Church as Prophet or Church as Mouthpiece of Democratic “Progressive” Socialism?

There’s a lot out there about the “new evangelical left,” the “emerging church,” and new missional communities that are seeking to embody the gospel in new ways and live out the mission of Jesus in the world. I’m painting in hugely broad strokes, but many of these churches share in common a skepticism / critique of church as it has been practiced and especially of the political activism of the religious right. It is an easy to blog surf and find some church, group, preacher, or random know-it-all with a laptop (guilty!!) spouting off about how the church has ceased to be relevant, how abortion and gay marriage are important but not really, how the church needs to apologize for so many things, and on and on. There is a good deal out there about how the church needs to deal with issues of poverty, social justice, and oppression and complaint that the church hasn’t done enough. And again there is usually a call for the church to apologize.

Theologically speaking, there is ample room for the emerging dialogue to take place under the umbrella of orthodox evangelicalism, defined broadly as belief that: 1) the Bible is true, and authoritative and we ought to follow it, 2) Jesus is the only Son of God and Savior, 3) return of Christ in judgment, 4) umm something else that I’m probably forgetting. The current movement though is often self described as being “prophetic” because of the ways that the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus himself spoke about the poor and the marginalized. They see themselves as standing in that stream seeking to “be the church” in a prophetic kind of way rather than just “proclaiming” the gospel in a way that is disconnected from the day to day lives of the average person.

Socially speaking the movement seems to be dominated by White middle class, college educated people who wear black rimmed glasses and use Macs instead of PC’s. They tend to hang out in coffee shops and have churches with one or two word names like “Quest” or “Missio Dei” that obscure more than they reveal. They care about multiethnicity and try to actively pursue it. They have “creative class” jobs and live in gentrifying neighborhoods that have local food markets. They know what arugula is.

In other words, they fit neatly the typical demographic of liberal Democrats except for their pesky clinging to evangelical religion. But honestly, much of what is discussed in the blogosphere and bandied about in circles of these new evangelicals is hardly distinguishable from the Democratic Party platform. Without intending to, their prophetic voice on issues like abortion is suspiciously reminiscent of the bumper sticker, “Against abortion? Don’t have one!” Of course, it much more nuanced than I am portraying it, but there is a distinctive unwillingness to be notably and publicly FOR anything typically associated with recent evangelical politics and a concomitant willingness to be AGAINST anything championed by the Republican Party.

How prophetic though is it to align oneself with the prevailing currents of social and political thought? Has the Christian right spoken only a “negative and condemning message,” and if even they have, isn’t that also in the prophetic tradition? John the Baptist was not exactly sitting down for a conversation with those he preached repentance to, and Jeremiah would likely have been treated for clinical depression based on his frequent weeping and lament over the sinful state of his nation. Does being a faithful follower of Jesus mean that you support the notion of Universal Health Care Coverage?

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Further Reflections on a Historic Election

A week has passed since the presidential election and I have had some time to think more about what the election means and what is my personal response to it. I want to first clear the air about what might be the perception among some of my few readers, namely that I am a partisan of one or the other political parties or candidates: I am not. I am independent in thought and political persuasion and will remain so for the foreseeable future. As a Christian, my chief allegiance is to the kingdom of God, and so I “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” including my vote and my voice in the public square. All other things belong to God. I refuse to unquestionably support or unalterably demonize any candidate or party. I am committed to certain principles which I can never compromise no matter how compelling the candidate, or how high the stakes presumably are in any given election.

Having said that, the election of Sen. Obama to the presidency is a historic event and worthy of celebration as a milestone in our nations’ tortured racial history. Time and history will judge whether or not he is to be considered among the best or worst executives, but his election cannot be overlooked as insignificant in any event. A conversation with my father some weeks ago is instructive as he shared with me his own feelings as he recalled his time as a teenager, skipping school to protest segregation in downtown eateries. As he said, “we had to fight even to have the right to eat in a restaurant. And to think that a Black man could be president is simply amazing.” He’s right; it is amazing. Thinking about his journey and his response to this election is more moving to me than the election itself.

As for me, I am a child of the post-Civil Rights Era. I came of age in a time when institutionalized segregation and discrimination was a thing of the past. Certainly racism and the effects of racism were and are real components of my upbringing, but for the most part I have been free to explore elements of my identity apart from the overtly oppressive structures of race prejudice. Further, I have been privileged to develop a Black Christian identity that is open rather than closed to opportunities for learning and cross cultural interaction that those in my parent’s generation were exposed to.

