May 2012 - Vol. 60

The Medieval walled city of Carcassone, France was a center of trade and Christian renewal for the surrounding region. 
Building a Bulwark
Vision for community and mission in the Sword of the Spirit
by Carlos Mantica

Our community in Managua, the City of God, finds its meaning in the mission the Lord has entrusted to it – to be part of a bulwark. We believe the Lord raised up the community to move that mission forward. That is its reason for existence.

The word “bulwark” is uncommon for most of us, but in various ways the Lord has made clear that this concept of being a “bulwark” is part of his call to the whole Sword of the Spirit. The idea of the medieval castle or the fort in the early European settlement of North America might help us better understand what a bulwark is. We tend to consider castles and forts as defensive, and they do have to be solid and unassailable to protect their inhabitants and the many others who rely on them. But they were often advanced positions to help establish a new culture in the territory they were placed in.  In order to better understand and fulfill our own mission as communities, let’s look at four characteristics of a fort.

French fort with community homes and shops - 18th century North America

First, those who lived in the forts were members of the same nation. They were relatively few in number and were distinct from the surrounding tribes. They had a distinct culture, expressed in a common way of life, values, and attitudes different from the nations around them. They thought, talked, dressed – even danced – differently than those outside. They were ruled according to the laws of the government that had sent them, with their own leaders and court system. Their loyalty was to their own nation and companions. It was, in a way, a nation planted in the midst of other nations.

Second, people in the forts were more strongly influenced by their own culture than by the culture of the surrounding peoples. For that reason they were able to extend their own culture instead of being absorbed by the surrounding culture. And in fact, they succeeded in bringing European culture to huge tracts of territory in North America – sometimes through military campaigns, but much more often through influence.  People went out from the fort every day to hunt and to tend the fields, and in time the tribes around them learned from them the new methods of farming, technology, and warfare, and from time to time even received asylum within the fort.

Third, the forts did not function as isolated units. Isolation would have led to annihilation in a very short time. Instead, each was part of a chain of forts which would help and protect one another. Only solidarity and coordination would make possible their eventual conquest of such a large and hostile territory.

Fourth, life within the fort required the hard work of a variety of professions. Military commanders and soldiers would be stationed at the fort, but its survival, strengthening, and development depended also on the services of hunters, butchers, bakers, doctors, and teachers. If one of the services was neglected, the whole life within the fort was affected. The ultimate mission of the fort was not accomplished by one person or even a few, but by everyone working together – united, equipped, and faithful to its government. 

In the same way, the mission of our community, the City of God, is not accomplished by any one person but by everyone’s participation. Within the mission, some people and structures are oriented towards our internal life – pastoral leaders, administrators, and coordinators – and other people and structures are oriented toward defense and outreach – evangelists, teachers, and other community representatives – to restrain the enemy and to establish and consolidate new communities, to take new ground. The two functions are equally important – the one oriented within and the other one outward.

We as a community consider ourselves to be something like a fort, planted in a territory that is not yet the Lord’s, and we have discovered that the mission in foreign territory requires that we live a radical life in Christ. As Jesus pointed out in the Gospels, to be a disciple, to be effective in the mission he calls us to, we need to give our whole life – even to death – to accomplish it. The Lord hasn’t invited us to a quiet stroll in the countryside. Rather, he has asked us to build and maintain a “fort” for him, influencing the people around us on the Lord’s behalf, sometimes providing help in their need, winning some to the Lord by our words and actions and by our very presence. To build a Christian community as part of the bulwark which he is establishing is a work of great magnitude and – according to what he has shown us – one that has eternal consequences for thousands upon thousands if it is not ready on time. Therefore we need to be serious disciples of the Lord to carry it out.

Communities, evangelism, and life in Christ
I was deeply encouraged in reading the documents of the 1979 Latin American Catholic bishops, when they gathered with Pope John Paul II in Puebla, Mexico, to discuss evangelism in our region. “Puebla,” as the conference has come to be called, speaks eloquently of the challenge facing us to build and maintain a new, godly society in the world today. The bishops saw the building of Christian communities as essential in Latin America and in the whole church, given the situation it finds itself in today. The bishops acknowledged the strategic significance of communities throughout the history of the church for bringing the gospel to others and providing Christian influence in society.

