Our gospel may be small because we fail to believe that God animates many social movements.
There are two competing ways of understanding and presenting the Christian gospel in America. They are equally valid and ideally should complement one another, but unfortunately, battle lines have been drawn on both sides. Some Christians emphasize the gospel as purely a matter of individual salvation; others see it essentially in terms of community and of social justice. This problem is partly cultural, but more significantly, it arises from insufficient knowledge of the Scriptures: "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God" (Matt. 22:29).
American Christians of both the Right and Left find it difficult to read Scripture from the perspective of communities other than our own. On one hand, teaching in the mainline churches is often detached from any foundational convictions about "the Scriptures or the power of God." A service may begin, "Let us worship God," but then go on to celebrate the possibilities inherent in human nature. Transcendent power is not in view; "inclusion" is the operative word.
On the other hand, worship in many American evangelical and Pentecostal churches, while appearing to extol the power of God, focuses attention on very specific and limited categories. Often the spotlight is on redemption from particular sins, like freedom from whatever one's addiction might be (very popular at the moment). Sometimes it is healing of a specific physical ailment, or it may be a version of the prosperity gospel.
Often in these evangelical-Pentecostal settings, however, the power of God is proclaimed as deliverance from demonic forces. This is a perspective that liberals and evangelicals might be able to share. For some time now, the academic guilds have been moving away from a rationalistic mode of biblical interpretation. This development opens the way for a new appropriation of the conceptual world of the New Testament, in which the presence of the demonic is presupposed. This perspective shapes theo-ethical thinking in two crucial ways: First, it allows Christians to view opponents not as evil in themselves, but as those who are in the grip of external forces. This conviction empowered Martin Luther King in his consistent message that blacks and whites together were in need of deliverance. Second, the worldview that acknowledges the agency of an active Enemy in world events encourages Christians to look for the power of God not only in stories of individual deliverance, but also in the great social movements of our time.
This potential for a common perspective, however, has not yet been located in American church worship and practice, for specific theological reasons. The divide between the liberal, revisionist project and the apostolic, biblical faith is not characterized primarily by the distinction between the individual and the social. The liberal-orthodox gap is most acute when we talk of "the power of God." The biblical proclamation of the triune Creator God who, when his good creation rebels, recaptures it from an occupying Enemy through the invasion of his Son, is not the central operating system for liberal theology. The belief that an "experiential," humanistic perspective on the Christian story is more accessible and appealing is proving not to be the case; several decades of this thin gruel have left us without any transcendent dimension to draw upon, either for social action or for individual regeneration.
The divide between liberal and biblical perspectives has to do with trust in the God who comes into the world from a sphere of power other than our own. It is here that we find the link with the New Testament's picture of a supernatural, occupying Enemy. Humankind does not possess resources to overcome this Enemy, but God does. In the stories of Jesus' exorcisms, we see enactments of the victory of God over the legions of demons. This can and should be interpreted on both an individual and a societal basis. Many African-American congregations excel in their ability to see both at the same time.
Widening Our Vision
Here is an illustration that shows how these divides are bridged—however briefly—where there is biblical faith. I once heard the Czech theologian Jan Lochman describe the atmosphere in Basel, Switzerland, where he was teaching in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came a-tumblin' down. At one worship gathering, this well-known passage from Amos was appointed to be read: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." In Europe, as in America, this text had become over-familiar with widespread use, so that it was reverentially invoked in various contexts, like folk wisdom, without anything concrete expected to happen. But when the passage was read that day in Basel, everyone became aware that there was an event of the Word of God occurring in the very midst of daily events. Lochman, seeking an analogy for his American audience, said that "sudden, unexpected happenings in Eastern Europe were making us feel the tide of the Mississippi River going down with full power." As God moved the currents, men and women reclaimed their freedom and dignity.
We who are evangelicals need to widen our vision of what God does in the world. We have a signature example of "the Scriptures and the power of God" occurring in our midst with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. The current status of this history, however, is a sad example of the divide between an understanding of the gospel with relation to the redemption of individuals, on the one hand, and the deliverance of communities on the other. In the white evangelical churches there is a stunning lack of interest in, or knowledge of, one of the most important demonstrations of the power of God in our time (or any time). Liberal churches do somewhat better, but the problem here is that the movement is not understood theologically in the way that most of its leaders did. Most of the participants were overwhelmingly convinced that in their resistance—their sit-ins, mass meetings, and marches—God was on the move.
