William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Category: Church and World (Page 4 of 4)

Christian Social Justice: Four Views

Christian Social JusticeThis post goes together with another that was recently made here at Homebrewed Christianity.

Conscious Capitalismdoes not criticize the dominant social order but is concerned about trying to eradicate poverty, practice charity and generosity, and exhibit self-sacrificial love at the individual and ecclesial level so as to impact society and bear witness to a soteriocentric gospel.  Like the other views, there is usually a strong critique of consumerism.  Examples of groups in this camp include evangelical non-profit organizations like World Vision, Compassion International, International Justice Mission, and so on.

Christian Realismsees the flaws and sin of the dominant social order – i.e., the global market and its hyper-financialization – but does not principally call for its transformation.  Instead it desires to work within so as to restrain (e.g., Keynesian fiscal policy or democratic socialism).  Violence might be necessary, and Christians are naïve to think they can avoid it, but it is still evil.  Christian realism therefore recognizes that non-violence is the ideal even if it is judged to be impractical.  I think the Roman Catholic Church probably fits here most of the time. (Is this non-violence only judged to be impractical, however, when the judgment is made from the point of view of those in power?)

Liberation Theologyoffers a fundamental critique of the dominant social order from the standpoint of those on the margins and strives to realize greater justice and peace here by overcoming systemic poverty and oppression through macro as well as micro-political-economic means.  Violence is not justified, but the causes that support liberation are, which may or may not require violence.  There is however such thing as a non-violent liberationist perspective, with which I want to identity myself, and this is why I have not organized the chart above in terms of violence but rather in terms of social justice.  I also prefer the word “resistance” to liberation.  In this way, liberation can be understood more with respect to fidelity to God’s will than to liberation as such.  It’s ok, in other words, if liberation isn’t always achieved, and the goal is not to replace one superstructure with another (e.g., capitalism vs. socialism, etc.).

Anabaptist/Pacifism – shares with liberation theology a fundamental critique of the dominant social order but is concerned with subverting it at the ecclesial and micro-economic level instead of at the “coercive” level of formal public policy and law enforcement.  It privileges the Christian concern for spiritual formation, community, and discipleship, especially in light of rampant cultural individualism (a problem that many other non-european-descendent cultures don’t seem to have as much).  Other groups need not necessarily be opposed to these things.  The Anabaptist/Yoderian position simply makes non-violence the central ethical principle.  Another important commonality that Anabaptism has with Liberation Theology is the assumption that Christians and the Church should expect to have “minority status” (i.e., post-Christendom). [Note: Further, I think it’s important to avoid the distinction between Liberation Theology and Anabaptism that makes the former about “materialism” and the latter “spirituality.” One can easily imagine, I would argue, a materialist pacificism or a spiritualist liberationism.]

Even though there is much that can be praised about the best that conscious capitalism and Christian realism have to offer, neither is adequate, in my view, due to the respective acquiescence to euro-american-centrism and a failure to align sufficiently with the interests of those on the periphery who have not benefited from the societal machine of “excessive prosperity for a few.”  Evangelical piety is admirable, and Niebuhrian ethics is right in much of what it says.  But both are too implicated by their proximity to the “center” and by a lack of urgency to resist (I think James Cone’s newest book gives a good, appreciative but critical overview of Niebuhr).

About this notion of the societal machine, I like how Brian McLaren has depicted this problem in his book Everything Must Change:

everything must change

As each “crisis cog” gets going too fast, the heat and waste produced rises to unsustainable heights.

A Brief Assessment:

In the context of the mostly white, North American middle class and its churches, the Anabaptist/Yoderian take is very compelling, and I would gladly call it a faithful Christian response in our time.  In fact it is the one that I for one am most often capable of embracing! I do not write this as a disinterested observer, of course, but as someone slowly, and very imperfectly trying to put into practice the takeaways of such observations with others in my life.  The Anabaptist/Yoderian view does not go far enough, however, in translating the gospel for the excluded majority. (Maybe this is ok though, because it seems to me that the excluded majority have been perfectly capable of translating the gospel for themselves.)