I want to quote two short sections from the document: “The Church evangelizes in the first place through the global testimony of its life. (By its manner, and not only by what it does). Thus in its faithfulness as sacrament, it tries to become a sign or living model of the communion of love in Christ which it announces and tries to bring about.

“The pedagogy of the Incarnation teaches us that people need clear models to guide them. It was said that the greatest political relevance in the Middle Ages was the foundations of Benedictine monks, because their form of community life became the great model for the social organization of fledgling Europe; Latin America also needs such models” (Puebla, ch. 171).

“Each community in the church of Latin America should make the effort to constitute for the continent an example of coexistence where it succeeds in bringing together both freedom and solidarity, where the authority is exercised in the Spirit of the Good Shepherd, where a different attitude toward riches is lived out, where teachings on new formulas of organization and on new structures of participation create openings and paths toward a more human society.

“And above all, where it is unequivocally manifested that without a radical communion with God in Jesus Christ, all other forms of communion are purely human and turn out to be incapable of sustaining themselves and fatally end in turning against man himself” (Puebla, ch. 172).

Puebla describes a model of social, political, and economic structures more radical than what has been brought about by human effort alone, either in modern times or during the whole history of revolutionary movements. Puebla calls for structures built on gospel principles by men and women empowered by the Holy Spirit. 

In the same way, our community is not trying simply to build a new society with human strength. The attempt to build with merely human strength has been made by people in various ages, including all of history’s revolutions. Peubla’s goal and ours in the City of God is to build the kind of new society that can only be accomplished because it is founded on a radical communion with God in Jesus Christ. In the areas of freedom, justice, authority, and wealth, it begins where all the others leave off, going far beyond merely human vision and ability.

A society with Gospel values
This is not an easy way to live, and in our community we are far from perfect at it, but we can already see signs of God’s kingdom breaking forth in it. For example, we aim to exercise authority as a service, not as an excuse to lord it over others. In the area of possessions, the level of sharing in the community is much more ambitious than in any communist society. We don’t do this by negating the right to private property, nor by imposing some law, but simply through the generous sharing of goods and resources, inspired by the Holy Spirit working within each of our members. Our community life is founded on the ideal of genuine love, to be expressed in a total commitment involving every area of our lives and possessions.

Learning to live as members of this new society is not an easy business. It is a high calling and entails a very deep level of commitment, both to God and to our brothers and sisters. It entails a death to self and a renunciation of the values of our current secular society.

  • In a secular society which values absolute personal freedom as an inalienable right, our way of life calls us to move from independence to interdependence and on to brotherhood and sisterhood.
  • In a secular society centered on competition as the key to personal success, our way of life proclaims collaboration, mutual help, and service for the growth and well being of all.
  • In a society that applauds rebels, whatever their cause, our way of life insists on relationships of authority and subordination that do not diminish the dignity of the person.
  • In a society that has stopped believing in the sanctity and importance of marriage, our way of life fosters an ever-increasing affection, kindness, and commitment between husband and wife.
  • In a society in which emotions are the absolute criterion for action, our way of life builds its relationships on people’s given word and solemn commitment.
  • In a secular society that no longer proclaims freedom of worship or religion but freedom from any religion or worship, our community way of life presents a people who value their relationship with God above all other values.
  • In a society that disregards all morality or introduces a supposedly human morality, we insist on obeying the law of God with all its implications.
  • In a society in which people pride themselves on doing whatever they want, our way of life proclaims that doing the will of God is the absolute criterion for action.
  • In a society that demands justice, we proclaim mercy.
  • In a society full of violence, our life upholds the wisdom of self-sacrificing love.
  • In a society full of anxiety, where mental disorders and depression are quite common, the new society in Christ testifies that people can live today in harmony, joy, and peace.
Our community, a small “fort,” is distinct from the society in which we live – distinct in its economics, law,  and manner of governing, in its lifestyle and values. Despite the barrage from the media offering an often twisted and superficial philosophy about how to live, we are doing what we can as a people to establish the Lord’s kingdom on earth.

