Guest commentary by Matthew Skolnik
Just as stay-at-home orders marked a turning point in how we viewed and responded to COVID-19, yesterday, as the Capital was hijacked and blood was shed, we marked an additional turning point. This week, we are in the process of altering how we view and respond to our country’s political chaos — and our participation within it.
Witnessing how loved ones, church leaders and I have responded to this chaos has made it clear to me that we are raw as ever. We are hurt. We are angry. We are stunned. But at the same time, we are not really that shocked. We can understand that yesterday’s turmoil and evils are a natural consequence of the path we have been on as a country.
As we are swimming in this sea of chaos, it is difficult for my mind not to wander to the waters of chaos that we are told about in our first stories of our faith. In Genesis, God hovers over these tumultuous waters, and God speaks order into the chaos with a power that we cannot fathom.
As Presbyterians, God speaking order into existence is one of our pillars. God’s ordering of chaos not only instructs how we organize ourselves, God’s creative ordering is also a signpost that guides our very human involvement in Christ’s ministry.
From this perspective, we are comforted and are granted hope. We know that we have our part to play, but God holds all the vocative vocalization. God speaks. God orders. It’s God’s power, not our effort.
Still, from within God’s comfort and hope, we must be as practical as possible. Therefore, it is my intention in this article to share two broad possibilities to mutually pursue. I believe that these possible actions invite us to better participate in the work God is doing, as God speaks order into our chaos.
Allow ourselves to be inspired by those who are leading in faith
Last night I had the great privilege of watching pastors, elders and others lead with passion, integrity and faith in a presbytery virtual prayer gathering. For example, three of our pastors who were born into countries known for political chaos shared their wisdom. In another manifestation, one pastor led an unplanned liturgy of prayer — allowing time for people to type their concerns and for the community to respond with our raw pleas and petitions. Still other elders and pastors offered verses from hymns, Scripture lessons and music. Each form of ministry allowed those who were gathered to enter into God’s comfort and God’s call upon our lives.
From these observations, I see God doing something new in hearts, minds and community life. My sense is that God is reforming your communities in small and large ways as well.
Therefore, let us pay attention to how God is using people. Let us be filled with thanksgiving for their willingness, bravery and hearts of devotion. Let us also be inspired and motivated by their faithfulness. It is from these small and large actions of ministering that we take steps to act as well, in our context and with the spiritual gifts God has blessed each of us with.
In the language of the book of Hebrews, let us “spur one another toward love and good deeds.”
This is our first invitation. This is one way that we can better participate in the work God is doing as God orders our chaos. But there is more.
Allow forgiveness and repentance to be paired
In our American context, theologians, pastors and those preaching popular theology often place repentance before forgiveness. Theologians characterize this as a transaction with the veneer of grace — but not grace itself. After all, grace cannot be earned or manipulated into action. Otherwise, grace would not be grace.
Though this is an American expression of Christianity, this clearly is not our theological tradition, nor does this view take into account the entire biblical witness. Instead, John Calvin biblically and theologically paired forgiveness and repentance. For Calvin, each is the cause, and each is the effect of its pair.
That is, forgiveness spurs repentance and is motivated by it. Likewise, repentance moves us to forgiveness and at the same time is produced from it. The actions and actualities of forgiveness and repentance go hand in hand. We cannot talk about one without the other. We cannot embrace one and walk away from the other.
In this way, forgiveness and repentance are interchangeable and are intimately related. The formal language in our tradition for this reality is the Latin ordo salutis, or order of salvation. As in the waters of creation, we note once again God’s ordering power that is directed towards chaos.
But what does the order of salvation mean for our actions? What are we supposed to do with the pairing of forgiveness and repentance — with repentance and forgiveness?
There are two fairly obvious responses here, in no particular order.
First, God’s forgiveness calls us all to repentance. In relation to our political turmoil, this means that God calls us to account for how we all have been complicit in building this chaotic and bloody moment in history.
While many in our pews are rooted in conservative thought, our denomination as a whole slants toward the left. It follows that as Presbyterians, we tend to be more skilled at pointing out the sin of the right.
However, as a denomination, we are not very competent in naming the sins of the left. This is just who we are at this point in time. Alas, the church is human and flawed. But we knew this already.
Just as the political right has hijacked the church at times, the same is true with the political left. Some political writings of the left even consider the church to be one of its many proxies. This is the reality of life on earth, and our greatest danger is to think that we are perfect angels while our enemies are perfect devils.
For now, my goal is to get us praying reflectively so God’s Spirit may speak to each of our hearts. To do so, I’ll name just one active theme of the left that has contributed to our political chaos. As a church, if we want to do our due diligence of repentance while pairing it with forgiveness through the lens of the order of salvation, then we must be willing to be silent before God. Let us be silent before God together.
Here is one example where the left within our hearts have fallen short of the glory of God. Language is a powerful tool. Language signals intentions. Language can incite or heal. Further, language guides our personal actions, and the actions of others. With this in mind, consider the oft repeated teaching of the contemporary left: we cannot talk about racial reconciliation at this time.
However, despite the reasoning of the left, this idea and these words have real and actual consequences, and we are all complicit in them. When our “enemy” hears us say that there is no room for reconciliation at this time, we have not so subtly declared war. And war, my friends, spills blood, topples governments and pits God’s children against each other.
As a church, we have taught, workshopped and preached the delay of racial reconciliation, though this is contrary to the biblical and tradition bound ordo salutis. As a church, we have our own rationale to place justice before reconciliation. However, in the pattern of Calvin, perhaps we would do better to pair the two instead. Perhaps we need to develop an ordo justitia, an order of justice.
Here, I do not argue that the right is perfect. Not at all! Calvin teaches us better. We are all imperfect, and we all have acted in imperfect ways through our political expressions.
For all of this and more, we, as a denomination are called to repent as we are motivated by God’s forgiveness.
Second, repentance points us towards forgiveness as well.
One of the transformational aspects of being forgiven and repentance is to forgive others of their evil and dark sins. Dear loved ones, this is so hard. We all struggle with this in profound ways. For example, in the past 24 hours I have witnessed other presbytery executives blow-up Facebook with posts laced with profanity. I have also received text messages from pastors whom I love and respect and yet, who will not be satisfied until they get their pound of flesh. Vitriol oozes from the right and the left. As I wrote above, we are raw. Let there be no doubt of our pain, wounds and dismay.
Yet, despite our open wounds, Jesus calls us to love our enemies. And part of extending love is to extend forgiveness. This is our Good News and this is our gospel. To quote the Mandalorian, “This is [our] Way.”
To me, I strongly believe that the way of Jesus is the way of forgiveness. And so, the biblical expression, “Jesus is the way, truth, and life,” like a diamond, has many facets. Jesus isn’t just a way to God. Jesus is the way by which we approach creation. Jesus is the way we approach our enemies.
In this regard, we not only need the help of God, we also need the aid of our siblings in the faith to nurture our brokenness and help point us to tangible actions of forgiveness.
So beloved, how do we best participate in Christ’s ministry as God speaks order into our chaos? May we be inspired by the faithful ministry of those around us, may we chase repentance as forgiveness pursues us and may we help one another forgive our enemies as Christ has forgiven us.
MATTHEW J. SKOLNIK is the general presbyter of Muskingum Valley Presbytery in eastern Ohio. He enjoys motivating mission, equipping leaders and encouraging the church. Matt has lived with his family in Ohio for 13 years, loves nature and laughs frequently.