Here’s how I imagine this same schema being depicted for a few different church groups today:

New Bitmap Image

I would say in summary that, just as each of the other three groups have a variety of expressions that I have not fully appreciated here, so too does the liberationist hermeneutic have better and worse versions.  In light of the call to be participants in God’s work of making all things new, however, it is my contention that only an ethic that takes seriously and starts from the particular material suffering of the victims of history can offer a thoroughgoing Christian hope in the context of globalization and in the face of all the challenges this age presents (ecological degradation, geopolitical wars for economy stability, and poverty/disease on a massive scale – all of which is an offense to God).  There are eschatological questions remaining here, but I do not think one has to give up eschatological hope or work with an overly realized social gospel to take this position.

Ingolf Dalferth on Post-Secularism, Christianity and Apatheism

The development of Western societies from religious through secular to post-secular societies is often presented as a process of secularization that is in conflict with the interests and objectives of the Christian faith. But this is a mistake. Just as God must not be confused with religion, so Christian faith must not be confused with the religious institution and authority of Christian churches in society. It is true that secularization is a process of transformation and social differentiation, which lessens society’s dependence on organized religion and establishes more or less autonomous sub-systems of society independent from the authority of the Christian churches. But this by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Rightly understood, the developments toward secular and post-secular society are due not only to the enlightenment criticism of religion in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They are also due to the internal criticism of the renewed understanding of Christian faith in the sixteenth century . . .

In the Protestant understanding of Christian faith, there is no theologically relevant distinction between sacred and profane, religious and non-religious, holy and secular, and clergy and laity. Rather, everything in the world is to be judged in the light of the decisive difference between God and world, creator and creation, the one who is and everything else that might not have been. No area of life and thought is intrinsically more “sacred” or “religious” than any other. In each of them, humans can live in appropriate or inappropriate ways with respect to the creative presence of God’s love, and how they live decides on the theological character of this area of their life.

This is not only true of the ordinary life of individual Christians but also of their common life in churches and denominations. In a theological sense, their structure and organization are “worldly matters.” Christians are free to organize them in ways that are best suited for the propagation of the gospel in the cultural matrix of the time. They are not free not to organize their common life as members of the body of Christ, but they are free to do it according to their own lights and on their own responsibility without being bound by a divinely instituted ecclesial pattern of bishops, clergy, and laity.

Thus, in a fundamental and revolutionary sense, Christian faith is a faith that sets humans free to use all their capacities to mold and change human life in the world in accordance with the gospel message of the saving and perfecting presence of God’s creative love. Christians are free to live a free life in responsibility to God and to their fellow creatures—not only their fellow Christians but all human beings who have become God’s freely chosen neighbors. Understood in this sense, Christian faith sets humans free to live on their own responsibility in a secular world, which they know to be God’s good creation, even though it has been distorted by the way humans live in it. They live as Christians in a secular world, but they do so not by denying or ignoring God (secularism) but rather by living an autonomous and self-determining human life in responsibility to God and their fellow-creatures (Christian secularity). They know that to be created is to be made to make oneself, but they also know that this freedom to be free becomes distorted, ruinous, and inhuman when it is not practiced as a created freedom, i.e., a freedom that is grounded in a prior passivity that is not of its own making [italics added].

The ongoing shift from secular to post-secular society is the cultural matrix in which Western Christianity lives today and in which Christian theology is to be practiced in the foreseeable future. Its major challenges today are not the criticisms of a fanatic scientism and a belated atheism that still fights the bygone battles of yesteryear (cf. Schröder 2008) but rather the widespread apatheism and indifference toward faith and God that characterizes many strands of contemporary society. To counter this, Christians must find ways to show and communicate to their contemporaries that faith, hope, and love in God are inexhaustible gifts that enrich, orient, and humanize human life rather than misconceived reactions to human dependency, misery, lack, and deficiency, and that these gifts do not add a religious dimension to human life that one may or may not practice but rather transform all areas of human life by changing the mode in which humans live their lives. Christian faith does not add a dispensable religious dimension to human life but rather transforms its existential mode from a self-centered to a God-open life that puts its ultimate trust not in any human institution, whether religious or non-religious, but in the creative presence of God’s love.

Seen from this perspective, Christian theology has no interest in defending or returning to a pre-modern society that is dependent on religion and religious institutions. On the contrary, it is interested in an autonomous secular life lived responsibly in the presence of God rather than ignorant or forgetful about God (cf. Thiemann 1996; Eberle 2002). It opposes all forms of religiously dominated society that confuse the liberating dependency on God with the heteronomy of being subject to the norms and rules of particular religious traditions. It also opposes all forms of secularist societies that contest or ignore the prior actuality of God. Instead it argues for a secularity that is mindful of the empowering and liberating dependency of human autonomy on the creative presence of God and hence does not ignore the prior passivity in which all human activities are grounded. If theology’s agenda today is understood in this way, it will no longer disorient Christian life in a radical orthodox way by looking back to times long since past, but creatively help to re-orient it in a liberating Christian way toward the future.