My Christianity and my ethnic identity are the twin defining realities of my life and political engagement cannot be separated from these realities, and neither can they be for many (or I would argue) all Christians. It is evident from post-election analysis that the overwhelming majority of Black voters, many of whom are Christians and conservatives, cast their vote enthusiastically for the candidate that many of their White evangelical brothers and sisters rejected on the basis of their Christian commitment. This is not unusual, despite the amazement of the punditocracy; Black Americans have long cast their votes for Democratic candidates that White evangelicals reject. What changed in this election is that racial identity has been added to the mix, which heightened the emotional stakes in the election for everyone. For many evangelicals or otherwise conservative voters, the presence of a Black American on the ticket caused a degree of self reflection about their own racial attitudes. Given the media rhetoric and constant polling about racial attitudes in the country, many White evangelicals found themselves feeling somehow defensive and perhaps timid about their lack of support for Obama. The anticipated Monday morning quarterbacking of the campaign has not served to alleviate, but to exacerbate these questions and I believe could potentially set back the racial dialogue in this country if White evangelicals become timid or reactionary.

On the other hand, the Obama candidacy and presidency increased exponentially the level of interest and excitement of many Black Americans in the election. In large part Black people did not vote for Obama only because he was Black; they would likely have voted for whatever candidate had headed the Democratic Party ticket. However, it would be dishonest to say that Obama’s racial background had nothing at all to do with the enthusiasm of Black voters and even of some White liberals for whom the election of a Black person was a refreshing and even redeeming event. Many Black Christians, already estranged in some ways from White Christians, will find themselves operating even more in alternate political universe.

By illuminating this disparity in evangelical voting patterns between Black and White Christians, this election opens the door to profound questions about the intersection not only of our faith and our politics, but also our ethnicity. For many White American Christians, political engagement has not been overtly intertwined with ethnicity, though there have been clearly. As the dominant racial group in the country, Whites have had the luxury separating their theology from their ethic and political identity in a way that Black Americans never have. Being a Black in America has always been political, and our identity as a people has been in many ways formed theologically. It is well nigh impossible for Black people to separate their ethnic, theological and political realities. Arguably, the same is true for White people, but due to their majority status, it is not nearly as evident, at least not to most Whites.

Given how intertwined faith, ethnicity and politics have been and continue to be in American Christianity whether overtly as with Black Americans or covertly as with Whites, it seems to me exceedingly unlikely that one election, no matter how historic or significant will alter this dynamic. Many Whites wonder how their Black evangelical brothers could support a candidate who supports abortion rights and who has ties to less than savory individuals and institutions. Many Blacks understand the choice of White evangelicals to support Republican candidates based on issues of abortion and gay marriage, but also have a keen understanding of how White Evangelicals have often failed to advocate for issues of justice and social equity that often disproportionately affect Blacks. The election of Barack Obama does not change any of these dynamics and indeed may exacerbate them as the different groups retreat to their respective enclaves and avoid conversation with one another about these issues.

Hats off to Obama (and a shout out to Clinton)

I normally avoid political commentary in my blog and even here will be brief and avoid publicly endorsing or dissing any candidate. However I will give a hats off to Obama for securing the Democratic Party nomination. My hat goes off in honor of my father, to whom I spoke this morning (my actual flesh and blood father, not the FATHER in heaven father). As we talked his voice was full of excitement and disbelief. He said that as he heard Obama speak, he thought back to skipping school to protest “just for the right to eat in a restaurant.” Even as I write this, I too am deeply moved as I think about my mother, my grandmother and grandfather who never lived to see this day.

I’m quite sure there are many people who disagree with Obama’s politics and who don’t quite get the emotional and psychological impact for Black folks. You see for most of us, we never really even thought about the possibility that anything remotely like this could happen.

That being said I want to give a shout out to Sen. Clinton and her many supporters male and female. A lot of folks really don’t get the disaffection and disappointment. I get it, and no.. I don’t expect you to “get over it.”

Christians Politics Part 2 — to endorse or not to endorse?

Should Christian leaders endorse political candidates? In an election year when the presumptive nominees of both major political parties have had their share of “preacher problems” the question arises both for candidates and their supporters as to whether any association with religious figures is worth the potential backlash that may come when those leaders come out and say what they really believe, which in most cases is hardly politically palatable.

