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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Resumes, Record, References and Rhetoric

It is not an easy task to make an informed decision when it comes to hiring someone, especially in a ministry field such as my own. There are so many competing issues with which to contend, not the least of which is the notion that all such applicants have that God has led them to apply for the position. Hiring, supervising, and firing people seems such an easier thing in a secular context where personal feelings and question of faith need not be given much (if any) consideration. Certainly when I was laid off from my position in the insurance industry some years ago, no one in management seemed especially concerned about the impact of that decision on my faith. (Ironically, it was wonderfully providential as it afforded me the necessary space and time to transition smoothly into my current work).

However, there are clearly some issues that translate into a secular construct, as I’ve laid out in my title. These four: resume, record, references, and rhetoric (I love alliteration!!) are the key things I examine when weighing in on a hiring decision and I believe that these four things are important to examine in the context of politics.

Resume: The resume is quite simply a candidates (job or political) history of relevant experiences and education. When hiring, it is very important to examine, because experience in a similar type job can tell you a lot about whether a person has the requisite understanding of what the job they’re applying for entails. In ministry it means that youth or missions work relates more easily to campus work than say, parish work with the elderly. In politics it means that executive leadership (governorships, business executive) translates more directly to president than does legislative work — which is why we don’t typically elect senators to the presidency. Legislators rarely have experience running anything other than their mouth.

Record: The record is what person has actually accomplished in their previous work. When I hire someone, the fact that they’ve achieved certain demonstrable goals, or accomplished certain objectives counts for a lot. In politics it should be the same: examination of the actual policy changes achieved or bipartisanship, or significant legislation, or initiatives accomplished matter a great deal.

References: Usually I don’t let references make or break a hiring decision, but they can be the difference between a solid yes and a strong maybe; sometimes they bring me to a full NO! References give insight to the kind of people and relationships a person cultivates. In politics, references are best not done through the lens of endorsements, because the endorsing parties have too much to gain, but by examining the kinds of people, institutions, and associations a politician has. One or two oddities are forgivable; three or four ought to give SERIOUS pause.

Rhetoric: I say rhetoric just because it starts with R, but I mean the interview. This is the least important part of the process for me, because the interviewee is doing all he or she can to impress me and answer the questions the right way. All an interview can really do is give me a face to face sense of the person, or perhaps give them an opportunity to clear up anything that seems untoward from the other 3 things. In politics, the election campaign is the interview, so I don’t put much stock in anything the candidates say about what they’re going to do. They are just interviewing for the job and will tell me exactly what I want to hear.

Of these four, the record counts the most. If the rhetoric matches the record, then it is believable. If not, the person is not honest. So if a candidate claims to be a unifier, look for evidence in their record, their resume, and their references. If a candidate claims to be bipartisan or wants to work in a bipartisan way – examine the record. If he/she has done it before, then believe them. Otherwise they’re lying. If a candidate has lots of bad references and associations, question their judgment and disregard their rhetoric. It really doesn’t matter how well a person interviews / campaigns if everything else about them doesn’t add up. Likewise no matter how poor someone interviews, if the rest of the things stack up, hire them.

Our current president interviewed /campaigned very well, as a compassionate conservative and a unifying figure, but his resume showed a track record of minimal accomplishment, cronyism, partisanship, and pretty poor executive experience. Is it any wonder that his administration has been so thoroughly unaccomplished, and plagued with cronyism, excessive partisanship and horribly administration? The administration of the next president will not reflect his rhetoric, but his record; of that you can be sure.

Political Philosophizing & abortion rights

Whilst perusing various blogs earlier in the day I ran across one that had a quite disturbing graphic depicting the steps undertaken by a physician performing an abortion procedure on a child at approximately 20 or so weeks. Though I have seen such graphics before, I was this time horribly disturbed in a way that I have not been previously.

If I am honest with myself I must admit that at least part of my reaction was likely due to the particularly sensitive state of my emotions following several weeks of intensive ministry, family and social obligations, all of which serve to make me more tender than I perhaps am in “normal” circumstances. Perhaps it is such tenderness that our Lord would desire me to always have.

