Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Salvation Army - a reflection

  What’s in a name?  A name can be difficult to live up to, or can be misleading.  When London’s Imperial War Museum was recently refurbished, it was observed by one journalist that the attraction has often had to overcome one obstacle: “the three words of its title”[i] – all of which can turn potential patrons off.
  The Salvation Army, it seems to me, also has a problem with its name.  This is more of an identity crisis, a danger of falling short of living up to its name.  To understand who we are as a movement, a body, a phenomenon, requires digging deeper into the meaning of our title.
  I will look at the words in reverse order, starting with the most common shorthand for our movement: Army.  This automatically throws up the much-debated issue of the military metaphor, which is plagued by the same PR crisis as the Imperial War Museum.  The military metaphor may or may not be satisfactory, although this article does not call for a name change, but greater ownership of the name.
  Similar tension surrounds the Army-related issue of uniform.  Again, one can legitimately ask questions around the suitability and practicality of full Salvation Army uniform (granted, there is a time and a place), but what we should focus on here is the way in which our clothing can identify us.  I would also stress the difference between unity and uniformity: unity is everyone being together; uniformity is everyone being the same.  The former is crucial, the latter undesirable to say the least.  Uniformity implies homogeneity, which is contrary to our DNA as The Salvation Army (the “whosoever” probably won’t look like a lot of Salvationists).  Unity, however, is what we must strive for.  This is born of the kind of sacrifice, selflessness, and humility present in Jesus Christ (cf Philippians 2:1-11, for example).  It suggests a body of people who are prepared to take a bullet for one another, to put themselves on the line for the cause and for each other.
  Identifying ourselves as an Army carries other implications.  Along with the idea of sacrifice for one another, there is the call to sacrifice on behalf of those whom we serve in mission.  And mission is necessarily risky.  Roman Catholic priest and missiologist William Frazier once commented that “Those who receive [the missionary cross] possess not only a symbol of their mission, but a handbook on how to carry it out”[ii].  Mission is costly, potentially dangerous business, and an Army is therefore well-placed to engage in this enterprise.
  An Army is disciplined.  Trained.  In fact, we could shorten the word ‘disciplined’ to ‘discipled’.  Our Army must be discipled, every member a disciple, a student, a follower, of the Master, Jesus Christ.  We seem to accept, in general, that our music requires commitment and discipline.  We build into our programmes musical practices, but what about spiritual practices?  While personal, individual devotions are essential, and we each need to take responsibility for our own spirituality, it is clear to me that we need also to create a culture of spiritual accountability, of training together.  This may take the form of prayer meetings, bible studies, small groups, accountability partnerships, mentoring.  I would not want to prescribe how it should happen, but rather that it should happen.  We are good at training for Sunday morning, but as Message Trust founder Andy Hawthorne has observed, Sunday morning isn’t the match – it’s the teamtalk.  The match – or war, to use our favoured metaphor – happens the whole week.  Let’s train for that.
  As an Army, we must assess whether we are a marching army or a standing army.  A marching army ‘marches as to war’; this is a flexible, fighting force, advancing into enemy territory, breaking new ground, pushing boundaries.  A standing army is stationed with a defensive posture, its primary function and duty to protect key strategic points and guard boundaries.  It remains within its own territory, it is well-drilled in parades and performance.  A good example of this contrast is found in the respective armies of King David and King Solomon.  Only a generation apart, David’s army was a marching army, while Solomon’s was a standing army.  David (latterly, his general, Joab) led his troops into battle, expanding his territory, overcoming enemies.  Solomon, however, inherited his father’s large kingdom, and defended it with a standing army (cf 1 Kings 10:26).  Solomon devoted considerable attention and resources to the administration of his kingdom and building projects (albeit spectacular ones).  What happened after Solomon should sound a note of caution (his kingdom split, ultimately collapsing).
