The Birthright of the Margins


There are lots of conversations going on in the political realm regarding morality issues. In many instances the charge for morality is led by Evangelical Christians and the “Religious Right”. There is much good to be said about Christians being willing to risk ridicule or estrangement to fight to protect that which we hold dear. I was recently talking to a friend about the present issue of whether or not the school system should teach Intelligent Design alongside the theory of Evolution. The question he asked me is whether or not the Church should be lobbying Congress for this or other issues. Until now I have been fairly silent on this, but I have finally been roused from my slumber…

Many scholars have debated the exegetical issues with Isaiah 40:3. Should the passage read, “A voice cries out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” or instead, “A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”? Regardless of how this text is rendered, I think that it holds significance for our discussion here.

The command to prepare a way is given so that all people (presumably the nations as well as Israel) can hear it. But the call is not made from/for the political halls or city gates…it is in the wilderness; that place from which God navigates the unclear paths.

I’m not sure that one couldn’t make a case that our political systems today are in fact a wilderness and the prophetic voice of the Lord should be heard from within.

However if we are to prepare a “highway in the desert” we have to at some level leave the discourse of the nations for a time. I often comment that the church has been disengaged for too long now. But we have not gone to the desert to make a highway… we’ve made refugee camps. We’ve gone to the desert to die.

A friend of mine recently raised the call to engage our culture rather than ignore it in the supposed name of faithfulness. I agree that often we can use our allegiance to another Kingdom as a crutch and smokescreen to avoid our responsibility, so I applaud what Matt is calling for (check out the post on Little Holy Heroes). With this in mind, I would urge us all to consider the ways in which the Church can regain its birthright of the margins. How do we once again become the place from which Jesus calls to the poor, the oppressed, the weak?

It is only when we identify ourselves as the poor, the oppressed and the weak! We must rejoice in our sufferings and embrace our rightful place at the margins of a secular society. How can we continue to focus on issues like our kids praying in school when to keep from being offensive we don’t cry out in prayer away from school? How can we fight for intelligent design to be taught alongside evolution when we our own handling of this vital part of our faith is just in passing…a story for elementary students? How can we expect the government to teach people about the creative aspect of Jehovah God? Do we just want a scientific theory of creation? Of a creator? Which creator then? Which theory? Why?

The important part of our belief in God as Creator is not the way in which the world came about. It is our belief, our faith, that Jehovah God along with the Word is the creative force behind all that is, all that was and all that will ever be.

And this is our story to tell, not the government’s.

It was the Church; the disciples of Jesus Christ, who were commissioned go and preach the Good News…not any government. When God’s dealings were with a government (Israel), he focused on seclusion not subversion. They were not to try and convert the Canaanites, Jebusites, Amelakites, etc…they were to destroy them and avoid any interaction whatsoever.

This makes perfect sense to me. God’s call is not a top-down “come-to-me-because-its-law” approach – except within the ranks of his own people. God is not afraid of proselytizing, its just supposed to come from the mouths of the meek and lowly, not the powerful. Walter Brueggemann has been very helpful on this issue. He shows evidence that God often waits to act until there is no other explanation for victory but God’s deliverance. The Christians are not ever going to be the redemptive force in our society…its always been God and God alone. I pray that we will learn to depend more fully on the Lord. I pray that we will become convinced of our world’s brokenness and our inability to fix it.

When this happens we will cry out to the Lord and he will hear us. That’s always been his promise.

Matt you are right, we need to be challenging the way the world goes about its business. But we must acknowledge that there are separate kingdoms at work here. We seek to be active participants in this world, but never at the expense of our distinctive identity as citizens of a wholly different kingdom.

Perhaps we are called to be the voice of one calling…perhaps we are called to be the ones building the highway. Either way we end up in the wilderness away from the comforts of the city council. We can be a voice to our generation; to our culture; to our country without being just another special interest group on Capital Hill. Ours is the more difficult calling, one that requires more than rhetoric, money and knowledge of Constitutional law. Our calling is predicated on lives not legislation. The life of Jesus Christ and the lifestyle of his Disciples.

Matt points out that we need to highlight the positive things that are happening. He is very right; spiritually mature Church’s know how to celebrate. So let’s celebrate the things we see going on and encourage one another so that this becomes the norm of our identity. Let’s just give it a shot. If the Church in the US decides its okay being marginalized; if we decide that following Christ may just be politically incorrect; that we have redemptive function in our workplaces and classrooms, I’ll wager we won’t have to send crowds to fight for our political agenda.