Beyond that and more to my own interest is whether Christian leaders themselves should be in the business of actively endorsing political candidate as author Brian McLaren recently did Sen. Barack Obama. It should be noted and is well known that Christian leaders have supported and endorsed candidates in elections for a long while, though in more recent history it has been the evangelical support of Republican Party candidates that has received the most attention. The term “Religious Right” has entered into popular lingo and the perceived wholesale support of evangelicals for President Bush is credited with much of his electoral success. (I say perceived because most African American Christians would theologically be considered evangelical but often vote Democratic).

I believe that such political engagement, while understandable and in some cases laudable, ultimately undermines both the prophetic and priestly function of the church in society. Any time a Christian leader, no matter how qualified and nuanced his phrasing, goes on record as saying, “This guy is better than that guy (or gal)” that leader runs the risk of conflating Christianity with whatever agenda that politician has. More than that is the implicit idea that to vote counter to the endorsed candidate is to somehow be fighting against God’s will or purposes.

As an aside, I find McLaren’s implicit characterization of the issues and the thinking which have motivated many Christians to often support Republican candidates as “wedge issues” and “binary thinking” to be insulting and dismissive. Many believers, though standing in full agreement with the Democratic Party on many issues, simply cannot in good conscience support pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage policies and see them as antithetical to their convictions. Further, he seems to imply (I’m being generous as he doesn’t imply it; he states it) in his endorsement that those who have voted in this way have been mindlessly manipulated into marching obediently in the parade of cynical politicians.

Christians politics

It strikes me as demeaning rather than flattering that political candidates so obviously fall over themselves to pander to the opinions of religious conservatives every election cycle. It is even more pathetic that we Christians go out of our way to invite such pandering and have become rather embarrassingly self congratulatory that we’ve final found issues “worthy” of being taken seriously enough to merit the attention of the presumptive nominees of the two major political parties in the US. Is it not obvious that evangelical interest in issues of poverty, justice, and environmental stewardship (none of which are new concerns for Christians, despite rhetoric to the contrary) is merely being used as a wedge to garner votes and that political elites both “conservative” and “liberal” have no interest in serious engagement with the intellectual and moral foundations of these ideas?

In many ways Christians in the US have become like the proverbial “easy” girl in high school who mistook her popularity with the boys with genuine interest rather than recognizing that her phone number was inscribed on the walls of every ill scrubbed toilet stall, “for a good time call…”. Cheap perfume and dime store flowers seem to be enough to win the affections of Christians in the US.

Having failed to take advantage of the “dial a date” availability of the evangelical vote for some time, the Democratic party conceded such votes to the Republican Party with a kind of attitude reminiscent of the high school know-it-all who claims to have read all the best sex technique books, but can’t get a date to save his life. He was above all of that; and besides who wanted to be part of the in crowd with all the popular kids when it was much more fun to join the chess club, play dungeons and dragons and hang out with the nerdy girls who wore peasant skirts and refused to shave.

Now like that same teen awakening from his adolescent slumber, the Democrats too have ditched the glasses for contacts, gotten a decent haircut, and learned to talk Christian-ese with flattering intonations of “faith” and “justice” and “God.” And like any desperately insecure girl, Christians fall for it all over again, lured by false promises and false hope.

Are we so easily impressed; so easily bought and sold by a political system that is primarily concerned with the preservation of its own power, and is decidedly and firmly not interested in the things of God and of the kingdom? Issues of “faith” have been all over this election, but not because of any substantive interest in the foundational issues of greatest concern to Christians. It has rather been a parade of pandering; a veritable side show of contortionist politics that would put the most flexible circus performer to shame. And we take much of it as complimentary; flattering ourselves to believe that this most recent shift shows that Evangelicals and other Christians don’t “belong” to the Republican Party and likewise that issues of “faith” and “morality” are not the exclusive preserve of the religious right. We borrow the language of a secular media and tell ourselves that we’ve “grown up” and matured despite the fact that Christian thought is nearly two millenia older than the republic itself.

