Thursday, October 29, 2009

Non-involvement: a spiritual-sounding cop-out?

Okay, let’s all get this off our chests, since it’s at the heart of this conversation. Whether you need to scream it; or heave a sigh; or close your eyes, whisper silently and cross yourself - just say: “I’m upset and embarrassed by how some American Christian leaders are acting, and I’m upset that our faith has been over politicized.” If you decide to throw in a few profanities to truly express your feelings, I'll leave that to your personal convictions. Let your emotions flow; let your anger dissipate. Feel better? I do. Okay, now let’s have a conversation. I have already expressed my main objections to the idea of a “Christian America,” but I need to fill out my thoughts on the opposite side of the spectrum: anti-political Christianity.

In reaction to the objectionable behavior of political activists who have represented Christianity in a distasteful way (or, in some cases, simply the objectionable caricatures created by the pop-culture comedians who influence our thinking more than we’d like to admit), it seems very popular to say that Christians have no business being in politics. Certainly the kingdom of God is not now a political kingdom, and our primary focus is on building the church. But the kingdom of God will be political one day: the world will be ruled by Christ in a way that will establish truly good laws, rather than the laws we must settle for today that take into account the sinful flaws and depravity of both the ruled and the rulers. Blanket statements like “politics are corrupt by nature” must always be given with a qualification, because there is One who will wield political power with perfect justice and integrity (and apparently have glorified human beings as his appointed officials - Matt. 19:27-29; 2 Tim. 2:12) Neither can we trust our great enlightenment aphorism “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power is not the thing that corrupts. Positions of power just give greater and more public opportunities to people who were already corrupt from birth. And again, there is one who will wield power without corruption one day. When Young writes in The Shack that authority is only something necessary because of sin, he misses out on the way proper authority and righteous rule are commended in Biblical theology. Politics is not the problem; government is not inherently wicked. Sin is the problem, and it screws with government and politics endlessly.

But in identifying the problem more accurately, we still haven’t answered whether politics can be meaningfully engaged in while we wait for the part of the kingdom that has not yet come. Some would say that Jesus’ model was one of non-engagement. An acquaintance of mine did an interesting post on this recently. I recommend the post (unless you consider yourself a fundamentalist - then reading his blog will make you very angry), but I disagree with his conclusion. I don’t think that this is an area where Jesus was modeling a practice for us. Jesus lived in a political situation where any Jewish messiah-like figure had a couple of basic choices: question Roman authority and get squashed by the greatest military force on the planet at that time, or avoid confrontation and political agitation and be allowed to accomplish the rest of your goals in life. (In Jesus’ case, he managed to infuriate the Jews by avoiding confrontation with the Romans, and get killed by the Romans anyway - but he did so after he had accomplished all that he wanted to prior to that, and in order that he could accomplish victory over death, an enemy who had ruled much longer than the Romans.) Jesus did not punch a ballot in November. And I’m pretty sure that, if he had, it would not have been included in the inspired text of the New Testament, because the message of the New Testament only deals with politics incidentally, when it affects salvation, the formation of the church, and the promise of Christ's second coming. The quotes from Philip Yancey that appear on Musings of an Evangelical Mind remind us that Christianity is not essentially about political influence - but the premise is that we can determine based on what the text does not tell us about what Jesus did not do what we ought to do, when we live in an entirely different societal structure. By the same logic, we could exhort people to not pursue higher education, buy homes or invest in stocks and bonds. And none of these things are essential to a good and godly life - but we have no reason to urge people to throw them aside as useless. Doing so would not be following the example of Christ in a New Testament sense, but just being culturally quirky.

I think that each generation and each culture must work out for themselves how the truths of salvation and membership in the people of God and the impact that these things have on our behaviors play out more specifically in our unique situations. We are called to accept the same gospel, imitate the same characteristics of Christ, and obey the same central moral commands of God as at all times in church history. But it will be fleshed out a little differently for us than for Jesus and the twelve, or for Paul and the early Greek churches. This is not to say by any means that we reject their authority, but that we live out the same theology in a different situation, and thus it will look different, whether we try to make it that way or not. And since we have no command to avoid politics altogether, our concern is to engage issues appropriately, as part of our mission, without making political action an idol.

