Two days after the invasion of her country began, a Ukrainian woman stood before a heavily armed Russian solder and held out to him an offering: a handful of sunflower seeds. “Take these seeds,” reads the translated transcript of the viral video, “and put them in your pockets, so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.”
I keep thinking of this stunning act of defiance, the level of imagination and resilience it takes to respond this way to soldiers occupying your city. It seems to me that there are two possible ways of understanding her words. The first: a gesture of defiant peace, acknowledging that what is happening is terrible, but looking to a time when life, not death, might somehow win. The second: a gesture of defiance pure: you should not be here, and you will pay for what you are doing. It might not look like it, but we are stronger than you; flowers will grow over your unmarked grave.
Reading the full transcript of the conversation, and with the added information that the sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine, it’s actually very plainly the second option – pure defiance. But that first option, as a kind of parable, stays with me. In this wild and crooked and beautiful world (to borrow the words of a favourite song), “sometimes flowers grow from the soil of ashes”.
Culture wars vs culture care
In a time of ever-increasing polarization, it’s easy to fall into the rhetoric of “culture wars”.
Yet culture wars tend to be self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating; for instance, the more attention Christians pay to a media caricature of themselves as bigoted and regressive, the more defensive and reactionary we are likely to get, and so (ironically) the more we conform to that caricature.
This is not to say that Christians in the contemporary West face no opposition or hostility; the New Testament is pretty clear that Christians in all times and places should expect to face these things.
The current turbulence seems to be in part an effect of the transition from a culture where the Christian church had (and had come to expect) certain privileges, to one much more like the world of the New Testament where Christians were marginal and were called to live out their faith in creative and joyful ways, from those margins.
An alternative way of thinking about the relationship of the church and the Christian to the world around us is the idea of “culture care”. The artist Makoto Fujimura puts it this way in his book Culture Care: “Culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care. Culture is a garden to be cultivated.”
It’s worth recalling what God tells the Israelites exiled in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:4-7):
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Without wanting to map this instruction too readily onto our own situation, in its realism, constructiveness, almost cheerfulness, it offers a kind of circuit breaker to the culture war mentality. This is the God we serve! The God who calls us, in the face of desperate times and circumstances, to plant gardens.
Faith, hope and love: When the church is most ‘itself’
So what does it look like for the church, here and now, to be fully itself, in the context of the various challenges of our moment? What does it look like to choose faith, hope, and love, given the ever-present temptation to grow weary in doing good and give up before harvest time arrives?
Rather than being fearful about where things are headed, Christians should surely be the most non-anxious presence in any culture. However fraught things look on the surface, however much pressure may be laid on us, it is always fitting for Christians to respond to others with a generous confidence: always confident, because Jesus is Lord; always generous, because we can therefore abundantly afford to offer grace.
There’s a sense in which Christians should not view “the culture” as our own domain – we do not own the place, we need to be good neighbours and even good guests in the public and common spaces we share with others. But in another sense, we are not merely renting space, biding time, getting by. In God’s world, we’re invested. What do you do when you have a sense of ownership in a place? You plant gardens, you seek the peace and prosperity of the neighbourhood. Culture care is an act of confidence, of faith: If Jesus is Lord over human cultures, as flawed and corrupt as every one of them is, then we can cultivate the gardens of our culture in full confidence that God can take whatever seeds we sow and multiply them for his purposes.
Love in word, and love in deed. What does it mean to speak the truth in love to a sceptical, sometimes hostile world, and to serve a sometimes hostile culture?
We at the Centre for Public Christianity talk a lot about tone. About how the way we say things is as important (and sometimes more important even) as what it is we say. We cannot preach a gospel of love in a manner that is not loving; a gospel of grace that is ungracious. The medium is, in a very real sense, the message. A tone that conveys disrespect, contempt, judgment, or even fear and defensiveness, is failing to convey good news of a God who made us in his image, who bestows on every one of us great worth, to the point of embracing death that we might live.
In times of crisis and conflict, we are to love one another, neighbours and enemies, in the words that we speak. When it comes to issues like abortion, euthanasia, sexuality, and gender, Christian compassion looks to many like callousness. We can state the truth as we see it, in words that speak love into very charged conversations as best we can; but alongside that, we can and must simply keep on loving, keep on serving.
This is what the early Christians did, from their completely marginal, deeply precarious position within the Roman Empire. They cared for not only their own poor but the poor of their cities and towns; they picked up abandoned babies and raised them as their own; when plagues came to town, they were the ones who stayed and cared for the sick, often at the cost of their own lives – and there was a profound connection between these counter-cultural, often offensive (to the culture of the time) acts and the miraculous growth of the Christian movement in these centuries.
We can’t control how people will read our actions. But we can keep serving regardless, in whatever ways are open to us, because of who it is we’re serving – whose garden all this is.
Sowing seeds that we may or may not see a harvest from in our lifetimes, in ground that may seem unpromising and inhospitable, requires a very robust hope indeed. What I want to reassure you of is that Christianity really is good for the world, and that there is good for you – you in particular – to do in it. In spite of appearances sometimes, in spite of the failures of the church in so many ways, in spite of public opinion – your faith is one that conduces to human flourishing. You can be confident that the gardening tools you have at your disposal are effective ones.
When we see the culture around us, however chaotic or barren a face it may present to us, less as a battlefield and more as a garden to be cultivated, a myriad of tasks present themselves. Planting seeds, protecting green shoots, fertilising, pruning, within our culture – in all kinds of arenas – is painstaking but faith-filled work. There’s so much we don’t know and are not in control of. But God is more than capable of multiplying the seeds we sow, the plants we tend. He is patient; and he is prolific, more than bountiful.
Thinking about gardening in wartime, then, allow me to conclude here with a note of humility and encouragement from the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon:
“No one of us is much more than an emmet on its little hill. Now, if yon tiny ant were to indulge in serious reflections upon the state of London, and forget to assist in the labours of the insect commonwealth, it would be a foolish creature; but if it will let those great matters alone, and go on doing its antwork, as an ant, it will fill its little sphere, and answer the purpose of its Maker. … Leave the reins of the universe in the hand of the Maker of the universe, and then do what he has given you to do, in his fear, and by his Spirit, and more will come of it than you dare to hope.”
This article is an abridged version of Natasha’s presentation to District Synod, earlier in the year.
READ MORE STORIES ABOUT Convention of Synod