Why Politics Matters and How We Got the Wrong End of the Stick (4)

images-1Readers of James Davison Hunter’s magnificent critique of how Christians have sought to transform culture in America will know that he critiques Stanley Hauerwas and Jim Wallis unfavorably, just as he does conservative icons Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus. Hunter argues for what he calls, in a memorable phrase, “faithful presence” – which he defines as an ideal of Christian practice that is both individual and institutional; a model that plays out not only in all our relationships but in our work and the various spheres of our social (shared) common life.

I generally follow Hunter’s arguments but I believe his emphasis upon “how” culture is impacted, and made from the top down, is not altogether right. I believe his big picture solution, that of “faithful presence,” is quite right but I also believe that Christians should act as salt and light in the daily hubbub of life by being there and being faithful to their calling. Colson is not altogether wrong about the impact of the “little platoons” (a term he popularized in his latter writing about church and culture).

images-3But back to Resident Aliens for the present. The authors believe that the loss of Christendom “gives us a joyous opportunity to reclaim the freedom to proclaim the gospel in a way which we cannot when the main social task of the church is to serve as one among many helpful props for the state” (39). I am arguing that this captures the missional stance of the church quite profoundly. The authors are not arguing that this present cultural and social shift is the basis for ecclesiology and missiology. This would clearly be a deeply flawed premise. The church has adjusted to social shifts in the past and these have often been less than faithful shifts in terms of fidelity to Christ and the gospel. So shifting with culture is not equal to faithfulness to our mission.

My own shift in thinking about the role of the church in our present cultural milieu (“one of captivity” as I’ve called it) has come about over time and by engaging with the various generations that make up our present American context. It has also come about by reading and processing the literature and arguments for “missional church theology.” The church should not ask, “What can we do that will be useful to the world?” We are not mere members of a “helping profession” when we become Christians and ministers. More to the point, we are not chartered by the emperor or the U.S. Constitution. Our DNA as Christians in community with one another should come from the person and mission of Jesus alone!

One of the models that James Davison Hunter critiques, for lack of a better term, is the Anabaptist expression of the church. When the church confronts the world with a political alternative to what the world instinctively knows and understands this is, according to many, a “sectarian” (divisive) stance. Most of the early Anabaptists did not (though wrongly understood on this point) actually desire to withdraw from the world. Willimon and Hauerwas make it quite plain that they had no expressed desire for such a move. But when the early Anabaptists spoke to the political and social realities of their world they were murdered by Calvinist, Lutheran and Catholic societies that saw them as a menace to their “Christian” state and order. It is therefore right to conclude, as Hauerwas and Willimon do, that “The Anabaptists did not withdraw. They were driven out” (42).

Society has generally believed that it needs something faith-based to hold itself together. Constantinianism demanded a unified state religion in order to keep the empire together. Christendom follows this approach, even in the land of the free. In America we have constituted a federal republic that allowed for the separation of church and state, a separation that may well be our greatest political achievement! But we still needed something that would hold us together thus we created a universal “American religious” (civil) faith that prevailed for several centuries. The problem now is that it began to break apart in the 1960s. Now the evidence that this has happened across most of our society is abundantly clear if you have eyes to see it.

What is this “universal” American faith that has held us together? It has surely not been Marxism, or even socialism. Some would argue that it is capitalism, the greatest contribution to the world that we have made in terms of our influence. I believe, with Hauerwas and Willimon, that the glue that actually holds us together will work in Marxist, socialist or capitalist societies – it is the omnipotent state. Resident Aliens suggests that the most “nefarious brand of tribalism . . . is the omnipotent state” (42). I believe this is true and this is why churches in America have such a hard time partnering. We value markets and franchises more than unity!

American tribalism sets up artificial boundaries and then defends them with profound intensity. This tribalism is alive and well and whether the left or the right wins an election it will continue to hold many Americans together, especially as community collapses in daily life. But the church willingly served this tribalism by promoting civil religion – “God and country” – with deep sincerity and emotion. But God,not Caesar or the president or congress, reigns! When the church becomes a willing partner with the state then Christendom is always the result, even in a democratic context such as the United States. If God does not rule the world then the all-powerful state does. The only answer to this is for the church to once again be the church, a missional community of the faithful who pursue their unity together in Jesus Christ, a unity that transcends political, racial, gender and ethnic distinctions that separate and divide believers from other believers, even neighbors from neighbors. The answer to getting the wrong end of the stick is to see the political as the reign of Christ and then to live as Christians in community (church) who desire to work this out with abiding faith, hope and love.

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