I believe that we fail to recognize that the more Christians twist themselves to accommodate to the societal status quo – either through aggressive power politics of the last twenty years, or so called “subversive” hyper-contextualization that removes from the gospel all of its prickly and unpleasant rough edges (like the uniqueness of Jesus and the full weight of human sin) – the more we lose our witness. Even more, we will rapidly fall into the trap of those who “follow worthless things and became worthless themselves.” It is, in the end, against demonic principalities that desire nothing more than to keep millions stumbling in the dark without the light of Christ. Like those of ancient Israel, in our desire to be “like the other nations” that is, like unbelievers, we will readily trade our divine inheritance for something much more pragmatic and modern, or in our case, post-modern.

You don’t speak for me!

Rarely am I annoyed by something to the point of deciding to write a blog post extemporaneously, but this case will mark a departure from my previous reserve.

By now everyone who is paying even scant attention to the political campaign is aware of Rev. Wright (Sen. Obama’s pastor of twenty years). Most recently he has engaged in a number of speaking engagements in which he has spoken eloquently and passionately about his views, and expanded admirably on sound bites that had admittedly demeaned and narrowed his ministry and message. Rev. Wright is a remarkable man, and a formidable preacher; certainly now one of the best known Black preachers in America, though he had a good deal of prominence before all of this started.

Rev. Wright preaches from a distinct tradition within the larger Black gospel tradition; one that emphasizes the prophetic engagement of the church with the world. His sermons and analyses serve the function of calling needed attention to the foibles, failures, and outright dysfunctionality of the American government. The Black liberation tradition from which Wright springs is not mainstream American evangelicalism, and like much of what happens within the Black community, it is obscure in its origins and impact to the larger American psyche. Like the prophets, liberation theologies have a particular edge that lends itself to causing great offense in the hope that the people to whom the message is addressed will change their behaviors and repent. The recent spotlighting of Rev. Wright and indeed the very fact of Obama’s candidacy has allowed an opportunity for many American’s to “listen in” on a conversation that occurs within the Black community. Wright’s style, cadence, free use of Biblical passages, even his mannerisms are exceedingly common within the Black church.

I would be dishonest if I did not say that some of the things Wright has been quoted as saying are not entirely unfamiliar to me or foreign to my ears, having grown up as I did strictly within the Black church tradition. Let me also say that the kind of preaching Wright does and the ministry he advocates does bear a certain appeal. His sermons touch a deep chord with many in the Black community. Even his flirtations with universalism and his seeming embrace of Louis Farrakhan are not particularly exceptional within the context of the Black church and community. A large part of this is the simple reality that our history in America has not afforded us much luxury of distancing ourselves too far from those with whom we may vehemently disagree. The outside pressures of racism, discrimination, and poverty have created within the Black community a type of tolerance for diversity of ideas and approaches that would surprise many. It is the reason why Black churches rarely split over theological issues, but much more frequently over personality and leadership issues. It is also why many Black people will turn a willful blind eye towards practicing homosexuals in the church, or to preachers who proclaim a prosperity gospel. There is a decidedly political aspect to Black church life that means you simply don’t disrespect another recognized leader in the Black community publicly even if you think him to be a charlatan and a fraud. In this, Obama is correct; he can no more dissociate himself from Wright than he can from the Black community.

Having said all of that, I part ways significantly with Wright’s characterization of the negative press attention he’s received as being an attack on the Black church. Rev. Wright. whatever his strengths in preaching or service or even his theological persuasion, does not speak for me. I am as Black as they come, and I love the Black church. Indeed I myself am a minister of the gospel and I understand the responsibility that comes with proclamation. I would not want someone to dissect all of my sermons. Some of the early ones were probably borderline heresy. Nevertheless, Wright does not speak for me, nor does he speak for the hundreds of Black denominations, thousands of churches and millions of church-goers. Prophetic preaching is a hallmark of the Black church, but so is redemptive declarations of forgiveness. The pulpit is not the place to peddle conspiracy theories and wild eyes imaginings about the U.S. government. Furthermore it is not his place to declare or anoint himself as spokesman of the Black church in America.

As we and others have wrestled with what it means to form an authentic Asian American theology one of the places to which we’ve looked has been the developed of an authentic Black voice in liturgy, theology and preaching. As a participant in that ongoing conversation, I believe it is important to remember that any authentic Biblical theology must be first rooted in the revelation of God through Jesus Christ and the sacred text of scripture and then at how that revelation speaks into and reinterprets our particular context. It is likewise important to recall that the kingdom of God is a kingdom not of this world, and that the vagaries of politics and government are not to be overly feared, sanctified, or vilified. They are what they are, and they will perish when he who will come shall come.

