In, with, against and for

A trio of fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5 – patience, kindness and goodness – are the foci of this issue, and all three evoke reflection on the texture of the church’s relationship to the world. Theologian Doug Ottati, one of my best teachers, captures important aspects of this texture with four propositions: the church is simultaneously in, with, against and for the world. I invite you to consider the Spirit’s fruit in conjunction with them.

First, the church is in the world. In his book “Reforming Protestantism,” Ottati says that the church is “intentionally mixed into the world. … This world, God’s world, is neither alien nor strange for the church, but is partner, companion, and neighbor.” The world is indeed kin, and kinship is one of the core ideas behind kindness as a fruit of the Spirit, as they come from the same Middle English word. Kindness is an essential aspect of the church’s life and witness in the world.

But the connection between kindness and kinship raises a pressing question: Who are our kin? The same question is raised by the great commandment to love God and neighbor: Who, exactly, is my neighbor? Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan prompts consideration of the possibility that even a perceived enemy proves to be a neighbor. In our own time and place, are not the immigrant and the refugee among ours? Kindness, as an aspect of the church’s life in the world, is an essential work of the Spirit, empowering compassionate interconnections with others and with the earth itself.

Our failures to be kind lead to the second proposition: “The church is with the world, confessing common faults and sins,” writes Ottati. Thus, humility is required of us — a necessary posture for us, because both the world and we as individuals are enslaved to sin. We do not, in fact, love our neighbors any better than the world does. So we confess our sin and our complicity with the world in it with confidence in God’s forgiveness.

The Spirit’s fruit of patience is pertinent in this connection, for patience has to do with “forbearing” and is the same word Paul uses in Romans 9:22-24 to describe the tempering of divine anger at Israel’s sin in order to allow for repentance and transformation. So if God is patient with us, the essential work of the Spirit in us includes patience with one another and with ourselves.

Kindness and patience do not preclude prophetic work in the world. Ottati’s third proposition is that “the church is also against the world, criticizing idols, constrictions, corrupt practices, and irresponsibility,” as he writes in “A Theology for the Twenty-First Century.” The Spirit’s fruit of goodness may not immediately spring to mind in this connection, but think of former congressman John Lewis’ description of his own prophetic work on behalf of civil rights as “good trouble.” We tend to think of “good” work as tension-free volunteerism — and there is, to be sure, plenty of goodness in such work. But doing good, bearing witness to divine goodness, to the divine will and purpose, is also necessarily the tension-filled work of resisting evil, which may well evoke backlash. The Spirit’s work in us includes stirring up good trouble, standing against the world — the goodness of prophetic work that critiques the world’s idolatries.

Finally, if the church is simultaneously in the world as a place of kindness, with the world confessing sin and empowering patience, against the world by stirring up good trouble, it is because the church is ultimately for the world as a community of hope. As Ottati says, “the arc of the universe is God’s arc, and … bends toward God’s universal commonwealth, kingdom or city.” Indeed, the fruit of the Spirit are not human virtues, but rather eschatological gifts of power. They are tethered to the hope and promise that beloved community is the horizon God has in mind for us all. Empowered by them, we continue to work for and to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” May it be so!