A distinctive people
The strategy of being a distinct people who influence the people around them is really God’s own strategy. In the New Testament the Apostle Peter in his first letter gives one of the earliest definitions of the church, and in so doing echoes the Lord’s call to the people of Israel in Old Testament times. To the Christians, Peter writes, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God” (1 Peter 2:9). God’s plan was and still is to establish his church, this people set apart for him, as a city on a mountain top, a sign planted in the midst of the nations, light and salt of the earth, leaven in the dough – an instrument for the extension of the kingdom of God. But disgracefully, many Christians today have lost their sense of being a nation. 

The example of Israel helps explain our call to community, our call to become a holy people. Speaking through Moses, God told his people Israel that they should have nothing whatever to do with the wicked ways of the nations around them, for, he said, “You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).

His people were supposed to be different from the other nations. In addition to the Ten Commandments, the Lord gave the Jewish people many other regulations for their daily life, as detailed in the book of Leviticus and elsewhere. For example, they were to consecrate their first-born sons to God and circumcise all their sons. They were to avoid eating the meat of certain animals and were to offer to him the first fruits of their crops, the first-born of their animals, and a tithe of their earnings. These concrete norms constituted a way of living, a distinct culture. The importance of these for the survival of a people was made particularly clear when the people of Israel were exiled from their land, sometimes for long periods of time and in various countries. By virtue of their common and distinctive way of life, they have continued even to this day to be one people, one nation, set apart by their culture.

I believe the Lord has also called us as the Sword of the Spirit, this community of communities, to be his people, a distinctive grouping within the whole Christian people – not better, but distinctive – to whom he has given a particular mission. From the very beginning he has addressed the City of God and many other communities as “my people” and continues to speak to the whole Sword of the Spirit in this way. Like the People of Israel, we find ourselves dispersed all over the world, made up of people of different races and languages. What gives us an identity in such a diversity is our culture. We are supposed to be a distinct environment, a distinct people with its own culture, even though formed from people of diverse races, languages, and cultures around the world. 

We express in a profound way that we are brothers and sisters as we more and more share a common way of life. Our unity, although still imperfect, is already a reality, a kind of utopia before our eyes. The Lord has chosen us and is in the process of forming us into one people in our local community and in the network of communities like ours – the Sword of the Spirit. We have the same God, have all been called to follow the Lord, and have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior. He has made a covenant with us and joined us all into one people, and we in turn have made a covenant with one another, even with those we might never see. He chose us and gave us a new name and a new identity. And among us there is a real confidence that what we are involved in is something that was his initiative and not merely human. 

A distinctive way of life
As a community of communities we have our own way of praising and worshipping the Lord. Our music – strong and at times martial – is fitting for a people who are in a spiritual battle, a people at war. It differs noticeably from the sweet, almost lyrical music of other groups. Our common form of praying reflects the vision we have of the Lord – the Lord of heaven and earth – and focuses on giving him the glory and praise that is his due, rather than primarily on asking for his help, although we do depend on him for even the smallest things and are open to seeing him work wonders, large and small, on our behalf. We have our distinctive way of honoring him by celebrating the Lord’s Day and relaxing together. 

We have a distinctive way of exercising authority, with subordinates being encouraged to take initiative and bear responsibility. We have a distinctive way of relating to secular authority. A way to share our material goods and money. A distinct way of relating as husband and wife, with the husband serving as the head of his wife, and she the suitable helper and necessary complement for him. We have a distinct way of speaking, in which the words “brother” or “sister” flow naturally and in which we work to eradicate from our speech all negative humor, name-calling, sarcasm, slander, vulgarity, and rudeness. And we try to live our lives in the light, not in secretiveness or darkness. Brotherly correction is given and received in humility; exhortation and counsel are received gracefully. If there is an argument or a difficulty in a relationship, we know how to heal it, asking and giving forgiveness and owning up to our faults. And we don’t harbor anger or bitterness in our hearts. 

