Tuesday, May 28, 2013

And I Would Have Gotten Away with it too, if It Hadn't Been for You Meddling Christians

In my last post, I raised the question: Is an evangelical theology of liberation possible? One might well also ask: Is such a project desirable? Who would attempt such a thing, and why? I want to back into that question gradually, by means of indirection: I want to look at potential objections first and, in the process, begin to explore how a distinctively evangelical theology and piety might find contemporary expression within a agenda of social and political liberation.

Let's start with potential objections from an evangelical perspective. The question of social and political activism has always been deeply divisive within Protestant Christianity -- within the Christian tradition as a whole, really -- so I want to show acknowledge the complexities here. But one common objection to such an engagement can be stated pretty simply: As evangelical Christians, entering the political fray of this fleeting world is none of our business.

I live in western Massachusetts, where a push is on to get a resort casino located in one of three local cities. Opposition is heating up in Springfield, where the mayor and city council are enthusiastically supporting a bid to get a casino built downtown. My parish church, the Episcopal cathedral (where, it must be noted, not everyone is of the same mind on this issue) is hosting an anti-casino rally featuring a former Congressman from Connecticut. I read some of the Facebook coverage for this event, where one disgruntled fellow admonishes us to stick to our main business -- "saving souls." "Some church you guys are," he writes, proposing that people drift away from the church because "someone is always meddling in someone's business."

Meddling is precisely what many good church folk, both white and black, accused Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and other pastors of doing by interjecting the churches directly in the civil rights struggle. Numerous progressive movements in U.S. history, in particular, were driven by committed evangelicals. (Of course, the same is often true of more reactionary stances as well.) Some churches, for example, provided asylum to central American refugees during the 1980s.

I don't want to minimize the potential force of the objection to the Christian propriety of an activist praxis. For example, one can take a more traditionally anabaptist line on socio-political controversies and argue that the church gives the best witness to the world by keeping its own house and order and by staying out of the compromising fray of public controversies. This was perhaps the best possible stance that many early Christians could pursue within the Roman Empire.

For good (sometimes) and for ill (very often), evangelicals historically have been meddlers. True, there has always been a more quietist strain within this spiritual heritage, as some interpret a Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine to draw a sharp distinction between the realms of the church and the public sphere. Any battle must be engaged carefully, thoughtfully and with due prayerful introspection. A careful and biblicaly grounded theology of the principalities and powers will be essential in checking the urge to demonize political opponents.

But we just have to take this risk and get involved with the key issues of our time. The Gospel, as I understand it, demands such a faithful engagement. The Gospel can't be reduced to politics, but it embraces and includes transformation within the public realm. The Gospel centers on the Kingdom of God -- or "realm" of God, if you prefer -- and the contemporary biblical and theological scholarship on the basilea tou theou I've been able to engage suggests that the notion is intrinsically political and inclusive off all creation -- the polis as even the cosmos as well as the individual person.

Evangelical Christians must be clear about justification through grace. Ethical action and speech must be motivated by gratitude for divine beneficence and not express a futile attempt at self justification. We must affirm the provisional and inherently sinful character of all human ideologies and movements. We are all justified sinners. Whether the issue is climate change, economic disparity or racial injustice, our hands are already dirty. It's impossible to not be involved. There is no such thing as an apolitical stance: To remain quiet and passive in the face of injustice is a political endorsement of the status quo.

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