Ingolf U. Dalferth, Claremont Graduate University, School of Religion
Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2010, Vol. 78, No. 2, pp. 317–345

The Third Debate, American Imperialism and "Christian" Voting

Before getting into the problems with political campaigns these days, in response to the third presidential debate on foreign policy last night — which hardly left room for alternatives with respect to any difference between the two candidates regarding the issue, for example, of whether our country should be killing people at will who are unilaterally deemed threatening to our national security without trial, even if they happen to be U.S. citizens — a question came to mind:

If Jesus’s message about the kingdom of God was a narrative intensely at odds with the dominant Roman political program of imperialism, doesn’t this put American Christians especially in an awkward position, since “Jesus was a Middle Eastern man who lived in an occupied country and was killed by the superpower of the day”?[i]  And I do not think we have to worry so much about the exact similarities between the United States and the Roman Empire in order for this analogy to hold.

According to the President, “the United States is the one indispensable nation.”  Governor Romney on the other hand insisted that “America is the greatest hope for the world.”  To paraphrase a tweet from Greg Boyd: if this were true, I would be very depressed.  An unquestioned willingness to exercize violence for the purpose of promoting stability where it essential for our continued economic prosperity and dominance is just about the only consistent criteria that has been espoused since World War II, and even before — regardless of who has been in office.  If this kind of rhetoric doesn’t wake us up to the reality and intensity of nationalism, idolatry and neocolonialism in this country, I don’t think anything will.

What does it say about U.S. culture and the priorities of voters if campaign strategists insist on first and foremost assuring the American people that they are safe from terrorists as long as either candidate is in power?  Does this not reveal an obsession with security and the pervasiveness of fear of “the other”?  What does the gospel say about these things?  I think it is clear.  This is why the decision of who to vote for in November is a thoroughly unChristian one.  The tendency within an empire, Bell and Golden go on to argue, is to tell only one version of the story, the version that glosses over the dark side. In such an empire, “Christians must not become indifferent to the cries of those among us, no matter how uncomfortable they make us.”[ii]

It has long since been time to end all entanglement of the Christian story with mainstream American politics.  This is not to say Christians who happen to be U.S. citizens shouldn’t vote.  There are differences between these two candidates, and some of these differences will indeed affect people’s lives in significant ways, for better or worse.  It’s also ok to have a strong opinion about this (I certainly do), and to identity some measure of overlap between Christian principles and values, and specific policies or economic strategies that either candidate might be supporting.  But there has been almost no conversation whatsoever in these debates about any of the issue that I’m convinced Christians should be most concerned about: mass-incarceration, failed drug policy, global and national poverty, extreme income inequality, environmental degradation, clean water and the impending global water-supply crisis, unjust free trade agreements (which Romney sounded eager to propagate further in Latin America), militarism in general, consumerism, a culture of individualism, the death penalty… etc.  Abortion was brought up once; healthcare is of course debated; there has been some reference to keeping Wall Street accountable (but not nearly enough); and yes, always lipservice to renewable energy initiatives (and even lots of money given in recent years, though unfortunately to little avail due to poor stewardship on the part of the federal government).

Comparatively speaking, however, and with any regard for actual alternatives to the propaganda of American exceptionalism, voting for either candidate in this election has decidedly little consequence for a genuinely Christian politic.  There is no good vs. evil here; there is only evil vs. evil, to a greater or lesser degree.  Simply recognizing this, even if we go on to assume the responsibility of actively exercising our “right to vote” (more about this in a later post), could go a long way toward debasing the false consciousness about our true identity — an identity as disciples and citizens of the Kingdom of God.

[i] Rob Bell and Dan Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 17.

[ii] Ibid., 124.

Christian or American: What is your Primary Identity?

Until American churches actually function as outposts of Jesus’ heavenly empire rather than cheerleaders for America – until the churches produce martyrs rather than patriots – the political witness of Christians will continue to be diluted and co-opted.