We have an approach to sexuality that is different from the world’s but at the same time joyful and full of thanksgiving. There is a clarity about our identity – the men dressing and acting as men, and the women dressing and acting as women. We have a distinct process of dating and courtship among young people, with the young men showing signs of respect to young women.

We have forms of giving and receiving respect between children and adults, men and women, and between members of the community and their leaders. When we have guests, the children give their seats to the older brothers and sisters, whom they treat with respect, calling them “uncle” or “aunt.” But the children are also taken into account and treated with respect: they are not only our children or our nieces and nephews, they are also our young brothers and sisters in the Lord. Among themselves the children treat one another with affection, as brothers and sisters or cousins.  We also have a distinct way to form our children so they will grow up as confident people, loving God and loving those around them. 

We have a distinct way of viewing the world around us and what is happening in it: a distinct attitude toward life and death, toward sickness and suffering and trial, toward success, riches, friendship, and happiness. In our homes we live a life that is quite similar from one family to the next, and distinct from the world’s way. Each of us takes time for personal prayer and we all read the Scriptures. We offer prayers of thanksgiving before meals and have times of family prayer. We have family nights and celebrate the Lord’s Day. We pray over one another very naturally for various needs. The use of TV is limited. Hospitality is very much a part of our daily lives, and in many cases, single brothers and sisters make their home with families, sharing a common life. We know how to value and administer our time, and we try to schedule it wisely so that we can be faithful to commitments and punctual at meetings. 

These are all elements of a culture that we consciously try to live out. We feel proud to be part of this people and proud of our way of life. 

We feel that the Lord has called us to live a way of life that is radically distinct from the world around us and opposed to many of its ideals, values, and customs, and this is not an easy task. The world may not applaud us for it. In fact, the Lord warns us in Scripture that if people persecuted him, they would also persecute us, his disciples.

High protective wall saves Japanese town from devastating tsunami
When a great earthquake and tidal wave was spotted off the northeast coast of Japan on the afternoon of March 11 2011, a warning went out across the land. A few heard and fled to high ground. But within minutes after the tsunami hit the coast, more than 15,000 people perished. The destructive tsunami waves of up to 38.9 metres (128 ft) swept houses, bridges, roads, trees, and everything else into a massive ruble of destruction. One coastal community survived intact from the full onslaught of the destructive tsunami waves. This city had decided many years previously to build an enormously high bulwark as a protective wall, after they had suffered the destructive force of a tidal wave which caused great damage and loss of life. Their wise mayor had convinced the residents that it was worth the enormous financial cost and sacrifice of great human effort to build a high protective wall for future generations as well. 

An urgency from the Lord
I believe that what we are doing is very important for the Lord’s overall plan for the world. I would like to quote and comment upon one of the many prophecies we have heard over the years that speak of the seriousness with which the Lord sees the mission he’s called us to in the Sword of the Spirit. 

A word about charismatic prophecy is probably in order as I do so. The New Testament instructs that we should not disdain prophecy but test it (1 Thessalonians 5:20). Throughout the history of the church, the Lord has raised up charismatic preachers, teachers, and prophets to speak a word to a region or to all his people. From those prophetic words, huge renewal movements have begun and waves of repentance have swept across the lands. I believe that we are in the midst of one of those waves and that we should not take lightly the word the Lord speaks to us. One prophecy in particular, given in the mid-1970s, has set a tone of urgency for the Sword of the Spirit’s response to the Lord’s call. 

“Sorrow upon sorrow, agony, terror, and sickness of heart will be your companions in the days ahead. The storm is rising, the clouds gather, lightening, wind, and storm great enough to carry off even the strong, ready to break upon the slumbering, the unprepared, the confused. Where now is the shelter? Where the bulwark, the refuge? Where is the strength of my church when the storm is upon it? Unprepared, divided, and confused, weak when strength is most needed, it will crumble.1 The earth will be littered with the debris, the testimony that it was ready. 