I welcome your critiques on these ideas, especially since a couple of readers seem to be in this camp. And from here I can start filling out a positive framework of what I think should shape our views. But who wants to read posts so long that they make your fingers tired from scrolling down the screen? This is enough for today.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A few questions about Christianity and politics (Multiple choice)

Choose the best answer:

Those who promote marriage amendments to prevent gay marriage from becoming legal are:

A. Upholding a biblical view of family and society
B. Fostering hatred and intolerance
C. Denying the rights of individuals in a free nation
D. Saving their nation by fighting the decline of morals

Governments and humanitarian groups who distribute condoms in areas with high AIDS infection rates are:

A. Saving lives by reducing infection rates
B. Promoting immorality by encouraging sex outside of marriage
C. Acknowledging sinfulness while attempting to protect the innocent (like AIDS orphans and faithful spouses married to unfaithful spouses)
D. Undermining God’s pattern for society by protecting people from the consequences of their actions.

Christians who advocate implementing Christian morals in legislation are:

A. Completely missing the point, because Christianity is just about loving God and people, not about politics.
B. Preparing the way for the proclamation of the gospel by helping society to view sin as something that is wrong, not just a personal preference.
C. Hindering the proclamation of the gospel by trying to force right behavior on people who have not been regenerated and made capable of holiness.
D. Expressing love for the world by doing what is best for society, because the world functions best when people follow God’s principles for life.

I'm growing weary of what seem to me overly simplistic statements about Christianity and politics. One unsatisfying statement is that we must make our nation a Christian nation. This seems to me like it would undo all the progress Western culture has made to get to the separation of church and state and freedom of conscience in religious matters, thus restoring the problem of any corrupt, unjust or murderous action by the government being viewed as the action of Christianity.

Another unsatisfying conclusion is that we just have to love God and love people, and not worry about politics, because Christianity isn't about politics. But this places us in the position of having the right to vote (something that wasn't a part of the New Testament church's political situation), but having to believe that our Christianity has nothing to say about which boxes we will check on the ballot. This buys into the idea that religion is only something that gives meaning, significance and identity, but not something that can be applied to reality. But can something really be true if it isn't workable in life and applicable to the real world?

I will have more thoughts coming on my blog, but I have to start with the questions before I can, well, raise more questions and make them more complicated. (What, did you think I have the answers? Heck, no!)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Keeping an ear on the liberals

A couple of decades ago, a revolutionary shift happened in Biblical scholarship in North America that ushered in a different and better way of studying the Bible. The concept was simple, yet profound: read the Bible as if it were literature written by real human authors, who used literary devices and conventions to communicate their ideas. This idea shifted the focus of liberal OT studies away from picking apart the text by trying to identify which sections came from which supposed source documents (the “documentary hypothesis”). And it shifted conservative studies away from reading every statement in the text as a literal statement about reality, a proof text for a doctrine, or a rule that can “plug and play” in a church covenant or Christian school student handbook. This shift caused students of Scripture to look more carefully at what figurative language was communicating and how the genre (or category) or literature affected the meaning.

Who were the thinkers that brought about this positive paradigmatic change? The two names you hear the most in connection with this shift are Robert Alter and Meir Steinberg. Who are they? Liberal scholars. If you read Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, you will find that he does not accept the inspiration and authority of scripture, yet gives some important insights into the author’s intended meaning. What these men, as non-believers, wrote and taught helped us, as believers, better approach and understand the text that God uses to shape our lives. This is one instance that shows why its important to keep an ear on the liberals - to check in every now and then and see what they are saying. Sometimes they can point out things that we cannot see about ourselves. Kind of like the time you walked around with a piece of spinach sticking to your front teeth, and didn’t look in a mirror for hours, then somebody pointed out that it was stuck there - no, not there…a little further over…still there…okay, now you got it.