If this happens and it doesn’t have an effect, then by all means let’s retry legislating morality (I say this realizing and acknowledging Matt’s statement that all laws are a form of morality legislation). However, if we enter this experiment and it does not have any effect on our culture, I admit that I will be forced to reevaluate my faith entirely…

…but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

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Posted on November 1, 2005, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Bret,
    Well man you really did comme out of your writer’s block cave!! Good to see you out roaring on the blogosphere Bret.
    I appreciate your passion for this issue. I think about it all the time. What is the relationship between the church and the world? What is the church’s responsibility for the world?
    I think that to help our discussion we should try and talk about the church’s relationship to a. culture and b. government.

    It is easy to confuse these things because the government has grown into somewhat of a secular savior (for secular humanists and Christians as well). The secular orthodoxy desires that the government provide the culture it desires. The Christian Right desires that the government provide the culture it desires. Both sides make the same fundamental assumption: that culture is created primarily through governmental efforts. Now, government does influence culture in major ways and that is why we should be concerne about just and fair laws. BUT the primary way in which a culture is influenced or formed is, as you say, from the bottom up. People are formed, for better or for worse, on the streets and neighborhood hang outs where they live. And, the streets and neighborhoods are formed by the families and religious institutions that define reality.

    Some people call this blob of institutions that make up culture (family, neighborhood, buisnesses, churches, clubs) “civil society”. Civil society serves as a buffer between the coercive coldness of goverment and the individual.

    My view of the church’s responsibility for the world has two areas: theological and functional. The theological reasons I have yet to state, and maybe I could do this in another comment. For now I will focus on the functional part. As I have said the culture is the most important part of a society–it is formed from the bottom up not the top down. So, if this the primary place where people are formed then the church must become “salt and light in civil society.” It missional target must be the network of relationships surround individuals in the city.

    Let me know what you think of that. THanks for starting such a great discussion!

  2. Matt,
    As usual your response is both well thought and well stated.

    If a prophetic voice is one that presents both critique and hope, and presents both from within, then by this the nature of the Church must be to engage culture. In this way it is essential that the Church be active in the life of the community or civil society. The “circle the wagons” approach is not only unhealthy I believe that it is (except maybe in extreme instances) unfaithful.

    I believe that the Church has a redemptive role through Christ in our culture (see my post titled Redemptive?). In other words I am optimistic that by allowing Christ to reign in us we will be salt and light in our communities and that this will have a formative impact on our neighbors and neighborhoods. This to me is very different from lobbying Congress. What we are calling for here is faith in God to act as he has promised. But we are not acting in good faith if we call God to do his part and deny that we have a role in this covenant. By refusing to take up our role as those who are often counter to culture, though still engaged relationally with those in culture, we are failing to be the Church at all. And when we then go running to the government to pass these laws, we seem to claim that God is as impotent as we are. Alas our only hope is for the (as you so aptly described it) Secular Savior to come to our rescue.

    Functionally, there is no question. We must be intentionally involved in our communities. I am interested in your thoughts regarding the theology of the matter. Since you turned in your research paper to Dr. Foster already…and I am frantically trying to finish mine before Friday, I will say no more and await your tidbits of wisdom!

  3. Very different from lobbying. Not that lobbying is not important. It’s just not primary.
    That “secular savior” tag is actually from a guy named Eric Voeglin–an amazing Christian and cultural critic from the twentieth century. I should send you a paper I wrote on it. It’s been a while since I’ve thought through it but most people–especially modern people–view the state as the answer to everything. This is part of the reason why so many nations spilt so much blood last century.
    Did you get your mid-term back yet? I haven’t seen mine. Maybe he is returning it late since I completed it late. 🙂

    God bless,

  4. yeah, I got mine back…I didn’t completely blow it. But if I don’t get this paper done then none of the rest will matter all that much anyway. An RV park in Southern Louisiana is not the most conducive setting to intense scholarly work. Can you believe I’m forced to write without a single Cafe Brazil in driving distance?!!! Its barbaric I tell you, simply barbaric!!!!

  5. Matt and Brett,

    I am going to do the same reply to both of these articles because they hit on a subject that is near and dear to my heart: Government and Religion in God’s Kingdom. Matt, I hate to disagree with you (because I agree with you most of the time), but I actually think that there is a “More Biblical” way to view Christian participation in the State.

    It is this: The goal of communal life is the “good society”. Peter Kreeft has a very simple, commonsense definition of the “good society”: it is a society that makes it easy to be a good person. Making a good society requires two complementary elements: restraining evil and releasing good. Thus, the State is God’s primary instrument to restrain evil on Earth, and the Church as God’s primary instrument to release good. It is a basic dichotomy in the roles of Church and State that are complementary, but also separate.

