How should the Church respond to the culture change personified and possibly foreshadowed by the US election? Although this emerges as fresh and powerful, the question has occupied Christian ethicists for centuries: What is the role of the church in the public realm?
The current rapidly changing social, economic and political landscape requires a multi-dimensional response from the Church. The focus will vary depending upon the arena in which the church operates. Congregations possess a different type of power and responsibility than regional or national bodies.
Historically, as a rough rule of thumb, there have been nine ways in which the church has engaged the public realm.
1. The Church as Lifeboat
I pray it will not be the case, but there have been and continue to be occasions when the church does need to serve as a lifeboat/sanctuary/safe house for particular groups, unjustly targeted and whose lives are threatened. At various dire times in history, the church has been part of networks that allow people to move to safety.
2. The Church as a/the Means to Christianize the Social Order
The great missionary call of the late 19th century, “to civilize and Christianize”, has largely fallen out of favour. Some sectors of the Christian family continue to adhere to this mandate but most mainline denominations, aware of the massive injury done to indigenous populations and minority groups in the church’s name, have moved this goal off the table.
3. The Church as the Conscience of the Nation
The temptation to serve as the conscience of the nation is great since a good rant skewering the opposition can result in a great momentary, chocolate-like high, flush with a sense of (self) righteousness. However, this response provokes a number of theological and ethical questions, including: What is truth? How is it known? What authority is granted to those who “see through the glass darkly?” The temptation often proves irresistible to paint those disagreeing as “them,” and thus to foster the sense of divisiveness and polarization upon which current extremes on the “left” and “right” feed.
4. The Church as an Agent of Social Service
Since its inception, the church has been an agent of social service. When the loaves and fishes were divided and circulated, when goods and services were exchanged in the early house churches through to the current proliferation of food banks and thrift shops housed in church facilities, the church has understood a core component of its mandate as providing bread for the hungry and a cup of water for the thirsty. As the numbers continue to reveal the immoral skewing of income levels, it is unlikely that our social context will change so dramatically that this agency will be removed from the church. In fact, it may increase.
5. The Church as a Supporter of Causes or Projects of Liberation
The Church as a Supporter of Projects of Liberation gained visibility, in recent years, with the Theology of Liberation movement, typified by the work of Gustavo Gutierrez (Peru) and Leonardo Buff (Brazil). The phrase “preferential option for the poor” gained widespread currency among many mainline denominations. The United Church of Canada often spoke with great clarity about freedoms in lands far away. Now the focus must shift back.
Freedom, or liberation, resists efforts to isolate, stereotype and marginalize groups like First Nations, the followers of Islam, immigrants, people of colour or those of various sexual orientations.
Freedom does not equal licence for one group but involves the balance of freedom, justice, equality and order for all.
6. The Church as Enabler of Dispersed Ministry
Christians are found in every socio-economic level and position in society. These are well situated to think and act as dispersed agents or, to use the image attributed to Jesus, “salt.” The church has a significant and urgent obligation for faith formation and to provide a safe place where discernment and difficult conversations can occur. This may require leaders to learn the art of hosting tough conversations in a way that promotes respect and the assurance of safety. Agents of God’s Way need training and support.
7. The Church as a Communal Sign of Transformation
At its best, many of the monastic movements were not simply flights from the evils of the surrounding society but efforts to be communal signs of that which God dreams. The formation of alternate communities of belief and practice will be a prime role of the church. This goes beyond a limp raising of the “inclusiveness” flag to the formation of communities where learning, dialogue, transformation, and comfort can occur. Undoubtedly the early Roman Empire viewed the formation of Christian communities as terrorist cells which threatened the peace and security of the empire. The early communities saw the world differently, held different values and beliefs about what was worthy of worship and were formed with different practices.
In the coming years, congregations will have to go beyond establishing the feel-good atmosphere of friends reconnecting very week to the hard work of loving, supporting and understanding those who disagree. Those of us old enough to remember the gnashing of teeth that accompanied the discussions surrounding sexuality in The United Church of Canada during 1988 recall the scars leaders carry from this ministry. But the language of the Kingdom/Community of God is not meant just to be a promise but a mandate for the present.
8. The Church as a Contributor to a Public Ethic/Theology
If theology and ethics were thought to be a luxury of those engaged in parlour games, those days are past. The need is urgent.
These disciplines are the lungs of the Church. The old days of drafting positions, writing letters and calling up political leaders on the phone to influence policy may be over but this only increases the importance of disciplined theological and ethical work. In fact, many of the other calls to the church - the formation of community, supporting movements of liberation, etc - depend upon this wrestling. And as the church seeks to leaven the public conversation it must be clear about what it wants to say, why and where lie the lines in the sand. Vague exhortations about justice and respect will not suffice.
9. The Church as Contributor to a Thin Consensus
Strategically the church and its leaders may, at times, be called upon to demonstrate public opposition. Such tactics as mass marches may no longer change policy but they serve another purpose: to remind people who hold an alternate vision that they are not alone. But the real work often takes place in coffee shops, church basements, or other places where partnerships are negotiated and tactics formulated. The church needs to be part of those conversations where it becomes clear about what it will work for and support during a particular period, a so-called thin consensus.
What does this mean for leaders?
Hard work - both intellectually, pastorally and within neighbourhoods.
Abandonment of the silo mentality. There is no longer the luxury of competition between congregations and leaders. The arrogance of “my way is the right way” has to be discarded. The work before the church is vast: lay education, the formation of lay leaders, the support and engagement of paid, accountable people, the hard, disciplined work of theological and ethical conversation, the formation of strategies (and not just slogans or abstract statements), and learning the effective use of developing communication vehicles, among others.
Such a list of ways in which the church has engaged the public realm can appear overwhelming. It does not need to be. It can simply be a guide so that leaders know when they are shifting gears, an assist to focus efforts. “OK, now we are doing this and this is my role in this type of engagement.”
Above all, the character of leaders will be on display. This means leaders display respect: if we do not want to be conveyed as cartoons, we cannot cast others as idiots, buffoons or caricatures. Leaders must dismantle the image the “opposition” wants to create that feeds a sense of polarization, exclusivity and privilege. And leaders must engage real people in real situations. The molding of alternate communities and the resistance to unjust forces is not a theoretical exercise.
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8)
Leaders must dismantle the image that feeds a sense of polarization, exclusivity and privilege
Recommended reading: https://www.caracaschronicles.com/2017/01/20/culturejam/
All images licenced under Creative Commons
Of these nine approaches which do you feel is the most urgent to engage?