The Politics of Hope and other Myths

I am somewhat of a political junkie. I watch cable news shows, read multiple papers, and peruse blogs. I regularly become either enraged or hopeful, despondent or encouraged about the state of our nation and our world as I track politics through the media. I have become, in my view, a somewhat savvy consumer of news and information.

I am also a Christian. I read the Bible. I pray. I worship. I read Christian books and subscribe to Christian magazines. I even preach the occasional sermon. I love the art of preaching and love to hear good preachers. In my view I have become a somewhat savvy discerner of all things good and godly (just kidding).

There are several things that continue to strike me over and again as I track this latest season of election year politics which make it difficult for me as a believer to engage as completely as I’d like in the process, though I will of course cast my vote in November.

The first is the wholesale abandonment of any true sense of a journalistic ethic of objectivity or honesty in reporting. Much of what is called “reporting” or even news is quite simply running commentary in the mold of poorly written and even more poorly edited opinion pages. It has been said that journalism is the first draft of history. I was trained as a historian and I know that the selection of materials to report and analyze has as much if not more impact on how history is read and understood as any of the “facts” that have actually occurred. In other words, the fact that so called journalists even report on certain issues and fail to report on other is itself noteworthy. Elizabeth Edwards writes a striking commentary on just this issue.

I am frankly incensed by the ways in which the media falls over itself creating “news” when no news exists, or to express preference for a candidate without expressly doing so. This is evident from such things as where a reporter position himself or herself for reporting. For example, if a journalist reporting on a campaign consistently reports from inside a rally so that the candidate and his supporters can be constantly heard in the background speechmaking and cheering, it creates in the mind of the viewer an image of excitement and inevitably presents that candidate in a favorable light. Another example is the failure of journalist to actual report or show what a candidate says or does in a speech or at an event. Instead, we hear commentary on those speeches alongside interpretations of what it means so that an undiscerning channel surfer (most viewers) will quickly get an impression of a candidate based not on what they say, but on what others say about them (i.e. He’s an elitist; she’s negative).

The second thing that strikes me is the trotting out again and again of the same themes every four years – Washington is broken, Congress is horrible, we need to change the way we do business in Washington., etc. Closely tied to this is the notion that politics should be more civil and polite – more on the order of a moderated debate between two college professors and less “rancorous.” This narrative works of course because no one admits to being “for” negativity and uncivil discourse. It is also helpful to run as an outsider who is untainted from the stain of Washington politics. However the whole thing works because it is based on wholesale and generally willful ignorance on the part of the electorate. People hate “Congress” but generally love their congressman or senator. They hate “rancor” but get pretty worked up themselves when issues like war, gay marriage, abortion, retirement, and taxes are brought up. The fact is people have serious disagreements on these issues and politics is about power. Where there is power, there will be struggle.

The third thing that strikes me, especially this year, is the constant emergence of the theme of hope and transformation. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not writing to hate on Sens Clinton, McCain, and Obama. No, I am writing to hate on the notion that large scale societal change or transformation needs to take place at all. It does, but not in the political sense. The challenges of our society are not explicitly political, but moral and ethical, and to my ears the candidates are not articulating a moral vision for reform or change, but a political vision. This is exactly counter to the ways in which societal transformations and reformations typically take place. The Civil Rights movement was a political movement, but it was political secondary to its moral commitments. As a Christian I am exceedingly committed to redemption and transformation, but I also know quite well that “(his) kingdom is not of this world.” Anytime the agenda of Christians becomes too tied to Earth, we very quickly lose out on heaven.

Moral visions that are tied to the election of a candidate lend themselves to political messiah-ism that is antithetical to my Christian commitments. God is God whomever is president, or even with no president at all. Christians on the right have erred greatly in the past by hoping for moral transformations coming from political changes. In this election, Christians on the left stand to make the same error in judgment.

The final observation, is that democracy is not especially Biblical. Certainly the founders were for the most part Christian, but we must remember that our nation was founded in rebellion against duly constituted and recognized (even God ordained) authority. The foundations of modern democratic government rest in the supremely liberal ideals of the French Enlightenment which were mostly anti-God and anti-church. The notion that men can rule themselves was revolutionary indeed, and democratic revolutions have almost always been imposed on societies by elite groups who felt they knew what was best for the generally conservative masses who are more inclined usually to order than the chaos of revolution.