The dedicatory remarks in a book published in Britain in 1939 and written by an anonymous French military officer intrigue me. The Maginot Line is dedicated poignantly to Sergeant Maginot whose name will always be linked with the shield of France, the Maginot Line. To the man who, having experienced the life of the trenches during the Great War, did not wish to expose his countrymen to the dangers of lightning attack.1
A British author writing in the same year boasted against Germany: "One thing is certain, she has no hope successfully to wage a lightning war against the might of France and Britain. Even a sudden blow through the neutral countries, Belgium or Switzerland, ... is doomed to failure. The Maginot Line, which stretches from sea to sea, will guarantee that." 2
The mighty shield of France, built at a cost of more than 7.1 billion francs over a thirteen-year period, proved totally worthless. Hitler's troops hardly paused to glance at its mighty fortifications as they rushed virtually unimpeded to Dunkirk and Paris.
The irony of Maginot's line is heightened by the fact that we have not yet learned its lesson. The fact that no wall has yet proved impregnable has not discouraged wall-building. Today's Maginots have lifted their eyes from subterranean bunkers and concrete pill boxes to gaze at the heavens and speak of particle beams and excimer lasers.
Because the church is an institution made up of human beings it is as vulnerable to mistakes of strategy as are generals and military strategists. An understanding of Maginot's mistake is important not only to military planners today but also to the church's mighty army. While I could wish that the lessons of the early days of World War II might make more of an impression on those who today are urging the spending of billions of dollars on a space-based Maginot Line, I have little hope of influencing the military-industrial complex. So I shall content myself with drawing lessons for the church.
We, it seems, are prone to the temptation to hole ourselves up in well-fortified theological systems and institutions and to pat ourselves on the back and assure one another that we are safe from Satan's attacks. Inside our edifices and institutions we maintain an air of calm self-satisfaction, seemingly oblivious to the enemy's troops marching past without even glancing in our direction.
Inside, where we're safe and warm, we look with disdain upon anyone who dares try to open a window and force us to look outside and recognize that it does not matter that our fortifications are secure if they are not having a meaningful impact on the world around us. We can rejoice that our powerful cannons of truth bag an occasional convert, and we welcome him into our fellowship as long as he doesn't speak too loud or long about the multitudes marching past unsaved. Yes, we'll allow each convert a few weeks to glow in a first-love enthusiasm for opening windows and doors to let his former associates in, but we're quite adept at letting it be known that such behavior is neither expected nor tolerable if it goes on for long--an open door can be an invitation for trouble!
A second important lesson for the church can be found in the underlying philosophy of the building of the Maginot Line. Put simply, it's called having the right answers to the wrong questions. While we sit holed up in our fortifications, we can become quite content with asking and answering questions no one outside is asking. The Maginot planners had all the right answers to what to do about a frontal attack led by tanks. But I wonder how they reacted to anyone who posed questions that didn't match up with their tidy sets of answers.
By the same token we in the church tend to become alarmed when people ask questions that can't be answered by quick reference to a systematic theology or a church working policy. So if anyone dares question the effectiveness of the systems and institutions we have learned to trust in, the questioner is labeled "liberal." The label helps us remember not to take its bearer's questions too seriously.
But the most dangerous aspect of the church's failure in this area is that as we hole ourselves up, protected from the world and its questions, we deny both our Master's method and mission. Christ's mission in coming to the world was to break down the walls of exclusion that separate His people from the world around them (see Eph. 2:12-14).
Jesus seldom taught in a synagogue or the Temple. On one of the few occasions when He sat in a house to teach, His most special ministry was to a man whose friends had literally broken through one of the "walls" (the roof) to get to Him (Mark 2:1-12). Because He ministered in village squares, along roads, and on hillsides, His ministry reached out and touched many who would never have found their way into a meeting of religious people. In so doing, He pro claimed that salvation is available to all. And that He was not afraid to meet and answer the questions that the nonreligious were asking.
The church's mission and method must not deny the reality of the multitudes marching past while we sing hymns to ourselves. It is time to wake up to the fact that institutions and edifices are better designed for repulsing enemies than for winning friends. It is time for we who would content ourselves with maintaining and strengthening the status quo to become involved in active evangelistic efforts to make the truths we defend relevant and effective in touching and healing the lives of those on the "outside." --K.R.W.