Peter Leithart, Between Babel and Beast

The role of the church is not merely to make policy recommendations to the state, but to embody a different sort of politics, so that the world may be able to see a truthful politics and be transformed. The church does not thereby withdraw from the world but serves it, both by being the sign of God’s salvation of the world and by reminding the world of what the world still is not (emphasis added).

— William T. Cavanaugh, from The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology

These two quotes are very helpful for approaching the question of Christian identity in relationship to U.S. citizenship.  The reason for this, I think, is because they start with the church rather than merely with some abstract “Christian” point of view, which would assume that we can conceive of ourselves and our values apart from belonging to a worshiping community that makes particular confessions and truth claims.

At the same time, I think this can be taken too far, as many postliberals and “anabaptists” tend to do, by concluding on the other hand that our speech is entirely conditioned by its intelligibility within a given linguistic context — I believe language and human experience is more “naturally” cross-cultural and dynamic than that.  In other words, that we as Christians and members of specific churches don’t share the exact same moral operating system as the rest of society need not necessarily mean we are unable to converse with and understand to a significant extent, say, secular economists.  We just need to first acknowledge the tension and relative incompatibility of our competing paradigms and ways of interpreting the world.

I like what James K A. Smith says about this: “So rather than simply talking about a “Christian perspective on” economics, or simply offering a “Christian position on” [x, y or z], the eccesial critique of globalization [for the purposes of this post, read U.S. economics and foreign policy] sees the church as a community of practice called to enact culture as it ought to be, and hence called to be a community of economic practice that grows out of its worship.”  It is only, therefore, when Christians begin to see the world from this place of the church’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world that they can faithfully live out, criticize and negotiate their national identity from a so-called Christian perspective.  Would that this were our primary criteria for making political judgments!

A little more about the church as the location of “Christian” as opposed to “American” identity: Stephen Long argues that “as the body of Christ in the world, the church is a transnational, global community whose allegience takes priority over all other allegiances — especially those of the nation-state and the corporation.  This allegiance requires a faithful, disciplined life in both our politics and economics.”  Specifically concerning the mission of the church, moreover, Rosemary Radford Ruether says this in her book Christianity and Social Systems:

The mission of the church is to be an expression (not the only or exclusive expression) of a struggle to overcome this dominator system [of globalization] and to transform the ways humans connect with each other and with the earth into more loving, life-giving, peacemaking relations.  In the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “God’s Kingdom come,” that is, “God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  “Heaven” is the paradigm of where God’s will is fully manifest.  Our mission is not to flee earth for some transcendent realm called “heaven” but to put ourselves in harmony with this divine will for just, peace, and loving relationship, to bring them to earth, to make them present on earth.

Thus the church is not just another compartmental institution that pertains to the “spiritual” aspects of our lives, while other institutions are thought to govern the “natural” or “secular” realm.  No, the church tells a different story altogether and gives an alternative narrative for relations to the global market and first-world imperialism — the implications of which are equally comprehensive, because everything — all space and relations — is believed to be spiritual.  And perhaps most of all, the Christian way of life as embodied by the church does not have as its goal merely the greatest material wealth for the greatest number of people (though it can hardly be argued with any in-depth critical and worldwide analysis that free-market capitalism has or could ever achieve this in the first place).  This is not to say of course that Christians ignore the factors contributing to the supply or lack of material plenitude — I’ve been saying quite the opposite.  Instead, for Christians it is the goal in all dimensions of life to acknowledge and embrace the call to walk in cruciform fashion following the one who showed us how to love God and others.

With a commitment to this ethical identity and responsibility in mind as Christians, then, one has to at least try to understand what the most important issues are that face, yes, the people of this country, but most importantly, that face people everywhere.  I don’t have any secret special wisdom or exhaustive knowledge into what exactly must be done, but I have tried to become a very diligent student of global problems.  So, in the next post I will nonetheless attempt to draw on what I’ve been studying and learning about in recent years in order to very simplistically and imperfectly outline what I’ve come to see as most crucial for U.S.-Christian concern during this election season.

Church, Politics and Reconciliation: on whose terms?

The nation-state is inclined to solve the  crisis of pluralism [i.e., divergent individual wills and preferences about what is ‘the good’] by directing  violence outward, toward other nation-states, but it is war that most especially reveals the particularism and tribalism of the nation-state.  Though the Body of Christ is truly catholic and spans the globe, Christians have become accustomed to killing Christians and others in places like Iraq out of loyalty to the narrow interests of their country. The Church, on the other hand, has always claimed to be a universal, and not merely particular, association.