“Weep for those who rush to find shelter within her when the day comes. Pray for those who trust in her defenses in that day when she is found unable to defend herself. Unless you take pains now to hear my word, to follow my leading, to carry out my will, there will be no defense. If you heed me, if you believe my word and trust in it to the limit of your strength and the end of your faith, and carry it out with the help of my grace, a bulwark will be ready. And when the collapse comes, and the walls long crumbling are washed away, yet there will be an army, a wall of defense to preserve my church. 

“I have said to you before and I say to you again, that I alone have wisdom, insight, knowledge, and vision sufficient for the combat that lies ahead – the combat which should have begun generations ago and did not. If you seek to plan your own plans, you will be crushed in defeat, and find no consolation in me. If you trust to my plans, and carry them out though they seem foolish, you will find your right hand strong, invincible, trained to the task and upheld by the power of heaven?

“Do you understand? The day is close upon you. I do not speak always in riddles; and when I speak to you in plain speech, receive it as plain speech.”

Now is the time
I don’t believe that this prophecy is describing a future time when all the difficulties will happen simultaneously and universally. I think that in many places they have already begun to happen and will continue to do so. Some of you know about the partial fulfillment of the prophecy in 1998 here in Central America during Hurricane Mitch, in which we as a community we were able on a small scale to serve as a bulwark and protection for the church and for many outside it.

An awe-inspiring part of the prophecy I have quoted is God’s desire to involve men and women like you and me in his work and to make the outcome dependent on our cooperation, obedience, and dedication. This is the way he has arranged the whole plan of salvation – to be accomplished in partnership with human beings. In the prophecy, he doesn’t say that everything will turn out all right even if we refuse to listen to his call. The welfare of many is dependent on our faithfulness and radical dedication. We are only a part of his plan, of course, not the whole. But he also clearly says to us, “If you heed me, if you believe my word and trust in it to the limit of your strength and the end of your faith, and carry it out with the help of my grace, a bulwark will be ready.”

In the prophecy, the Lord says that this battle should have begun earlier. We lag behind. The day he is talking about is not years into the future, but imminent.  For those who believe they will be protected simply by closing their eyes or running away, the Lord says the following, one of many words he has spoken to us over the years about our call:  “What use is there in building an island of peaceful ease while all around you war rages?  Either I will take your ease from you, and give you in exchange for it a place in the battle, and with it my everlasting favor, or the enemy will take you from your ease, and give you in return for it punishment and terror. There is no other alternative. You are a nation at war, and the war will grow and draw you in, whether you wish to join or not.”

Hearing prophecies like these, obviously international in scope, our community in Nicaragua tried to take them seriously and live them out at the local level. In doing so we have experienced tremendous blessing. Because we took them to heart, we were ready and our perspective clear when, in 1979, the Sandinista Revolution brought real tribulation to our country that lasted 11 years – the persecution of the church, the collapse of our economy, and the flight of thousands of people to foreign countries where they thought they would find peace, but did not. We had been warned through the prophecy and had been able to build our lives on the solid foundations that the Lord had given. During those difficult years, the Lord allowed our community to play an important role as a bulwark for our church on the local and national level against communist indoctrination. 

The Lord has always asked his disciples to love one another as he loved them. Today he is raising up disciples in communities, called in a special way to radically live out that love as brothers and sisters in Christ, committed to one another in a way that touches every area of life, and every moment of every day. Christians have always been called to be in the world without being of it, to be salt and light. In this particular moment in history, in which the values of the world threaten large segments of the church, the Lord is calling some Christians to form communities, “forts,” that are joined together as a bulwark to strengthen and protect his church and foster the spread of his good news – to be a people set apart for him, living according to his ways.

[1. Lest it be taken wrongly, note that this word does not predict the disappearance of the church. The people of Israel also survived, but 10 of its 12 tribes disappeared forever.]

Carlos Mantica is a founder of The City of God community (La Cuidad de Dios) in Managua, Nicaragua, and a founding leader of the Sword of the Spirit. He served for a term as president of the Sword of the Spirit between 1991 and 1995. He is author of the book, From Egghead to Birdhood (hatch or rot as a Christian). See excerpt from one of the chapters in the book: Good Teacher..
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