James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, is turning out to be quite influential among the leaders of American evangelicalism. Take, for example, David Dunbar, the president of Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA.
After reading Hunter’s book, Dunbar calls Christians to remove themselves from the political sphere so that they can re-evaluate their approach to political engagement. He writes:
It appears that Jesus loves Democrats and Republicans. If that is so, American churches need to reevaluate how their political posture has shaped their proclamation and embodiment of the gospel. In a culture that politicizes nearly everything, politics itself becomes an idol. We assume that politicians can do much more than is really the case. We exchange kingdom hopes for political promises, and we are bound to be disappointed--all idols disappoint their worshipers in the end.
We need to take politics and politicians less seriously. Perhaps our churches should consider a fast from politics. Fasting is temporary abstinence from food to remind us that food itself can become an idol. We don’t live by earthly bread alone but by the bread that comes from heaven. Worshiping and serving the living God is more critical than caring for our needs and our agendas.
Maybe we need to step out of the arena of politics, at least until we can get our eyes back on the kingdom of God. Until we realize that politics is not everything. Until we stop taking politics so seriously. Until our churches can extend the love of Jesus equally to Democrats and Republicans.
How about an experiment in which we give up political discussion for three months? We could abstain from reading political editorials, avoid political jokes around the water cooler, refuse to comment on the latest political gossip (there is lots of that!), and simply pray for (not against!) political leaders. What might this do for us? Might it decrease our anxiety levels? Could it increase our spiritual energy?
Would it help us to relate more positively to others? Would it invite a deeper experience of the power of the gospel among us?
I think Dunbar has a good idea here, but I am not convinced that a three month sabbatical will change anything or give anyone the time to do the reevalution Dunbar calls Christians to do. How about three years?
Dunbar then suggests some ways that Christians should rethink their place in the world:
- Christians should be aliens in the world and ever conscious of their place on the margins of society. He calls this, borrowing from Yale theologian Miroslav Wolf, “soft difference.”
- Christians should pursue shalom, or a vision of Christian community defined by peace.
- Christians should concentrate on what the Church has done well in the world, especially in terms of serving the “least of these,” and model themselves on these things.
Tim Lacy says
Using David Sehat's terms, I wonder if it's better for Christians to be a part of the informal moral establishment rather than a compromised part of the official one? On the other hand, though I dislike the fact that bishops, pastors, and priests compromise themselves by participating in the explicit political compromises of society, at least their activities are more explicit. Thoughts? I mean, it's impossible to absent oneself (or as a group) from politics completely. Plus, it's irresponsible. The best approach to me seems to be responsible engagement—in it's full complexity (i.e. problems with practical means to high ends)—with full exposure. – TL
John Fea says
Tim: Thanks for the post. Insightful as usual.
I don't think Dunbar and others are saying that Christians should not participate in politics. Rather, I think he is saying that evangelicals have made such a mess of their engagement in the political arena that it is time to step back for a while (3 months? 3 years?) and rethink their approach.
I think I know how William Lloyd Garrison would answer this question, and I think he might be mostly right. It's awfully difficult to be a prophetic voice when you are invested/implicated in the power structure whose main goal qua system is always to preserve and increase its own power.
However, rather than crying, “Come out from among them and be ye separate,” I might suggest, “Let us go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” Political clout = prestige. What Christians could use these days is a little well-deserved disgrace.