In 1968, the year he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr., published an essay titled “The World House.” It includes these words:
Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: “A wisely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, [Muslim] and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.1
As early as 1944, Reinhold Niebuhr had made a similar observation: “The world community, toward which all historical forces seem to be driving us, is mankind’s final possibility and impossibility.”2
Does the world church have responsibility for moral formation appropriate to a “world house” or “world community”? How do we “learn somehow to live together in peace”?
One concept is introduced here: congregations, as local expressions of the world church, might serve as moral conveners; that is, diverse peoples, nurtured by faith, can address vexing issues amid community ties—exactly the idea King and Niebuhr both drew upon and strove for.
Looking to Church History
What wells of inspiration would congregations as moral conveners draw from, and what directions might they take? First, consider some lessons from church history.
“World church” was never meant as a triumphalist tag. “World church” does not mean “imperial church.” Nor does it mean Christianity as the carrier and defender of “civilization.” By and large, Christians have gone badly awry when they have invested their hopes in a head of government as a Christian and have identified a given nation as the bearer of divine mandates. The difference between being “a witness to the nations”—Israel’s calling as a people of God, as well as the church’s—and being identified with the nation is critical. “World church” identifies a global people serving as a witness from among the nations to the nations, in the interests of a world community seeking to live in peace.
This critical difference—a witness to, not of, the nations—arises from a continuing tension, present since the very events that created “church.” Initially for Jews, and then for those Jews and Gentiles who became Christians, the fundamental loyalty was to the faith community as the locus of the moral life, rather than to the civic community (most Greeks and Romans chose the latter). The church portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles was utterly straightforward on this question, and apparently incapable of nuance: “Jesus is our Caesar” (kyrios, Lord). Paul was capable of some nuance; yet he too regarded this new community as beyond the ethnoi (the nations), a people from the ethnoi yet not a “we” defined in contrast to a “they,” the enemy. Paul and Peter dared even to call this community a new race, a new humanity, a “peculiar people” beyond Jews and Gentiles, bond and free, male and female. Since Christian congregations in those formative years took shape on three continents simultaneously (Africa, Asia, and Europe), and since collectively they were multiethnic, multiracial, multilingual, and multicultural from the outset, Paul’s congregations—while utterly human in all the usual, exasperating ways—were not out of the picture as a new “world.” At least we have to admire their chutzpah! Somehow they moved, as we note in the postresurrection accounts of the gospels and in Acts, from being a band of frightened followers in a dangerous place to becoming a little community that knew itself to be possessed by a Spirit and power against which the gates of hell would not prevail (and didn’t).
The Imperial Church
The apostles’ successors made their own faith life and moral life difficult, however, by changing the basic formula and accepting the Christian emperor as Lord (kyrios). Now, in effect, Caesar is our Jesus! Constantine’s own megalomania is nicely captured by his burial arrangements. The emperor’s bones were laid dead center in a circle of 12 pillars, representing the 12 apostles. Even the newly imperial church eventually found such symbolism excessive, however, and it subsequently demoted Constantine from the Christ figure to the 13th apostle! But that action didn’t move him from the center to the periphery. The result is the Christian legacy of looking to kings and presidents, nations and cultures, as vessels for enacting God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Nor is this legacy claimed only by “state churches.” Churches legally “disestablished” in democratic societies, yet culturally established, have sought the good graces of the mayor, governor, president, and parliament, or the captains of industry and philanthropy. In practice, “rulers” still count more than ordinary members and citizens, despite theological disclaimers. Evangelist Billy Graham, for example, made his way to successive occupants of the White House, just as White House incumbents returned the favor and made a point of attending successive National Prayer Breakfasts or services at the National Cathedral in Washington.
Convening a Fractured House
Yet our world is neither that of the ancient church nor of the church of self-identified Christian empire. It is portrayed well by scholar Diana Eck in her account of how a putatively Christian country became the most religiously diverse nation on earth.3 Los Angeles is now the world’s largest and most complex Buddhist city. Eck has even quit using phrases like “Islam and the West” because Chicago, New York, Flint, Phoenix, and Cedar Rapids are now important parts of the Islamic world.
In short, we find ourselves with another chance to be moral conveners in a fractured world house. And while our “house” is quite different from that of churches in the earliest Christian centuries, it is nonetheless a version of the same notion: each congregation is an embodiment of a world church that needs to conduct itself in a manner worthy of a world larger than its own civic surroundings.
To be the world church in each place is the task. Yet we do not qualify as moral conveners on the assumption that the church is a community that “knows better.” It may or may not know better, from a moral point of view. Rather, the church knows “other,” because of other loyalties, resources, and peoples. Those other perspectives, resources, and voices are desperately needed for responsible civic discourse in a contracting and dangerous world. The world church in each place thus holds proxies for those who cannot be heard in a given place at a given moment. Other members of the world community are to be represented even when they cannot be (bodily) present. It is literally a “good faith effort” for congregants to ask, “What perspectives of Christians not among us at the moment should we seek out (whether they be in Israel/Palestine, Zimbabwe, Costa Rica, or across town)? Who is especially prone to go unnoticed and unrepresented? How do we make contact and get needed information?”
At the same time, faith’s imperative is this: as many as possible are to be present to speak as the Spirit leads. Above all, the otherwise unrepresented or underrepresented hold pride of place at the welcome table. “The last as first” (Matt. 20:16) is not Jesus’ throwaway line. A congregation’s calling is to be, in word and deed and as far as humanly possible, an inclusive community in each place.
less, a question remains. Is there moral substance for this convening? Or is it all “process,” with no content other than what the participants bring to a given exchange?
Recovering Christian Traditions
Consider, as an example of content, Christian traditions that have appeared in varied forms across cultures and around the globe over two millennia. We can listen, for example, to the voice of Christian asceticism: the tradition present from Jesus onward of saying yes and no in a simple and disciplined way of life, a tradition that weds spiritual richness to material simplicity so as to live lightly and equitably on the earth. Asceticism is an antidote to a consumerism that now ravages the planet and mortgages its children’s futures.
Also heard is the voice of sacramentalism: all material reality is sacred and bears a value we participate in but do not create and cannot veto. Sacramentalism is the antithesis of ways of life that treat all things in heaven and on earth in unrelentingly utilitarian fashion, measuring their value only as their material value to us.
Also sounding is the never-extinguished voice of mysticism and the contemplative life—quietly listening to the world for the heartbeat of the divine and experiencing the unity of all things together in God and with one another. Here life itself is a communion of subjects in which nothing is object. It is a life worthily spent in overcoming “we” and “they,” “mine” and “thine.”
Not least is the voice of prophetic-liberative practices: we are all born to belonging,4 and that makes community well-being and equality measures of social good itself, with a moral plumb line brought to all decisions, policies, and systems.
Such deep Christian traditions are all available for each congregation’s efforts at moral formation appropriate to a “world house.” Exactly where each might lead on any vexing issue cannot be known in advance, however—at least, not if open space for the Spirit is available and an inherently diverse community is the agent of deliberation. Nonetheless, the Spirit has been present in the very efforts that gave rise to these traditions in the first place—and may be again.
1. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 167.
2. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944).
3. See Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).
4. The reference is to the book by Mab Segrest, Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002).