Throughout my Christian experience and journey into the Wild West of ministry I have been accused of loving to participate in retreats and conferences as a way to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and desire to network with many people from pastors and theologians to ordinary people who have made huge impacts in many different areas of life. It’s true. I do love to engage questions, listen to lectures, and learn vocabulary that many people could care less about, and I enjoy meeting people from all sorts of vocations, cultures, and life experiences.
The Church & State conference hosted by New Wine, New Wineskins at Multnomah University may have been one of the most challenging conferences that I have attended because it has contributed to almost a year of thinking critically about how to live in the reality that the church is our ultimate community and family, and engaging others outside of my Protestant Evangelical framework in a meaningful way to the glory of God, for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Many of the voices that I heard today aren’t typical to the authors that I normally read, the Twitter accounts that I follow, or the suggested, sometimes shallow, “biblical” applications that I can be at fault for making for myself and to others that I minister to. This conference wasn’t a “how to vote Christian” forum; instead it addressed larger issues such as the church’s prophetic role in cultural battles, addressing public problems through a public theology for the common good, and civility and statesmanship in the public square by a type of “New Evangelical” in the arena of American civil engagement. I would like to briefly explain and comment on these three issues because they are important as we live and proclaim the Gospel in a pluralistic, multi-faith, politically intense culture.
First, Dr. T. Allen Bethel spoke about the prophetic role of the church, specifically in the African-American church, to call for political engagement of injustice and heart change. Dr. Bethel said, “The African-American church is speaking prophetically to the same issues of over 46 years ago.” Poverty and loss of equal opportunity still exist in America, especially for non-Caucasian individuals. God wants Christians to act against the evil and injustices in our culture because he is against oppression and cares for all people. These simple truths often escape us in white-conservative Evangelicalism because we don’t see it, and when we do we refuse to do much, if anything about it. A caution that Dr. Bethel made was for us to “Be careful not to make the Gospel in our own image. The message is greater than the messenger. One’s personhood does not need to be destroyed.” This was his transition to emphasizing an individual’s heart change because “It is in the heart the change must come if we want to be Christians who see this prophetic voice come forth.” I would add, it is also in the heart that we make room for Jesus Christ to break down the idols of power, self-preservation, and pride in order that we can live out his ethics of meekness, self-sacrifice, and humility that he calls us to.
Second, Barbara Willer, Interfaith Coordinator for Multnomah County, spoke on the important point of addressing public problems through a public theology for the common good. Two phrases that this conference made me more aware of were “public theology” and “the common good.” Using Ms. Willer’s definitions that “public theology is how we work our theology out in public towards the common good”, and that “the common good is the good that comes into existence in the community of solidarity among active people who are agents.” Some helpful clarifications made were that public theology isn’t about converting, it is based on the foundation that human’s can work together and the common good can be framed with the New Testament idea of koinonia, fellowship and solidarity. A result of bad public theology and a lack of concern for the common good is the concept of empire. “Empires are what plunder God’s name in the name of profit.” Ms. Willer said the way we can address the concept of empire that works this way is to “address structures outside and within us, as Jesus does in Matthew 5, and to see what needs to be addressed in the community.” I would comment that before we can address them to the outside community we must address them within our churches in the way that we run everything from our offering collection and communion celebration to children programs and discipleship groups. Performance and programs can contribute to an empire paradigm. Consistent prayer and self-reflection within the pastoral leadership and church body with an openness to communicate concerns can liberate a church from becoming an empire and being the expression of the triune God of holy love for the common good of the “other.” Ms. Willer concluded with her talk that “public theology is essential for a healthy democracy.” I agree, and we must listen to others openly and respectfully if we are to be taken seriously and genuinely by people of different faiths and political persuasions in our country.
Finally, the last point of civility and statesmanship in the public square by a type of “New Evangelical” in the arena of American civil engagement really brings home the first two points because it goes beyond partisanship, and towards a freedom that is realized by relationship and truth found in Jesus Christ. Policy contributor David Austin and journalist Tom Krattenmaker spoke about this theme. Three highlights of Mr. Austin’s session were his emphasis on how God has given governments, not political parties earthly authority, freedom in Christ, and loving people. He said, “The political parties in the last several years have taken more and more authority. This assumption of authority has created an obstacle to good government.” This is very true, and unfortunately the governing they have done has taken a lot of twists and turns that have hurt common, everyday citizens. Mr. Austin also quoted Galatians 5:1 and said, “Liberty and justice for all is a movement, not a place that we have arrived at.” I would say I agree, but also add that the movement of liberty and justice begins and ends with Jesus Christ impacting a person to move past just a personal desire for these attributes, but to stand up for others who are being denied liberty and justice. Once we do that we can really love one another.
This connected with Tom Krattenmaker’s remarks regarding the changing politically expressed religion in liberal and conservative circles, the addition of concern for the environment, immigration, and human trafficking in evangelical political engagement, and two correctives needed in Evangelical circles. The way politically expressed religion is changing is through Christian’s participation in diverse movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Sin is being discussed in conservative and liberal circles, but with different emphasis’ within these groups. For example, conservatives might be more concerned about abortion and gay marriage while liberals would discuss corporate greed and abusive power. I hope that we can work together to have a holistic view of moral and ethical sins that plague our nation without needing to define these as either conservative or liberal issues. An interesting figure that Krattenmaker quoted was that in this election “Young Evangelical support for Obama has dropped by 15%, but not back to Republicans.” If this trend continues there could be a greater investment in the political sphere as conservatives and liberals alike try to garner support from Christians in my generation. I hope the response of my generation is not to be so in-line with a particular party, but to show in our own political and practical engagement our concern for real change at a level the government cannot facilitate by any branch of officers, but is only offered by Jesus Christ: a heart that is changed and awakened to the new possibilities and for all because of the Gospel. Only then will we see our culture truly changed. The two correctives Krattenmaker offered for Christians is “To take Jesus seriously in his ideals to engage issues and a surrendering that Christians are always right in politics and called to win.” We know that our God is bigger than any election and that the Gospel will go out whether or not the government has given us the “right” to share it in the public square. If we don’t have this confidence, then we have already lost and become dependent on an earthly authority when we should be bold to proclaim our reason for faith under any and every circumstance and season.
In conclusion, I am very appreciative of the opportunity to listen to these and many others who presented their roles and positions on how we can meaningfully engage the state as ambassadors for Christ. I hope to continue this dialogue with others and to learn even more how to practically engage in the framework of the church’s prophetic role, public theology for the common good, and civility and statesmanship in the public square by a type of “New Evangelical” in the arena of American civil engagement.
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.” 1 Timothy 2:1-6