    On one hand, it is the role of the State to maintain a safe society where persons, property, and contracts are protected from violence. It is the job of the state to stop those guilty of such violence (whether they be individuals, groups, or rogue nations) and keep them out of society until they no longer constitute a threat. It is their job to protect the innocent, and reward those who do good (cf. Rom 13; 1Pe 2; 1Ti 2:1-2). The main tool of the State to do this is Top-Down Coercion: Force that is great enough to stop the violent with the least amount of collateral damage.

    On the other hand, it is the role of the Church to release God’s grace and healing into a lost world through Prayer, Word, and Deed. Through evangelism, formation, worship, sacraments, and other means the Church acts to encourage and enable goodness in the world around her. Her main tool is Bottom-Up Conscience: working prophetically in the lives of individuals and families to bring about consciousness of God’s Kingdom, to convict where we have fallen short of that Kingdom, and enable us to live Kingdom lives.

    Kreeft, in his book “How to Win the Culture War” speaks of the square of culture. Culture is about moving a group of people from chaos to community. To do this, two complementary forces work in society. From the bottom up, the conscience of individuals and groups moves them to live the “good life”. From the top down, the force of coercion stops individuals and groups who would hinder others from pursuing the “good life”.

    The less conscience a society has, the more it must rely on coercion to stave off the forces of chaos. When a society goes “terminal”, it either must have something like a religious and cultural revival to impart vision and conscience back to the society, or it will simply implode on itself, or be destroyed from without, or both.

    The Square of Civilization:
    —————————————-
    Top Down: Coercion

    Chaos – – – – – | – – – – – Community

    Bottom Up: Conscience
    —————————————-

    One of the consequences here is that illegal and immoral are two separate but overlapping categories. For instance, murder is immoral (6th command), AND it should be illegal. Coveting / lust is immoral (10th command), BUT it should not be illegal… and frankly even if it was illegal it would be impossible to enforce. Not stopping at an intersection is illegal, but it is not immoral. So, illegality refers to actions which, if done, do violence to non-consenting persons (or their property or contracts). Yet, immorality refers to some type of action that creates an unhealthy life for those who practice it.

    Thus, an action may be immoral and illegal if it is both unhealthy and harms those who do not choose to participate. It may be illegal, yet not immoral, if doing it unknowingly endangers non-consenting people. It may be immoral, yet not illegal, if it harms those who practice it, but no one else.

    In my view, it is only the job of government to legislate actions which are strictly illegal, regardless of whether or not they are immoral. Yet, it is not the job of the state to legislate that which is only immoral. This is trying to establish the Kingdom of God by coercion and not by conscience, and this will simply not work. History is ripe with the failures of Church and State combining to legislate (or even worse, fight) to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth. At best, the State becomes the secret police of the Church (which rarely happens). At worst, the Church becomes the religious puppet arm of the State (which is what normally happens).

    I do agree with Matt that almost every law passed by the State is a law dealing with morality (except things like traffic laws). Yet, they should only be passed regarding a specific type of moral issues: those issues that causally affect more than those who choose to practice them. If Christians are involved in the State (as I believe they should be), they should not be there to push the Christian moral agenda or to legislate the Kingdom of God into existence. They should solely be there as servants of the State for the restraining of evil.

    The Church, on the other hand, is called to be the “bottom up” force which brings the Kingdom of God through people’s imaginations and consciences. In Jesus’ words, we are to be like “yeast” working through the dough, bubbling up from the “micro” level to the “macro” level. In the image of CS Lewis, we are to be the “good infection” which infects society at the cellular level, immunizing them from the infection of sin, and replicating Christ in the lives of individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

    The tools of the world to bring about controlled society has always been top-down coercion and raw power-politics. While I do not reject this in its limited use to restrain evil, as Christians we must totally reject it as a force for releasing good. The tools of the world are of no use to establish the Kingdom of God, and must be utterly denied by those who are seeking to establish the Kingdom.

    In my view, it is only by limiting the roles of Church and State, and refusing to confuse the ends and means of each, that we will be able to establish the “good society”. The soldier, the policeman, the politician, and the judge have legitimate callings from God: to restrain evil. The missionary, the pastor, the bishop, and the teacher have a legitimate calling from God: to release good.

    In terms of such hot button issues as the Iraq War, I think we must avoid two extremes: First, this war does not somehow establish God’s Kingdom, or even “do God’s work”. All it does is (hopefully) eliminate the violent forces that would forcefully stop God’s work from being done through the Church (missionaries, charitable organizations, etc.). Second, this war is not “Anti-Christian” either. It is a legitimate exercise of State power and coercion to stop forces of violence and injustice. And no matter what political party you support, it is hard to deny that whatever government is put into power in Iraq, it will be more just and more free than the government of Saddam Hussein. To the extent that a greater evil has been replaced by a lesser evil (or even a positive good), God is glorified.

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