Nevertheless and despite the cause, I was deeply moved and given the political season in which we are engaged, my thoughts turned quite readily to that arena. The political structure of our government and the evolution of political decision making alongside developments in the understanding of the role of the courts in refereeing political and social life in our nation make it certain that for many religious and otherwise socially conservative persons, the issue of judicial appointments to the federal bench is a salient issue in their minds as they weigh their voting responsibilities. It is fair to say that many, if perhaps not most of the so called evangelical vote that has been given consistently to Republican Party candidates over the last two decades has been heavily influenced by this political consideration.

The courts have become the most contested battleground in the long waging culture wars of American political life as evidenced by the recent California Supreme Court decision concerning homosexual marriage. It is also fair to say that many of these same conservatives have been likely disappointed by what they perceive as a lack of progress in overturning controversial decisions such as Roe vs. Wade and with the ongoing dissolution of what had been a large scale social consensus concerning such things as marriage and the family. The rabid unpopularity and arguably failed governance of the current president have left many evangelicals thoroughly disenchanted with these age old controversies and many, especially of the younger generation, are likely to see abortion and homosexuality in the same light as their secular non religious friends. It remains to be seen whether the California decision will serve to rally such “conservative” voters around a McCain candidacy that has received, at best, a lukewarm reception (something no doubt due in part to the tepidness of the candidate himself).

As an evangelical Christian it might perhaps surprise some that I have not always been “pro-life” as the terminology has it (though I know of no one who is publicly “pro-death”). In my youth I was quite settled in my opposition to efforts to limit the exercise of a woman’s freedom over her own body. It seemed to me at the time a potentially unjust imposition of state power and an unnecessary intrusion by the state into what was fundamentally a private matter of health and safety. At the time my greatest consternation with the issues was the exclusion of the father from the decision making process, as I believed (then as now) that the vagaries of our biology do not afford one parent greater rights of decision making vis a vis a child or potential child. Though the woman physically carries the child, he is no more or less responsible than she is in determining how best to proceed in such as case. Likewise I believed it to be reasonable that adult parents of under aged teens held primary responsibility for making the decision for or against abortion as it was a medical procedure and excluding them from the matter would be an uneven application of existing laws. As you might imagine, while it was simple to hold these positions from a political point of view, it became increasingly difficult to justify abortion theologically, though honestly in my youth, I never attempted to do so.

One of the fundamental problems with abortion and with other socially and politically challenging questions from a biblical perspective lies not simply in the application of seemingly arcane laws and mores from the Old and New Testament to a very different social context, but rather in an inherent contradiction between the social and political philosophy of the Bible and The Republic.

The political philosophy of the United States is the product of two distinct and important streams of thought that culminated in the production of the founding documents of the republic and which account for some of the tensions inherent therein.

The first is the tradition of English common law which stretched back several centuries and was influenced by its Norman, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon precursors and came about in a time of stark realism about the hardships of life. It was part of the feudal compact of European society that at core was conservative, agrarian, and individualistic and yet was cognizant also of the responsibilities of the common man to “do his bit” for his feudal master or, less frequently, the crown. This was all the government he wanted or needed.

The second is that of the French Enlightenment which was more recent, yet in some ways more potent. It was the product of educated elites who were, in the main, atheistic in their orientation if not in their actual belief. It was largely corporatist and viewed society as a series of “compacts” or agreements between groups, but most especially the “governed” and the government, which was the monarchy. It was also humanistic, anti-authoritarian (in the sense of its rejection of any authority deriving from sources external to the “people” i.e. divine right), and, like common law, rights oriented but in an idealistic sense. That is to say rights are common, rather than individual goods.

The joining of these two streams under the leadership of the elites who founded the country largely explains the tensions inherent in the American political system. It is a system wherein the corporate, utopian, group rights orientation derived from our Enlightenment roots are ever in conflict with the radically individualistic, dystopian and personal rights orientation of our English common law ancestry. Ironically, it is our Enlightenment legacy that, despite its anti-hierarchical bent, that lends itself more readily to domineering executive power utilized generally in the guaranteeing of perceived corporate “rights” and less frequently in the pursuit of utopian aims.