In practice, the Church is full of the world, full of what is not-Church.  We hardly need reminding of the manifest sinfulness of those who gather in the name of Christ and his Church.  In this light it is helpful to think of the Church not as a location or an organization, but more like an enacted drama; it is the liturgy that makes the Church.  In this drama there is a constant dialectic between sin and salvation, scattering and gathering, Church” names that plotline that is moving toward reconciliation.

The Church may argue against the wisdom of a particular war, but if the model of “public theology” is followed, the Church is required to argue in “public” terms, accessible to the policy-makers, and thus must appeal to considerations of national security and the self-interest of the nation-state . . . [yes, but isn’t this just what we have to do?]

More interesting are those approaches that speak on the public stage but refuse to play bit parts in the tragedy orchestrated by the state.  One such approach is exemplified by groups of Christians and others that have traveled to Iraq since 1991, bringing food, medicine, and toys, in violation of US law.  Such groups refuse the tragic drama of threats to national security, and see the Iraqi people, suffering under sanctions, as the weak members of the body whom Paul admonishes us to treat as members of our own body (1 Corinthians 12:22-6).  Nation-state borders are dismissed as unreal, artificial segmentations of the universal Body of Christ, in which all people made in the image of God are members or potential members in the universal reconciliation that Christ accomplishes . .

Another more quotidian example from the parish level may help to suggest how the reconciliation we enact in the liturgy can rearrange public space.  I wa invited a few years ago to speak to a church group on the injustices of economic globalization.  We talked about cheap labor is exploited for our benefit, about the Body of Christ that makes us one, and about the contradiction between the two.  Some in the group suggested writing to our representatives in Congress.  A more interest approach presented itself later when we learned of a cooperative of local organic farmers that markets its products through churches.  People in my parish now buy directly from the cooperative once a month, and the food i distributed at the church.  We have begun to know some of the farmers’ names and the specific farms from which the different products come.  We know that the prices we pay ensure a sustainable living for the farmers.  We have begun to short-circuit the global market in which we are accustomed to buying our food from strangers, blind to the conditions in which the food is produced.  What is being created is a different kind of public space, a market that is not based on competition or the rational choice of self-interest, but on a just price and a community of producers and buyers who view each other’s interests as their own.  The reconciliation that we enact in the liturgy every Sunday is breaking out of the walls of the church building, as it were, and forming a different, fully public, space.  This is not a withdrawal from politics, but the enactment of the politics of reconciliation that we celebrate in the liturgy.

William Cavanaugh, “Politics and Reconciliation” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics

The two questions I struggle with in this kind of debate are not new and have been the subject of discussion surrounding Christian ethics for centuries; namely, whether in ethical and political decision-making to prioritize good ends or good means.  I lean towards the former — mainly because I feel like, for example, saving lives is more important than keeping our hands clean or being overly concerned about the purity of our witness.  As a progressive evangelical with both Baptist and Methodist affinities, I am also tempted to roll my eyes a little bit every time I hear the word “liturgy” or “sacrament.”  But of course what Cavanaugh proposes here, and especially with the two examples given, is no mere cop out either.  In short, I think this is a worthwhile debate to continue having, and he himself even admits that striving to influence public policy can be useful.  At any rate, I’m grateful for his contribution to the discussion, and would really appreciate if more Christians would take these questions seriously rather than apparently settling for either the relegation of their faith to the private sector, a duplicitous citizenship in both the kingdom of God and world, or selling out more or less to the latter.  I can’t help but believe that this is what many who strongly identify with the Republican Party (and Democratic… I just don’t see it there quite as much) are doing — at least to the extent that they seem to put hope in their partisan convictions, when it comes to the political realm and to public space (which basically includes or affects everything), more so than in the church’s responsibility to be a transformative enactment of God’s drama, as Cavanaugh says, of salvation for the world.