So what have I heard from the liberals lately? Some insightful criticism about conservative Christianity and American nationalism, and how they are far too closely connected. As I plod my way through portions of Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God, a history of fundamentalism in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, I’ve shaken my head and furrowed my brow several times over her statements about how religious ideas are not meant to be applied in any workable way to reality, but are important only in the personal quest for purpose and significance in life. What a wonder that kind of religion would be: to give us meaning from something which has no meaning for events in the real world. Like having confidence in confidence alone. But that’s another topic for another day. The insight Ms. Armstrong gave me is in the characteristics of fundamentalism, namely that fundamentalist movements are based on looking back to some “golden age” in the history of their religion and idealizing that age. The vision they build of that age becomes the goal for which they strive, the better world which has been lost and needs to be restored.

The early leaders of the fundamentalist movement in American Christianity seemed much more focused on the New Testament era as their ideal age. They wanted to get back to the Bible, to preserve doctrinal truth when it was under such severe attack, and to build strong churches that had a distinctive faith based on revelation, not a group that accommodated the culture in every respect and conformed their idea of Jesus to every idea of enlightenment modernists. These people made dramatic moves and took bold, difficult and admirable stands for truth by separating from institutions that claimed to be Christian, but did not uphold many of the basic elements of Christian belief.

But by the time the fragmented fundamentalist movement had recovered and gained momentum, they launched back into the mainstream with a different mythos - when Robertson, Falwell, Lindsey, Lahaye and others urged conservative Christians into the public arena, they called them to take back their nation. The Christian education systems they had developed taught believers U.S. history as a story of Christian people and Christian ideals building a Christian republic. By exerting their influence, evangelicals could restore the traditional values of their nation. The golden age had shifted forward by roughly 1700 years. No longer was the movement about getting back to the New Testament church; now it was about getting back to Christian America.

As I move about on the west coast, I most frequently hear about this kind of thinking when people are describing it to complain about what’s wrong with Christianity. Sometimes people talk about this problem to explain why they are not Baptist (apparently assuming Baptists to be a monolithic denomination co-founded by Jerry Falwell and a KJV-only preacher, who now direct their empire from the grave, commanding their drones to condemn people who drink alcohol and write legislation intended to cause global warming to destroy the world). After awhile, I start to wonder whether it’s a caricature of days gone by, whether there are really people who still act this way. But then I remember that just a few short years ago I sat in convocation at Liberty University the day after Bush’s re-election, listening to the loudest cheering I had ever heard there. (well, I guess there was the time the president of Chik-Fil-A came and announced he was giving us all coupons for a free chicken sandwich. That got pretty loud.) I got the distinct impression that some of my fellow students had asked George W. Bush into their hearts to save them. Dr. Falwell, a man I immensely respect for his strengths, showed one of his faults at this moment. He gave the glowing approbation that the election results were proof that evangelicalism was growing - that we were “getting people saved, baptized, and into the voting booth.” I can’t count how many times guest speakers admonished the student body that the only way we could save our country from being destroyed by God’s judgment for its moral behavior was to go out and evangelize and get involved in the political process. Is saving the greatness of America our highest end? Is Christianity simply the best way to get to the glorious days of “back when” - when people knew their neighbors, worked hard, and (supposedly) didn’t smoke, drink, or cuss in front of women? Is the command of Christ in the great commission not enough reason to evangelize, that we must throw American hegemony and prosperity into the mix? Is compassion for the lost such a weak incentive for doing the work of the church that we must add the dream of getting prayer back in schools and the ten commandments posted in courtrooms?

Please don’t miss my point. The point of this post is not about George W. Bush or Jerry Falwell; it’s not about quirky cultural rules or rage against my alma mater (I have more good memories than bad from LU). It’s not about making an opposite and equally wrong reaction by identifying with the political left and their vision of America instead (as some in my generation have been eager to do). It’s about remembering the mission and identity of the church, and placing those things high above political power, national pride, patriotism, or moralist visions of society.

Last week, I heard a lecture from a liberal who had something to say about this. John Dominic Crossan pointed out that Christianity survived the fall of the Roman Empire because it was not dependent on an empire for its identity. He declared, “If Christianity in America only supports the American empire, then it will go down with the American empire.” If Crossan’s vision of Christian belief survives, it will not survive because of its truth, but in spite of its error - I strongly disagree with how he defines Christianity. But his comment about conservative Christianity is right on. Let’s remember our identity.