So then, how is the political philosophy of the United States fundamentally at odds with a biblical worldview and what does any of this have to do with abortion? Indeed there are some Christians who would argue against this characterization and point to many things within the intent of the framers original documents that have Christian antecedents, as well as pointing out that many of the framers were themselves Christians.

The Christianity of certain of the framers is not at issue here, nor is it particularly relevant in this argument. It is quite possible to hold and practice a solidly active faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and still adhere to, support, and even endorse a political philosophy that is not especially Christian or even biblical. Likewise the presence of certain Christian presuppositions within the founding documents does not mean that the entirety of such documents reflect a Christian or biblical framework. Indeed it is more likely a reflection of the fact that the United States was birthed out of a culture that had been influenced by Christianity for several centuries and whose predominant philosophic impulse was Christian.

The answer to my question is rather simpler than my arguably inaccurate and unhelpful description of American political philosophy and is at least two fold (though I suppose I could dig out another fold if I were so inclined).

Firstly, the Bible specifically and Christian thinking more broadly has very little use for the concept of “rights” in either the Enlightenment or the English common law sense of that word. As a religion, Christianity is preoccupied with cultic questions of proper religious practice and with ethical questions of proper social relations. Political commentary, where given, is generally sparse, situational, and at times prophetic. There is little said about how the government as an institution ought to function in relation to its citizens / subjects since government was largely personal and arbitrary in nature. Subsequent years of Christianization provided abundant opportunity for discourse on how princes ought to conduct themselves towards their subjects, but such advice was given with the understanding that the rulers themselves would be Christian, in word if not in actual fact. Even so, the way in which we talk about rights is a concept alien to Christianity. Much more is written in scripture about the responsibility of Christians to one another, to unbelievers, to God and occasionally to the government. In all of these cases, the over arching thrust is towards the giving up of ones prerogatives both as a spiritual discipline, and as a practical matter leading towards peace.

Secondly, the principle of majority rule or more elegantly, “the consent of the governed,” is as alien to Christianity as my critique of it is likely to be to those who are democracy’s most ardent defenders. Rightful critique of “activist” jurists often falls back upon a philosophical position that it is the responsibility (or right) of the people to decide upon certain issues and that courts over overstep their boundaries and usurp this presumably sovereign right. A counter critique is then launched about the need to protect the rights of the minority opinion from the “tyranny of the majority.” In this case, both positions are right and both in error. To prevent what would likely be an even more tedious post to finish I will deal only with the error of the former as I have already discussed the fallacy of “rights” inherent in the counter critique. The notion that “the people” have a right to decide anything is a clearly unchristian concept when applied outside of a covenanted Christian community as was present in Acts, and flies in the face of our common depravity and deceivability. It was after all a majority position to select a king in 1 Samuel, and we know well how the democracy of the Tower of Babel worked out.

Thirdly and finally (I knew I’d find another ‘fold’ in there somewhere), the Bible and Christian history hold Christians, not government, to a high standard of interventionist responsibility on behalf of justice for those most unable to assist themselves. The testimony of scripture is that government exists to “reward good and punish evil.” In such circumstances that the government inverts its function and begins to reward evil and punish good, it is the responsibility of Christians to resist (and of course to bear the consequences). In a democratic system, Christians can work more actively towards that metric through the democratic process by electing officials who will act towards that end. In any government system Christians can work toward eliminating or ameliorating the most detrimental effects of injustice, oppression, brokenness or sin on “the least of these” as we did in the earliest days of our faith when Christians actively rescued abandoned babies who had been left to die.

What a Christian cannot do is work actively or passively towards the support or institutionalization of those governments or official which fail to adhere to the metric of scripture to “reward good and punish evil.” This is not to say that Christians ought to be single issue voters or should otherwise ignore the promises, characteristics, and commitments of any candidate for the sake of his or her position on an issue such as abortion or homosexual rights. It is rather to say that due consideration must be given always for those who have the least ability to defend themselves or their own inte