I Pledge Allegiance to the World…

The vows below were taken from Thomas G. Pettepiece’s “Shakertown Pledge” in Visions of a World Hungry:

Recognizing that the earth and the fullness thereof is a gift from our gracious God, and that we are called to cherish, nurture, and provide loving stewardship for the earth’s resources; and recognizing that life itself is a gift, and a call to responsibility, joy, and celebration, I make the following declarations:

  1.  I declare myself to be a world citizen.
  2. I commit myself to lead an ecologically sound life.
  3. I commit myself to lead a life of creative simplicity and to share my personal wealth with the world’s poor.
  4. I commit myself to join with others in reshaping institutions in order to bring about a more just global society in which each person has full access to the needed resources for their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth.
  5. I commit myself to occupational accountability, and in so doing I will seek to avoid the creation of products which cause harm to others.
  6. I affirm the gift of my body, and commit myself to its proper nourishment and physical well-being.
  7. I commit myself to examine continually my relations with others, and to attempt to relate honestly, morally, and lovingly to those around me.
  8. I commit myself to personal renewal through prayer, meditation and study.
  9. I commit myself to responsible participation in a community of faith.


The Church and Global Crises: Putting our Money where our Mission is

This post originally appeared on the  Homebrewed Christianity blog.

After engaging further with the work of recent Homebrewed guests like Doug Pagitt and Mark Scandrette, and with all the talk recently about various process eschatologies (the Emergent Village Theological Conversation), the issue of the church’s mission and its direct role in addressing the foremost problems of the world has really been on my mind.  In fact, Brian McLaren gave a great talk about this just this past Sunday at Claremont School of Theology.  Watch it here.  The main idea I’m wrestling with is this: if it’s true that our participation in bringing about new creation here and now is supposed to be significantly contributive to the reality of God’s economy on earth – but not necessarily determinative of it – then what does this mean for the mission of the church in concrete terms?

The most measurable and tangible way I know how to pose this question is something along the lines of the following: how does your church spend its money, and what does this show about its values? (we could talk about time and energy as well, but I’m focusing on this dimension because I think it might be the most important for our context.)  It’s temping at first to suspect that this is too much of a practical way to frame the topic from a theological perspective, but I want to argue that it might be one of the most profound theological questions that can be asked, especially for churches that are enjoying the privileges of imperial security.

Defendants of the currently dominant but perhaps waning church structures in America are quick to argue that there’s no “one size fits all” solution, and that’s fine.  But then I would still want to say to them, how and when do you plan to start actually contributing to this so-called mandate for change in the world with your current financial model?

Most churches dedicate the vast majority of their budgets to payroll, building and utility costs.  Obviously, these things are necessary, and I would even concede that something like the aesthetic quality of a worship venue can make a big difference with respect to what audience is being reached and that it is therefore sometimes a worthwhile investment.  Programs that foster spiritual formation shouldn’t be neglected, and of course staff members have to be paid in order for some tasks to get done.

At the same time, I don’t think this is enough, and in my view it’s probably not even a primary concern for Christians in comparison to the severity and urgency that characterizes the concerns of our global ecological and political-economic situation.  And this has everything to do with eschatology.  Along with many other homebrewed deacons, my contention is that if our beliefs about the future are such that relying on God is emphasized to the point of justifying the apathy that we as Christians seem to be comfortable with most of the time, then we have a bad eschatology.  On the other hand, as Tripp and Bo articulated quite well on the TNT podcast a few weeks ago, an eschatology of co-laboring orthopraxis – as opposed to an otherworldly one – need not consign us to completely depend on our own strength either.  That was one of the mistakes made with the post-millennialism of protestant liberalism at the turn of the 20th century.

With that said, let me give an example of how this might be done in practice.  So there’s a church in Austin that set a goal a while back to work toward structuring themselves so as to allow for giving away half of what they receive in monetary donations every year to non-profit programs and charitable project partners (a homeless food ministry in Guatemala, building a school in Uganda, staffing an after-school program in East Austin, and various other sustainable development initiatives).  A few years later now, they are already more than halfway there, having consistently been giving 35% of their tithes and offerings to these outreach partnerships.  They see this as only fair, since they expect themselves as a membership to tithe… because if we’re all giving ten percent of our income, but the church spends most of that on itself, how do we expect to actually do something about the greatest threats to our planet and human life? And this is not a small church.  They have a big building and a big staff.  And yet with this long-term goal in place, they’re still using their big suburban resources to make a substantial difference in the world despite the other challenges that come along with a missional-attractional approach to ministry.

Perhaps even more radically, a totally different church in Waco, TX of comparable size pays all of its staff members the same salary – from the senior pastor to the secretary (in addition to a stipend per child in the family).  This frees up a ton of their resources for their missional church planting efforts around the world and forces their team of pastoral leaders to walk the talk of living simply.

