We are thrilled with the possibilities of police reform and a new (hopefully effective) awareness of the scourge of racism. The chart above is thrilling to a guy like me who has been waiting for the tipping point for a long time. May all our years of work bear fruit.
Our excitement tempts us to live on the “second tier” of life in Christ, the practical, relational interchange with the world around us — especially when our hope for change is activated. As a result, we can miss the deeper, “first tier” of relating to God in a transcendent and transformative way. Since so many people have thrown God out of reality, it is tempting to relate to them according to the worldview for which they are fighting, rather than joining with them in social action as our true selves in Christ.
Paul and the first church definitely did social action. The first churches, though they were a tiny, sometimes persecuted minority within the Roman Empire, started a movement that eventually overran it. Much of the church’s favorable reputation grew out of their alternativity: how they shared, how they loved, and how they managed to accept people of all classes and backgrounds into a dynamic whole.
But I don’t think they were doing “social action” in the way most of us think of it. Paul does not have an idea of “social” or “action” in the way we do. For one thing, he did not know about the conceptual frameworks of the Enlightenment that spawned Hobbes and Rousseau arguing about the essence of the social contract and the state of nature without God. And I don’t think he had any democratic sense of his rights or responsibility to influence society as a whole.
Paul’s idea of social action, like all his ideas, started with his faith in Jesus. His motivation came from the Holy Spirit. His hope came from his trust that he lived “in Christ” which defined his present and guaranteed his future. He certainly does not have a theory of social action under which his faith is subsumed. I don’t think he ever imagined reforming the Roman Empire. His only power resides in the apparently powerless love of Jesus.
As Circle of Hope, we are sometimes unclear about the source of our action when we operate according to a sense of society donated by European rationalists and all their followers since their heyday. We sometimes start in tier two, even forget tier one altogether, when we relate to others and try to make a difference in the world. I think we should be more serious about our faith and about the revelation in the Bible whether it seems to “work well” or not. We should hold on to Jesus and revelation whether people label it as unacceptable speech or not. What Paul has going works a lot better than what we usually do. And what he builds will last a lot longer than the results of the latest power struggle.
The two tiers of our present social action
Our Doing Theology team is still mulling over the rich dialogue we had about our approach to the coming election, so you’ll probably hear more about that before long. Until then, my mind has been drawn toward mulling over a previous dialogue we shared about Paul’s two-tiered outlook, as you can see by what I just said. In case you haven’t heard about this piece of theology, we reported on it and saved the material in this article.
David Brooks, of all people (my strange new “friend” from the conservatives), got me thinking about how we are engaging in the present transformation of the police, in particular. He wrote another interesting piece in the New York Times last week. In it, he crystallizes a view of the social justice “religion” that is quite alluring to many of us. You can see it all over our mapping material this year, and also see people questioning it. Brooks says one of the five crises the U.S. is facing right now is:
“Fourth, a quasi-religion is seeking control of America’s cultural institutions. The acolytes of this quasi-religion, Social Justice, hew to a simplifying ideology: History is essentially a power struggle between groups, some of which are oppressors and others of which are oppressed. Viewpoints are not explorations of truth; they are weapons that dominant groups use to maintain their place in the power structure. Words can thus be a form of violence that has to be regulated.”
I don’t feel like I need to agree with David Brooks’ reduction or not. But I can accept his sound bite of a viewpoint and listen to it. He might be on to something.
In tier two, I think Jesus followers are out on the street demanding real reform of the oppressive institutions that have grown up since Ronald Reagan, an end to half-measures regarding systemic racism, and economic justice that rightsizes the rich and their corporations. But I hope we all come to that social action from tier one, where we know Jesus is the way to the real revolution and know these power struggles are not the deepest response we have to what torments humanity. We come to society with the humility not to impose the latest ideological purity but to trust God in others to bring things to right.
Many people in the church have been damaged by powerful teachers handing down provisional solutions to sinful conditions as if they were mandates from God (like women needing to wear head coverings, or the Bible coming to a final form in 1611, or priests needing to be celibate, or America being a haven for righteousness – the list goes on). They make tier two into tier one. In the ultimate example of that grab for power, the church lost the miraculous influence it had in the beginning by taking over the rights and structure of the Roman Empire.
I want to be part of the church where it is not an outpost of the Empire, where it does not reference the Empire when it thinks of itself – for it or against it as if the nation or society is the ultimate context. Being free of that world would be authentic tier one living. To be free like that requires a preoccupation with listening to God and others. One thing I always love about our mapping process is how it brings up the need for discernment as a way of life. We need to listen to the voice of our Savior like sheep listening for their shepherd so we can find our way through perilous times and foment transformation along the way. Such discernment comes to us in many ways, not least of all in the voices of our partners in Christ, both present and gone before, so it is readily available.
The discernment we gain as we make our map, rarely gets boiled down to an ideology or something that seems simple. Love for God has an eternal “open end” to it. Love for others has a provisional sense of creating what is best together. So our listening is never shallow enough to merely win an argument or take power in the establishment. Besides, the resurrection of Jesus won the argument and “Who’s in power?” wasn’t the question, it was already a given.