  If, then, we are a marching Army, to which war are we marching?  For whom, for what, and against whom, against what, are we fighting?  We have “a burning desire to… fight for social justice” (from the Territorial Vision Statement).  This is consonant with the gospel, the mission and ministry of Jesus involved a head-on battle with social injustice in many guises.  However, some will argue that our battle is spiritual warfare.  Again, Jesus cast out many demons, and engaged the devil himself.  Paul wrote to the Ephesians that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  He then goes on to list the items of the armour of God, but many of these refer to this-worldly struggles for social justice, as much as to spiritual battles[iii].  Like the apocalypticists, perhaps we do well to see battles here, intertwined with heavenly war.  Jesus did not see the social and the spiritual as dichotomous, and never the twain shall meet.  Rather, in the mission of Jesus, we see a holistic approach, whereby people are set free from whatever is holding them.
  This brings us nicely to the concept of Salvation.  What do we mean by salvation?  When someone is saved, what are they saved from?  From hell and damnation?  We hope so!  But not only as an eternal, yet-to-come possibility, but a here-and-now reality.  For many people, life is a sort of hell, they are already living as the condemned.  People currently suffering abuse, or survivors of abuse; people who are oppressed, in various ways; people living without a consciousness of God.  People need salvation from all these situations.
  It might be helpful here to revisit our doctrine of total depravity (Article 5: “We believe that our first parents were created in a state of innocency, but by their disobedience they lost their purity and happiness, and that in consequence of their fall all men have become sinners, totally depraved, and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God”).  It seems to me that the total depravity of humanity is not such that every human being is a monster, with no moral compass, and no possibility of ever doing any good.  Rather, I suggest it has to do with the breadth, rather than depth, of depravity, the range.  Sin has gotten into every aspect of humanity.  Every level and dimension of human life is under the effects of sin.  In fact, sin affects (or infects) the whole of creation, as Paul suggests in Romans 8, because of human distortion of God’s order.
  Thus, sin or evil takes many forms.  There is personal sin, which is perhaps the most obvious and easy to conceptualise.  I find the following definition of sin quite helpful: ‘going against the known will of God’.  Thus, if I know (or believe) that a certain action goes against God’s revealed will, but choose to do it anyway, I am sinning.  This is also helpful, because it frames the issue in relation to the kingdom of God, God’s reign.  God’s reign is about God’s will being done.  So, in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, we find, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Heaven is the place, the state of affairs, where God’s will is done, absolutely and completely and perfectly.  Sin hinders this heavenly order on earth.  But this sin operates in many dimensions.
  There is also structural or systemic evil, whereby sin takes hold of structures or systems (eg, organisational or social) and manipulates these to oppose God’s will.  So, for example, any system which is designed so that, or as a corollary causes the situation whereby, privilege is maintained over against the exploitation or disadvantage of others.  To ground this example in real life, in a corporation where the directors are on six-figure salaries, with even larger bonuses, while the labourers (be they factory workers, retail assistants, etc.) are on barely the minimum wage (or less, as the case may be), I would suggest that structural evil holds sway.  In such a case, the salvation war might call us to boycott their business, or to campaign for greater economic justice (such as the rule of 10%, whereby the lowest salary in the corporation cannot be less than 10% of the highest).  This is just an example, among far too many, alas, of the reality of structural sin.
  Another “consequence of their fall” is bound up in the problem of suffering.  Why does suffering happen?  Why are there natural disasters that wipe out thousands of innocent lives?  Why do good people get cancer?  These are questions which cause heartache, and for some are even deal-breakers between them and God.  I have no intention of trivialising any of this, or trying to explain these away.  Such questions are valid, and deserve to be explored.  But for now, I would offer that the world, the created order, life itself, is under the power of sin, and this means decay and destruction dog our every step.  Paul suggested something along these lines in what is considered by many his magnum opus, Romans 8, as noted above.  It is not just humans who are affected by sin, but the whole creation.  One day, however, we will see “thy great salvation,/Perfectly restored in thee” (SASB 438), as He makes all things new, and removes all suffering, all sickness, all sorrow, all sin.
