Sunday, July 8, 2012

Struggling to Proclaim Good News

We’re four months away from an important election. Pundits who have watched our election seasons for years seem alarmed at the way this particular season is playing out, and respected analysts who track the ups and downs of economies and parties worry that we are at a particularly troubling time in the progress of democracy.

We all have theories about what’s gone wrong, who’s to blame, what should be done.

How many of our theories have been carefully explored? How many of our assumptions have been handed down, gathered up, passed on with little understanding of what’s behind them, where they might be taking us?

I’ve been puzzling over a lecture by N. T. Wright, until recently Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, now Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at  St Andrews University in Scotland. The lecture, delivered at a symposium on “Men, Women and the Church” sponsored in 2004 by Christians for Biblical Equality, was about women in ministry, not American politics, but in his introductory remarks Wright called attention to a concern I find increasingly relevant, and increasingly troubling. Wright was attempting to explain that his position, and his language, might easily be misunderstood and misrepresented by American Christians:
Part of the problem, particularly in the United States, is that cultures become so polarized that it is often assumed that if you tick one box you’re going to tick a dozen other boxes down the same side of the page – without realising that the page itself is highly arbitrary and culture-bound. We have to claim the freedom, in Christ and in our various cultures, to name and call issues one by one with wisdom and clarity, without assuming that a decision on one point commits us to a decision on others. I suspect, in fact, that part of the presenting problem which has generated CBE [Christians for Biblical Equality] is precisely the assumption among many American evangelicals that you have to buy an entire package or you’re being disloyal, and that you exist [that is, CBE exists] because you want to say that on this issue, and perhaps on many others too (gun control? Iraq?), the standard hard right line has allowed itself to be conned into a sub-Christian or even unChristian stance.
Wright highlights a problem that any thoughtful Christian has surely encountered: if I say I’m a Christian, the assumption, from both left and right, is that I endorse a long list of positions that have little to do with faith in Christ or commitment to scripture. As Wright says, many American evangelicals, and many who oppose them, assume that the Christian platform is predetermined, uniform, and clear.

But if, as Wright suggests “that standard hard right line,” as he calls it, “has allowed itself to be conned into a sub-Christian or even unChristian stance,” then as followers of Christ, we not only have the freedom, but the responsibility, of naming and calling issues “one by one with wisdom and clarity.”

Wright’s concern, in the lecture in question, has to do with the role of women in ministry. He mentions gun control and Iraq as two other places where assumed agreement with “the hard right line” might be problematic for thoughtful Christians, but that list of questionable check boxes grows longer by the day:

Global warming? How did the “Christian” view become so strongly linked to the ambitions of the fossil fuel industry, and so strongly opposed to concerns about climate change, desertification, clean water and clean air?

Gun control? Since when do followers of the Prince of Peace endorse the right to own machine guns, carry concealed weapons, shoot first rather than turn the other cheek?

Immigration? Health care? Nutrition assistance? Public education? What shapes our views? How do “biblical values” play out in the political arena? What do we do when “biblical values” have no biblical basis, but instead mirror the agendas of global corporations, wealthy investors, powerful entities determined to protect their power?

As I was thinking and praying about the role of government, I received an email update from a blog I follow. Vinoth Ramachandra, a Sri Lankan leader in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, reflects on "Compassion and Justice":
"Justice is the fundamental calling of governments. The biblical picture of the ideal king (e.g. Psalm 72) is of one who renders justice to the afflicted and downtrodden. Interestingly, even the healing ministry of Jesus is seen by Matthew as not merely expressing compassion, but as the fulfilment of the Messianic promise of justice realized (see Matt 12: 15-20). Justice restores human beings to a state of flourishing.
"All this is deeply relevant to the debates taking place today, in Asia and Africa, as much as in Europe and North America, about the responsibilities of government. Churches and NGOs are often unwitting instruments in the hands of those governments who want to abdicate their responsibility to their poor citizens (and, indeed, the poor elsewhere who are affected by their policies). Governments would rather have the churches and NGOs alleviate the social discontent arising from their misplaced priorities. Alleviation we should do, but not at the price of silent complicity in those policies.
"Whenever Christians unthinkingly join the right-wing protests against “welfare cheats” (a miniscule number in comparison with the number of rich folk and companies who steal from public funds), argue against government economic regulation (in the name of “minimal government” which, in practice, is government that gives charity in the form of tax breaks, subsidies and bail-outs to the wealthy and powerful), or speak of poverty as if it were simply a matter of individual choice, even their private charity (however sincerely motivated) may be cementing the walls of injustice in the world. Should they not be returning to their Bibles and delving more deeply into the Christian tradition that they profess?"
One of my goals for the months ahead is to do what both N. T. Wright and Vinoth Ramachandra suggest: to look at individual issues that confront us, to see them in the light of scripture, to think them through as faithfully as I can.

For those dear friends who have said “I like when you talk about prayer, but wish you’d leave politics alone,” please understand: when loud Christian voices affirm policies that oppose the good news of God’s kingdom, when groups espousing “biblical values” denounce attempts to help the poor and unprotected, my (our) silence is complicity. The message of hope we’re called to share cannot be heard when the message of “Christians” becomes a message of exclusion, self-protection, judgment. How do we join with Christ in proclaiming good news to the poor without first examining our allegiance to the rich?

More than ever, I welcome your thoughts about which issues to consider, as well as your insight, comments, and questions.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
    (Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18-19) 
This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

More than ever, I welcome your thoughts about which issues to consider, as well as your insight, comments, and questions.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.