I am fixated on two dilemmas today.
The first one is personal. What role should I have, as a young theologian and one seeking ordination in Christian ministry, in talking about politics and public issues? Abuses of the Church’s voice in the political realm have made me wary. I am also worried about the barriers that can develop between pastor and congregation, or even between pastor and those outside the Church who are seeking God, when a Christian spokesperson is too political. I do, however, feel a particular sense of calling and have a theological interest in working on developing the Church’s social and political voice. I would like to be something of a public theologian, and to disciple other Christians in their public and social witness; particularly by being actively rooted in the history of Christian thought and action throughout the globe.
How do I ensure that the Gospel remains primary, that a winsomeness that allows all who are hungry to draw near without fear or apprehension remains my primary modus operandi?
These are difficult questions.
Another dilemma confronts me. The dilemma of American politics. My assessment of the American political landscape changes regularly. The American political landscape changes regularly, for that matter. The lens of Christian love, and Christian moral conviction, presents to me several serious social and political problems that the Church which demand the Church’s voice and hands.
American partisanship makes it hard to know how to navigate the political and governmental dimension of these problems. This may be a blessing in disguise, it should prevent the Church from being wed too closely to any particular party but standing as a mediating and mutually critiquing voice.
But it does leave the voting Christian (at least yours truly) with many difficult choices.
This is my current assessment, and all due apologies and due respect to those who identify with one group or the other: The left has proven itself wholly uncreative and un-dynamic in dealing with today’s primary social problems; it can only offer spending, debt, more laws, bureaucracy, piled on top of our serious underlying problems. The right has missed its opportunity to be the voice of creativity, and instead has opted for demagoguery, ignorance of social and racial problems, obstructionism, and at its worst–blaming the 3 M’s: migrants, minorities, and Muslims for all the country’s problems.
But putting all that aside, I can only conclude that the Church must simply continue in its slow, but joyful, work of healing souls, speaking truth, standing with the oppressed. In short, of offering Christ. In Christ is a creative and healing dynamic that all politics will always fail to match. This is not a-political, but meta-political. It is the constant return to the division between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man.
Offering Christ. I think that this is the answer to both of these dilemmas. It gives me a framework, anyhow, even if it does not give an explicit answer for each situation that presents itself.
To add another idiosyncrasy–this is the reason I am Evangelical. American Evangelicalism has sometimes been marked by either dangerous abandonment of the social and political (I think of Billy Graham’s unwillingness to speak about segregation, an unwillingness he later regretted and repented of) or of a deep politicization that can dangerously confuse faith and patriotism, even something like nationalism (both of America, and of Israel…). But I love Evangelicalism because it tends to focus on people; everyday souls and bodies. And most of it all, because it is a movement of constantly returning the Church to the ‘main thing,’ love of God and love of neighbor, returning to Christ. And we are far from lacking a serious social witness. We boast William Wilberforce the abolitionist, Chuck Colson the prison reformer and advocate of restorative justice, The Salvation Army, World Vision, etc.
This constant return to the ‘kernel’ of Christianity, which marks Evangelicalism, has its dangers. There is the danger of a Christianity shamefully stripped of any sense of tradition (any tradition) and a watery and theologically flat relativism. The other danger is fundamentalism, a desire to grasp tightly to a breadth of ultimately periphery matters (interpretations of Genesis, eschatology) as part of ‘the kernel.’ But Evangelicalism has built in its DNA to always be checking the Church against these extremes, and returning to Christ and Church and loving others.
This is what an Evangelical political witness can be: A simplicity that preserves against over-politicization, but a simplicity grounded in the fundamental necessity of loving God and neighbor, giving birth to a conviction about speaking on behalf of the love of God in public. Both the Evangelical right and left have reflected, and sullied, these possibilities.
The best guide in such tensions is to keep the dilemma intact. This is not an Evangelical distinctive, but a clear Christian value–perhaps best articulated in Augustine’s Civitas Dei imagery. This is the constant and necessary tension of navigating between the City of God and the City of Man. This constant struggle is a necessary one.