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Saturday, February 2, 2013

On Christian Activism

On Christian Activism
Delivered at Madison Chapel
February 3, 2013
The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

            My wife and I sometimes joke about being Baptist, and that if we had to choose some other Christian family to be a part of that we’d like to be Eastern Orthodox. I fell in love with the Orthodox worship and iconography on a trip to Greece in 2007, and besides that, their priests get to be married AND have beards. That’s a win-win.
            I am sometimes wistful to be a member of a Christian group that has separated itself from the broader culture like the Amish or certain Mennonite groups. They live what seem to be pristine, uncomplicated lives apart from the world of faster and bigger. They live simply and carefully; they seem to be just as holy as a Christian group can be.
            The temptation to withdraw from society is very strong among Baptists and Evangelicals in America. Voddie Baucham has made a fortune preaching about pulling Christian children out of public schools and either homeschooling them or setting up some sort of enclave co-op among would-be homeschooler families to form private schools.[1] Christian Exodus wants the “true” church to secede from the Union and begin all-Christian societies in South Carolina, Idaho, or Latin America.[2] These are strange and extreme cases, but they strike a chord with me in a way. I want to see heaven on Earth, to see Christian values and virtues lived out in the community of faith around me. I want to see crime and poverty eliminated as much as I want to see the need for abortions to be eradicated.
            Yet in these situations where Christian segregation is the golden goal of the church, that is, the creation and maintenance of a society that is separated from the “world” and all of its sinful, liberal, religion-neutral policies, there is a massive failure of nerve and, I believe, a mal-formation of the purpose of the Gospel. Let me be clear – What overcomes my temptation to “come out of her, my people”[3] is that when Christians separate themselves from society and forsake the world for their own enclave of self-righteousness, they lose whatever ability they had to come alongside the world in mourning or in holiness. The community that separates itself from the “morally bankrupt” world trades in its calling to be a faithful witness to that world in favor of its own hegemony of thought and deed.
            What keeps me from the monastery or the Amish community or the Mennonite fellowship is that the Gospel demands our participation in the world to stand as a faithful witness to Christ and His Kingdom whether the surrounding culture is morally bankrupt or not. Once we give up on our participation in culture, we give up on our ability to “bind up the broken-hearted” and all the rest that Jesus’ ministry was about.[4]
            So I am convicted that separation is not the way to go. Does that mean that I entirely agree with Rev. Baucham’s analysis of the public education system? Certainly not. I actually have been convinced for years that if education is to be properly done, it must be done by the church. However, I understand that there is more to education than the scant hours a student spends at “Caesar’s” schools. Further, do I think that America is not failing morally? Absolutely not. However, given all of the other choices of governments in the history of the world, this is the one I’ll take.
            The segregationist impulse is understandable and reasonable, I suppose, as is the other extreme of Christian activism – the intended takeover of the political and social frameworks that guide our country. This impulse is by far the more publicized position, given that political activism and activity is what is most covered and talked about in our media climate.
            We are the inheritors of the Religious Right, the hybrid religio-political adventure founded by preachers like the late Jerry Falwell.[5] I say that we are the inheritors of that tradition because, like it or not, we live in a state where such a movement still holds sway over our political and social agendas. The recent March for Life is just another testament to the continuing belief in our society that Christian social activism necessarily means not only the active participation in the political process of our country, but the adoption of the language, tactics, and methods of that system in order to advance the “Christian agenda.”
            This model of activism seeks to infiltrate the systems of government and industry to “take them back” for Christ. The thought goes that if enough people elect enough Christians to office or to the Board, then those elected will then pass enough legislation or policy that America or the company in question will become (re-become?) Christian.  Phrases like “activist judges” and “morality legislation” are taglines of this type of thinking among believers. The motivation is to take back America for Christ, against America’s will if need be.
            Is this method really any better than withdrawing completely from society? The “takeover” model does essentially the same thing: Christian radio stations as alternatives to secular stations; Christian bookstores as alternatives to secular smut-peddlers; private Christian schools that look just like public schools except for the uniforms and the better sports teams. Rather that withdrawing from the world with the Mennonites, these believers create alternative Americas within the very communities they inhabit.
