new Mennonite Life logo    March 2000     vol. 55 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

Response to Duane Friesen

Thomas Heilke

By the time we reach the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, we recognize that Abraham's desire for peace gave him the better choice. The lush plain has lured his nephew Lot nearly to destruction. The cities in that beautiful place are cesspools of hubris and corruption. The city, as Jacques Ellul reminded us in The Meaning of the City, is both a blessing and a temptation.

The temptation that is Sodom and Gomorrah is also the object of a prayer--from the hill overlooking the green expanse where the cities lie, Abraham bargains with the messengers from the Lord not to destroy them. The messengers accede to his request; the most tragic part of the story emerges when not even ten righteous people can be found in the cities on the plain and Abraham must accept the punishing judgment of the Lord.

In this story we see revealed the tension of shalom and judgment, beauty and ugliness, truth and lie, virtue and hubris that Duane Friesen explores from a fresh perspective. It is that tension which would induce one theologian to write a book entitled For the Nations, and his friend to write another, entitled Against the Nations. While Jeremiah sends a message from the God of Israel to pray for the shalom of Babylon, his prophetic colleague Daniel will years later pronounce a judgment from that same God; the king of the city has been weighed in the scales and found wanting. That night, the city is overthrown and subjected to the rule of a new king. About six centuries later, in the Apocalypse of John, Babylon is a "great whore," a symbol of evil, oppression and wantonness, a force of destruction against God's people. How to pray for her shalom?

The power of this fragment from Friesen's forthcoming book is not so much in his awareness of the tension between praying for peace and pronouncing judgment--that is a theme with which the spiritual descendants of the Radical Reformation are intimately acquainted--but with his clear awareness that such prayer and declaration encompass more than the social and political realms where they are most often spoken. Other human endeavors, including the arts, can faithfully participate in activities that are colored and warped by the culture in which they are located and which they themselves shape. Friesen calls such participation "culturally engaged pacifism," which is not merely a theoretical or hypothetical activity for him, but a life experienced. He is quite right to point out that we all "participate in the creation of aesthetic form," and that Christians must attend to the question of what faithful participation in this realm, and not only in strictly defined political or social matters, will look like. I suspect, in fact, that these various realms cannot be as easily separated as those who deny participation in culture, while they maintain a pacifist "witness" would assume.

Friesen's stated intent to develop a critique of cultural participation based on a theology of the Trinity carries considerable promise, as the last few pages of this present excerpt indicate. It remains our task as Christians to witness to unbelievers and even to fellowship with those whom we might consider "unclean," as Peter was taught to do, but without the resentment over God's grace and mercy even to our enemies that aggravated Jonah. If Friesen can present us with a coherent theological argument for such an enterprise in the aesthetic realm, for the Christian creation of "beauty or aesthetically excellent form," then that is all to the better. Since we all participate in such creation by virtue of our very existence, it behooves us not to do so willy-nilly, but thoughtfully. Clear thinking is what Mennonites, among others, have given the rest of us for so long in questions of political and social responsibility. One can only welcome Duane Friesen's seemingly solid effort to lead us toward the same radical reformation thoughtfulness in other realms of human endeavor. The excerpt that we have before us shows clearly how attention to aesthetics is integral to our overall Christian witness and Christian life. As for Abraham and Jeremiah, so for us, seeking the shalom of the cities and cultures in which we live includes critical attention to both beauty and squalor; and that includes not only moral squalor, but the equally oppressive and closely connected "sensory squalor" that so easily sneaks into our lives.