Posted August 8, 2011on:
Karin and I are in the departure lounge at Heathrow airport, on our way home to Colombo. We have spent the past fortnight in London and Poland, at the Jagiellonian university of Krakow, one of the oldest universities in the world, where the quadrennial IFES World Assembly was held. The latter brought together around 600 student leaders, staff and Board members of about 120 national movements affiliated to IFES (sadly, many of the Francophone African delegates were refused visas to Europe).
We also had the privilege of attending John Stott’s funeral in London today. News of his death, at the ripe old age of 90, was announced at the beginning of the Assembly; which was wonderfully appropriate, given that IFES enjoyed a very close relationship with him ever since its formation in 1946 and he was one of our greatest advocates. It enabled us to celebrate his memory collectively.
Much was said of Stott’s humility and integrity, both at the World Assembly and at his funeral. He was one of those rare Christian leaders who was willing to change his mind and admit that he had done so. Much of this thinking about the Gospel and Christian mission was challenged by his visits to the Two-Third world and his exposure to Two-Third World Christian leaders and their theologies. He actually listened to us, unlike so many others who only came to propagate their views. Commitment to the poor, and a growing engagement with social and political ethics, came to the fore in his later writings, much to the consternation of his conservative friends.
In a plenary Bible reflection that I gave at the IFES assembly, I mentioned how, when Stott invited me to give the London Lectures of 1998 (lectures which eventually became my book Faiths in Conflict?), he urged me to “Please say something that will disturb and challenge us evangelical Christians. We need to see our blind-spots.” Here was a 77-year old man wanting to be taught by a non-Westerner roughly half his age. How different from other British church leaders I knew!
The difference emerged even during the World Assembly (which was one of the best I have experienced- though I confess that being on the program planning team may have biased my judgment!). My Bible reflections and talks are routinely criticised by some people, usually from older Western student movements, but this time the response was almost unanimously appreciative. But some did express their concern that, in preaching from Mark 12:28-34 and stressing Jesus’ summary of God’s requirements (loving God and loving one’s neighbour as oneself) I neglected to emphasise justification by grace. I was preaching “law and not Gospel” as one person from a Lutheran background put it.
I find it difficult to keep cool in the presence of such people who seem to read every passage of scripture through a lens comprising a doctrinal system, thereby deflecting the stark moral challenge of the text. Perhaps that is my own “blind spot”, and why it is so important to read scripture with people of different persuasions and backgrounds. But the emphasis on faith in the Western evangelical traditions, as opposed to obedience to Jesus’ actual teachings, has led to terrible acts (from Luther’s rants against the Jews to twentieth-century defences of apartheid and discrimination against blacks and women) which have prevented many thoughtful, morally sensitive men and women from turning to Christ.
Stanley Jones was an American Methodist missionary-scholar who spent most of his life in India and was a personal friend of Mahatma Gandhi. After his death in 1948, Jones wrote an “interpretation” of Gandhi for Christians. I quote from that book: “Mahatma Gandhi did not see in the Cross what the convinced Christian sees, namely, God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself and that He was bearing our sins in His body on the Tree. Gandhi did not see that. But what he did see, namely, that you can take on yourself suffering, and not give it, and thus conquer the heart of another – that he did see in the Cross and that he put into practice and put into practice on a national scale. The difference, then, is this: we as Christians saw more in the Cross than Gandhi and put it into operation less; Gandhi saw less in the Cross than we and put it into practice more. We left the Cross a doctrine, Gandhi left it a deed.”
We should neither pay lip-service to John Stott nor idolize him. Perhaps the best way to honour him would be to imitate his integrity and teachability.