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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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.