            By marching for the Right to Life, campaigning for Christian values, championing prayer in schools, or other such political and social activism, we are falling into the same mire of political and social vocabulary and methodology as those we would defeat – we try to “beat them at their own game.” We’ll lose every time.[6]    Consider the latest inflammatory tweet from Mark Driscoll, pastor of the wildly popular Mars Hill church in Seattle: “Praying for our president, who today will place his hands on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.”[7] What good does that do the church? What is that bearing witness too other than the same type of political language of Obama’s opponents baptized in Christian terms?
            What is Christian activism, then? Are we doomed to failure if we engage the culture on its own terms, or doomed to an un-authentic impotency if we withdraw? I rather think we, as followers of The Way, must see our role in the world as that of Faithful Witnesses, testifying to the reality of Jesus’ already-and-not-yet rule in this world.
            Rather than quoting the same Jeremiah passage that we read this morning and fighting for some personhood amendment,[8] we could read further and find that Jeremiah is actually being commissioned for an active role in his community – he is “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant,” all within the context of a culture that thinks it has God figured out or tricked out of relevance.[9] His is a calling to be within his context, to speak whatever God so instructs him, so that the culture around him may have at least one faithful witness to the will and Word of God in their midst. His is not a promise of triumph, it is not a battle cry to take back the throne or the high priesthood – it is a commissioning to go, speak, and live a life of witness and testimony that there is indeed another Word at work in the world.
            Oh, but no matter how we interpret that passage or any other, no matter which view of social participation or alienation we live into, we all want to be the winner. We want to have God on our team. We want our little band of believers to be the right ones, to have the advantage, the righteous opinion, and the sacred perspective. We want to live with some measure of confidence that our interpretation is right, that our agenda is righteous, and that our new method or approach is the one to bring the light to the darkness.
            But for all of our posturing and activism, for all our causes and “scauses,” we wind up failed caricatures of the things we want the most.[10] We are no different than Lance Armstrong when we act as Mark Driscoll did, and we are no better off than the Amish were some years ago when we try to avoid society all together.[11] If we are going to be activists, it must be in the manner to which we are called – to be the presence of Christ in our communities, proclaiming the reign of God to all we meet through our lives and deeds. When we chose sides in a political or social fight, or when we remove ourselves from the society that we live in, we forsake the very core conviction of our activism – love.
            Paul is often pulled out of context here: this passage is often used in weddings. However, notice how the contrast in chapter 13 is between the Christian acting in love and the one who is an activist without it. I can think if no more appropriate language than what Paul provides – we are a clanging gong or a crashing symbol when we screech and scream our causes in the name of Christ without his love. Love of our neighbor based on our love for God is the motivation for our true activism, whether it is for programs of mercy, seeking justice for the oppressed, or caring for the downtrodden. We cannot afford to forget that it is love, that same love of God made true in God’s Spirit living within his people, which makes us act.
            We must also remove from ourselves the arrogant, poisonous expectation that we will triumph in our efforts. If we secede from society and form an autonomous Christian collective, we set ourselves up for the failure that comes from underappreciating humanity’s sinfulness. If we manipulate the political process for victory on Election Day, we succumb to the necessary and gospel-curtailing definition of politics, that is, compromise.
            No, there is to be no triumph or victory here and now. There is to be no rule on earth of Christendom or something like it. Remember how Jesus was received by his own people when he proclaimed God’s mission of love and justice – an angry mob drove him to a hillside with murder in their hearts.
            No, if we are to do and Christian activism at all, it must be with the knowledge that only the love of God for a dying humanity can drive us, and that only the coming Kingdom of God can draw us forward. Forward to community rather than toward isolation. Forward to relationship rather than toward political victory. Forward unto death, forward unto life. Forward through love.

[3] Revelation 18:4, a commonly quoted verse by those practicing Christian segregationism.
[4] Psalm 147:3; Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18.
[9] Jeremiah 1:10.

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