A tape of one of the mass meetings is preserved at Riverside Church. One of the celebrities who had come down South to encourage the troops says to the assembly, "You people are doing a great thing here." A shout comes from the back: "We're not doing this! God is doing this!"
As these and other great liberation movements have been interpreted by those Christians who participated in them, there was no talk of "inclusion"—a singularly weak word. The talk was of God's undercover power, the sort of subversive power that made itself known in small Bible study cells in Protestant Eastern Europe, in the base communities of Latin America, in the resistance of many churches in South Africa, and in Poland's Solidarity movement. On the very night of the Soviet crackdown in Poland, December 11, 1981, Lech Walesa cried into the teeth of the tanks: "Right at this moment you have lost; the last nails are being driven into your coffin."
No one in our time has called upon the power of God and of the biblical story more effectively than Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. In the darkest days of apartheid, this small black man insisted on living as though he had an invisible army on his side, even though he was constantly having his visa revoked and no one thought that apartheid could be dismantled without a bloody revolution.
During his nonviolent struggle, the bishop, with a large band of demonstrators, was attempting to meet with government officials. This was not permitted, so they proceeded to the cathedral where they had a worship service. Standing ranks of police lined the walls, keeping a wary eye on the congregation. As his sermon progressed, Bishop Tutu suddenly looked out directly at the police. "You have already lost!" cried this little man. "You have already lost! We are inviting you to come and join the winning side!" I don't need to ask you who was free and who was in chains that day. God is the one who breaks the chains and lets the prisoners go free.
In such events, God was on the move. Yet these stories—unlike the heroic narratives of the liberation of Europe by the Allies in WWII—are hardly known to Christians today. Even when they are, often they have been unmoored from their theological foundations. "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God."
Beyond Sympathy to Action
Most white American evangelicals are wary of these sorts of stories. The emphasis on the individual's redemption is deeply embedded in our culture, and has been set over against communal understanding in a way that suggests the two views are mutually exclusive. In the mainline churches, social action has edged out evangelism and spiritual vitality; in evangelical churches, there is ignorance and confusion about what social action actually is. One pastor spoke proudly of his church's "social action" through its program of taking sandwiches to homeless people. This is not negligible, but it is not social action, either.
A few weeks ago, I was slicing chicken for a stir-fry and cut my hand. I was wearing a clumsy thumb splint because of joint arthritis. This episode made me think of the workers who spend their days cutting up chickens for the market. They incur frequent injury from cuts and carpal-tunnel syndrome due to the repetitive nature of their work. They need more support, more rest periods, better health insurance, and more latitude about returning to work after surgery. What is the best way of improving their circumstances? Taking them sandwiches would be a supportive gesture, but they cannot be effectively helped without social action—that is, action directed to their employers and to legislative bodies. All Christians will surely agree that God cares for mar-ginalized workers and homeless people, but our gospel has not always been big enough to motivate us to go beyond sympathy to action—to addressing such things as factory conditions and the root causes of homelessness.
If we are thinking theologically, we cannot in this illustration cast the corporate bosses as guilty exploiters and the workers as innocent victims. Rather, we see how the Enemy works to seduce and insulate powerful people from perceiving the suffering of their underlings. The bosses of workers in unjust situations are not evil in themselves. They are in bondage to the desire for profit, so that they think of their workers as means to an end, if they think of them at all. Who can loosen such bonds? God alone. Therefore, social action undertaken in the sight of God has the potential to liberate not only the workers but also the bosses, not to mention the activists themselves! This is the uniquely Christian vision based in the knowledge of the power of God for the justification of the ungodly (Rom. 4:5; 5:6).
An encouraging set of developments in recent years is a broadening focus in evangelical circles, much noted by the press. When some evangelicals recently signed the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture in 2007, when Rick Warren started talking about the root causes of poverty, when other leaders acknowledged the threat of global warming, those were signs of God on the move. These are the witnesses that truly bring us notice from the culture at large. Sexual behavior is a very important indicator of Christian discipleship, but it is not the only front on which God has enlisted us to fight.
A new social-action hero like William Wilberforce would indeed bring honor to God. But it may be that God will use numbers of more ordinary Christians, banding together to bring down more fortresses of the Enemy—racial injustice, poverty, pollution, inferior education, sex trafficking, inadequate health care, prison recidivism, political corruption, and yes, terrorism—but without terror on our part, for this would truly be to doubt the cruciform power of God, who in his Son has already undone the Enemy once and for all.
| Posted on June 2, 2008 | TrackBack