for God, faith in God and hope in God, they are also practical virtues in the human spheres in which they are found. "These virtues, as they're worked and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, transform these ordinary places of responsibility into Christian callings for devout, discipled Christians," Benne said.
Faith, love and hope also translate to political life, Benne said. Christians are all over the map politically, he acknowledged: Some believe that politics and religion should not be intertwined and others draw a straight line from their faith to their political leaning, both of which he said are unhealthy.
Benne believes, however, that there is a healthy process to achieve critical engagement between religion and politics. This process includes using the church's biblical tradition as a guide for ethical questions in politics, and Christian social doctrine to engage with issues and create public policy.
But this is becoming more and more difficult. "The political sector is increasingly important and is being overtaken by secularists, resulting in a loss of religious freedom," Benne said.
He cited the example of Catholic schools in the United States being required under new healthcare legislation to provide contraception, sterilization and abortion service in their healthcare coverage, against their religious beliefs.
Benne urged Christians to support public policies that are anti-abortion, provide a better social safety net for the poor and disabled, and ensure religious freedom locally and globally.
Story and Photo by Rachel Bergen
Young Voices Co-Edicor