  It seems to me that we are called to advertise this coming kingdom.  We are called not to build the kingdom, but, as Jesus said, to seek it.  To look for it, to anticipate it, here and now.  And that means we can enact it, on some level.  We can work to alleviate suffering.  We can be there when disaster strikes – personal, communal, ecological, economic, and so on.  Sometimes we can relieve the problem, sometimes we can only live through it with someone.  But that kind of solidarity is holy – Christlike, as He came to share, to take on our pain and weakness, and everything else that human life and inhuman death involves.
  Therefore, if sin affects every dimension of our existence, then so does God’s salvation.  God’s salvation, I suggest, involves the restoration of all relationships.  It involves individuals coming into proper relationship with God, our Father, through Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Lord.  It involves individuals being brought together into the new humanity, where they can relate properly to one another.  It involves individuals being brought into proper relationship with themselves: understanding who God has made them to be.  It involves humanity being brought back to its initial state of proper relationship to creation (cf Genesis 1:28ff).  A salvation which fails to take seriously, but also integrally, the individual and corporate and societal, the spiritual, physical, social, and the ecological dimensions is a salvation which fails to reckon on the God who is “the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of all things”, and who as Trinity is perfectly relational, and invites everyone and everything to join His community of love and wholeness.
  And finally, we come to the beginning.  One little word, easy to overlook, the definite article: “The”.  We do not purport to be simply a Salvation Army, as though there are other such groups.  We make the bold claim that we are “The Salvation Army”, and as such we are saying that we have a particular, perhaps unique or exclusive, calling.  Salvation, it seems, is our business.  But what is our Unique Selling Point?  After all, surely, the Church universal is called to this business, to mission, stemming from God, to the whole world.  How do we differentiate ourselves, so that we can truly own our name and calling as The Salvation Army?
  I would suggest that this has to do with how far we will go.  To the ends of the earth?  In a sense, although not so much geographically, as socially.  We were raised up to reach the parts of society that other movements were not reaching.  Those who would not ‘fit in’ within the existing church cultures and structures.  A wise colleague officer once pointed out to me that we are there to catch those who fall through the gaps – gaps in welfare provision, in church affiliation, in our communities, and so on.  As The Salvation Army, we are perhaps God’s ‘special branch’, for the purposes of search and rescue; of going behind enemy lines and bringing down strongholds; rescuing captives and hostages; disrupting enemy operations.
  Comrades, there is a war going on.  Are we The Salvation Army?  Often, I hear those parting words of the Founder ringing in my ears:
  “While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight.  While little children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight.  While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight.  While there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor, lost girl upon the streets, while there yet remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight.  I’ll fight until the very end.”
  William Booth’s sight was failing by that time, but his vision was undiminished.  He could still see clearly that we were called to the salvation war.  One day, The Salvation Army will find itself in the heavenly version of the Imperial War Museum, as the fighting will be over.  There will be no more weeping.  No hunger.  No crime, no criminals, no victims.  No addiction.  No poverty.  No darkness without God, because everyone will see His light.  Our mission will be accomplished.
  Until then, we fight.  We are The Salvation Army.

[i] Marina Vaizey, 22 July 2014,  ‘Imperial’ is a throwback to an era many of us are ashamed of, or mourn.  ‘War’ is not a popular word or reality in many cultures, not least in a liberal democracy such as our own.  Even the word ‘Museum’ makes many of us yawn, I would suggest.
[ii] Quoted in Bosch, David J., Transforming Mission, 1991, Maryknoll, NY, Orbis, p.122
[iii] It seems obvious to me that Paul would be well aware of these Hebrew Bible references: in Isaiah 59:17, God puts on the breastplate of righteousness and a helmet of salvation to intervene in the corrupt state of affairs on earth; in Isaiah 11:5, the servant, the shoot from Jesse, will wear faithfulness, or truth, as a belt; also, no shoes are mentioned, but the feet of the one who brings good news (gospel) of salvation are beautiful on the mountains in Isaiah 52:7 (the content of that gospel: “Your God reigns”); God as a shield is a common Old Testament motif, for instance, Psalm 18:30, Proverbs 30:5; God’s word as a sword is not an Old Testament concept, but does feature in the deuterocanonical work Wisdom of Solomon, 18:15f (“your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed, a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command…”)