Now, it may be that neither of these churches are quite “up to speed” with an appreciation of the most pressing global crises from the standpoint of their theological significance, but at least they understand the intimate relationship between organization, budget allocation and missional accomplishment.  In light of these examples then, I just have to wonder: can we not ask this same question about balance sheets and God’s economic values wherever we are and begin to think creatively about how to work toward a better future – by leading churches to put their money where their mission is, by actually contributing a sizable portion of their cash flow to the realization of new creation in the present?

Hopes for the Church in 2012 and Beyond

We want . . .

to be a church that weighs deeply the suffering of the world; that mourns it, contemplates it, and takes responsibility for it by contributing in some way and somehow to systemic change – politically, economically, and culturally – both locally and globally.

to be a church that extends healing and forgiveness by first recognizing our own need for healing and forgiveness.

to be a church that confesses individual sins and constantly calls for repentance; but in recognition of the costliness of social and structural sin, does not overemphasis or reduce sin to the personal-“private” level.

to be a church that is constantly journeying on the path of discipleship and transformation while inviting others into the same journey.

to be a church that honors both the revelation and mystery of God, guarding against the idolatrous distractions of human-centeredness and otherworldliness respectively.

to be a church that does not hesitate to profess that Jesus is Lord, but that, in faith, humbly prepares a place at the table for the non-Christian and religious other and consistently articulates eschatological hope for everyone.

to be a church that does not fear – fear the consequences of prophetic action, speaking truth to power, or the risks that come from making real material sacrifices for the cause of God’s justice.

to be a church that does not take itself too seriously and spends time resting, laughing and enjoying the simple pleasures and gifts of life.

to be a church that does not worry about money – not because it doesn’t matter or isn’t needed, but because we do not organize and establish ourselves in such a way that requires utter dependence on it.

to be a church that is structured to actually direct a sacrificial portion of its resources not toward its own institutional preservation and vertical growth but toward the needs of others.

to be a church that is led by the work of the people, where leadership is both democratized and earned and where the reproduction and training of new leaders is not outsourced to higher education professionals.

to be a church that proclaims the gospel but does not try to control it, where theological authority is shared and open, marked by generous and deep orthodoxy.

to be a church that is intentional, patient, and unbusy; that does not over-plan or compete with other churches to attract new members, but that at the same time strives to live contagiously and make disciples.

to be a church that reaches out relationally and focus on true friendship; that builds trust with neighbors and works together with community partners to better society.

to be a church that does not mistake the meaning of counter-culturalism with culture warfare, and that instead seeks to subvert the status quo by implementing revolutionary social practices.

to be a church that loves God and worships out of an authentic place of awe and appreciation for who God is – a God who has given us good news; who is righteous, just, gracious, sovereign, and desires redemption for all.

In sum, we want to be a church that loves, and that in doing so, participates passionately and faithfully in the Holy Spirit’s already-enacted mission and ministry of reconciliation for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

In a sense, this is just my list.  But I didn’t write it alone, and I want it to be ours.  Maybe you can relate, have concerns, or other hopes and prayers.

"Take this Bread" Christianity and Politics Quote

This is what gets left out, I was realizing: not just left out of the national political debate but also left out of religious discourse.  Politicians talked about welfare – usually to blame and scapegoat – and occasionally made speeches about poverty.  There was no shortage of talk about the poor and social services from church leaders of all stripes.  But the experiences of people such as my volunteers, the texture and specificity of their incarnate lives, were missing from the story of what Christianity was like now in contemporary America.

And just as I’d looked for the unofficial truth, as a reporter, on the edge of things, I believed I was discovering , at the food pantry, our people’s significance to the real story.  They were on the margins of society, and often on the margins of the church, but their lives were full of meaning.  They threw light not only on the overlooked parts but on how the whole system worked.  These poor lives illuminated middle-class life – our anxiety, our reliance on managing and fixing feelings rather than having them, our desire to punish.  They made clear the limitations of religions that cast out every member whose reality didn’t fit inside church doctrines.  Their lives showed the profound resourcefulness and strengths of the weak.  The thing that astonished me sometimes – listening to tales of terrible damage, psychosis, loss – was not how messed up people could be but how resilient; how, in the depths of suffering, they found ways to adapt and continue.

Sarah Miles, Take this Bread

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