This picture tells the story of Irma Ivanova, a Bulgarian woman who was arrested for drug trafficking (a charge she denied) in Ecuador and at the time of this photo, in 2007, had been imprisoned for 3 years without trial or verdict in her case.
When I saw it, immediately I was reminded of visiting a group of soldiers imprisoned in Fiji for their role in the coup – detained without trial for 5 years. That visit is one of the most moving I remember.
As I am moving through the Lent season, I am reflecting more and more on the phrase Andrew Walls penned (as far as I’m aware) The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture, first in his essay of the same name, which also became a chapter in his book. It’s too weighty a title for me to remember off the top of my head, but to be fair – I think the one sentence is enough. It’s become a bit of a motto as a walk a tightrope of tension in my life.
On one hand – I am a trained youthworker and “church practitioner” who is relatively liberal in theology if not in praxis. I’m as likely to be found writing spiritual content for the Bible, leading communion and offering reflections on youthwork, church work and spiritual life as I am to brush my teeth in the morning. Partaking in spiritual culture is engrained in me.
But the other hand is an equally natural state – to be found in the midst of secular culture sitting at the bar, laughing with hospitality friends. I even write a regular column on NZ specialty liquor products, judge cocktail competitions and appear on tasting panels. There was a time when the two worlds simply would not have meshed in my conservative Baptist surroundings.
The tension I experience in cultural expectations gives new light to the experience of Generation Y and younger in our communities. Both the spiritual and secular cultures I’m part of, place various spoken and unspoken expectations on me and I’m left in the middle trying to negotiate the life I want, a life that has both spiritual and secular meaning (in other word, a MESH).
We’re experiencing a slow shift in youth work and general church circles from a focus on controlled, disciplined behaviour moderation to long-lasting values development. Another twist on Behave-Belong-Believe ideology, without too much of a leap in imagination. But this doesn’t help the problem of ‘how to live’ for me or a young person, because we have still juxtaposed Gospel in opposition to culture.
I credit the ‘elastic band’ of intentionality with how I have managed to hold the tension between two externally pulling pressures – but it’s not without having to constantly ask the question: “In this moment, am I imprisoned or liberated? Am I holding ransom the freedom I have, or playing it too loose?”
What happens when one (Gospel or Culture) becomes a prisoner of the other? The prisoner is left without verdict. Neither culture or gospel can be accurately judged outside of living it, walking it, doing it. So imprisoning one against the other leaves you in limbo-land. No conclusions drawn.That’s a dangerous place for anyone who isn’t sure of their own mind.
Liberation can only come with a fierce bravery to integrate and walk the line, not shirking one for the other. It requires learning to trust my living morality – the values that I make my choices by each day. So, how do I walk with young people, how do I walk with anyone in a faith community towards that living, changing, flexing value choice?
Here’s what I genuinely believe – faith is held prisoner by a set of suppositions created by culture. And more traditional, habitual expression of faith hold culture prisoner as some great vast evil. But at the very core, I’m trying to help people become fully human, fully alive and expressing themselves in culture. Culture is no longer the enemy. Counter-cultural is an observational statement that doesn’t hold weight as a faith approach anymore. There are many aspects of culture that the Christian community has removed itself from that we ought to be in the midst of.
So youth work, church work – is about liberating culture, not with superiority or redemption but with participation. Participation alone, is all that’s required.