Marriage Equality and Life in Liberal Democracy– Dangers and Reaction

Supporter of Marriage Equality at the Supreme Court

A society with a history, a culture, and a polity such as ours must continually negotiate between two fatal dangers. The rock on the left is a libertarian individualism that disregards any communal constraints or moral prohibitions that promote the common good; the shoal on the right is a moralistic purity that– too quickly and without humility– sorts society into sharp categories of those who bear the light of godliness, and those whose deviance is bringing about societal decay.

You can be the judge of which– if any– of the following reactions falls into one or the other category. These differing reactions are a fascinating window into the divergent perspectives of Christians in America today: divergence with regard to first principles/fundamental assumptions; with regard to theology; and with regard to conclusions.

Here is the beginning of the report from Religion News Service. Click on the link at the bottom, for the full, fascinating array of reactions to yesterday’s Supreme Court rulings:

“Today is a tragic day for marriage and our nation. The Supreme Court has dealt a profound injustice to the American people by striking down in part the federal Defense of Marriage Act.  The Court got it wrong. The federal government ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so. The preservation of liberty and justice requires that all laws, federal and state, respect the truth, including the truth about marriage.”

– U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

“The enormity of today’s decisions cannot be overstated. The combined impact of these two rulings puts our nation further down the inevitable and proper path towards full marriage equality for the LGBT community. All Americans should rejoice in today’s decisions because they bring us that much closer to fulfilling the promise of our Constitution.”

– Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance

via Reactions to gay marriage wins at Supreme Court | Religion News Service.

The Kingdom of God and the Democratic Party

In conversations with some ordained ministerial colleagues of my denomination yesterday– people whom I love and respect– the unspoken assumption was that victories by Democratic candidates, both state-wide and nationally, was good from a Christian religious, follower-of-Jesus point of  view. While this may in fact be the case, it is not immediately apparently so.

More pointedly, are not Christians called to reflect– deeply and, yes, prayerfully– on the building of the Kingdom of God here on earth? And not to reflect only, but to work in bringing that Kingdom to fruition? I take it as axiomatic that the building of the Kingdom of God on earth, and the full implementation of the Democratic Party’s legislative agenda, are not co-extensive. No human agenda can stake down the uncontrollable, Spirit-blown ends of how God’s rule on earth becomes bodied.

So this is not a call for people of faith not to be involved in matters of state, because the God revealed in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures does lay claim to the right ordering of policies and laws. Nor is this a call to the false dichotomy between practicality and spirit which sees politics to be exclusively of the former, and the Kingdom of God of the latter– again, an un-Biblical dichotomy. Rather, the call is to discern where the Kingdom of God is breaking through, in this time and place, in ways that subvert the dominant powers of this world for the astonishing grace of God’s ways.

This discernment necessarily and essentially calls for a deeper and more extensive response than advocacy for particular policies: a response that would eventually call for action that challenges one or more of the unwholesome systems in which we are all parts.

Take Gandhi’s Salt March, for example. Gandhi didn’t work to change the law on salt (say, to advocate for a repeal of the British tax on salt). Instead, he intentionally broke the law (by producing salt without paying the tax), in order to focus attention on the increasingly untenable British colonial rule of India. Rosa Parks, from our own history, is another example. These acts of civil disobedience focused attention on systems of injustice that were antithetical to the kinds of right social relationships characteristic of God’s rule– and which humans, at our best and by grace, have at times approximated here on earth.

In addition to identifying policies for us to support, people of faith need to be identifying the unwholesome systems of which we are a part– systems that are part of our social and political life but which are deeper than party affiliation. What are those unwholesome systems? And how might we focus attention on them, in a way that their unwholesomeness is exposed? That is a vocation worthy of our calling.

Ideas for a Better World in 2011

I wrote about James Davison Hunter a few times this September, and I was happy to find his critique of American Christianity included in the Christian Science Monitor’s recent article: “Ideas for a Better World in 2011.” Davison thinks that American Christianity is squandering its unique potential to transform American public life by being too political– that (perhaps counterintuitively), American Christianity’s potential to effect change in our culture is compromised by its over-involvement in politics. Davison suggests a different way of being for churches– a way that is public but not political:

Mr. Hunter argues that the Christian community should move away from the “politicization of everything.” Churches are now too often destructive battlegrounds of an ideological right and left. He advocates something called “faithful presence” – a humble reappraisal of what is distinctive and different about church and its public expression. “This is active, not passive; it requires engagement, not an opt-out. It is not ideological, but it is public,” he says.

The title of Hunter’s controversial new book, “To Change the World,” is ironic. While American Christianity often imagines itself a major player in US public life, it is, in fact, marginalized, he says. Despite large numbers, they don’t influence the actual structures of power and culture. Worry that a Christian America is fading has not brought a deeper commitment to church but anger. Political efforts to conform law or policy to narrow or sectarian teaching are often acted out coercively, not compassionately.

The “faithful presence” Hunter calls for transcends politics. The point, he says, is to serve faithfully and well in relationships, tasks, and networks of social influence. “Christians need to abandon talk about ‘redeeming the culture,’ ‘advancing the kingdom,’ and ‘changing the world,'” he said in the magazine Christianity Today. “Such talk carries too much weight….” In the case of abortion, he suggests that 10,000 families could get together in Illinois and announce they will adopt a child of any background and declare no unwanted children in the state; it’s a public but not a political act.

via Ideas for a better world in 2011 – James Davison Hunter –

Reclaiming Meaning in Public Conversation: What We Hold in Common

I’m very excited that Aziz Abu Sarah and Kobi Skolnick (photos below) will be joining us here in southern New Hampshire for a presentation on Sunday called “Conflicting Peace: From Revenge to Reconciliation in the Holy Land.” (Note: Aziz will be with us via satellite from East Jerusalem, due to issues in Israel with his Jerusalem identification status.)

Kobi is Israeli and Jewish; Aziz is Palestinian and Muslim. Each of them shares their personal story of the transformational power of suffering. Pain can shrink us into bitter and vengeful people, or it can enlarge our capacity for empathy and compassion. Kobi and Aziz have chosen the latter– a risky and costly choice.

What we make of the suffering in our lives is a quintessential religious question. There’s nothing abstract or theoretical about it: how we find meaning (or not) in our suffering informs all our relationships, shapes all our attitudes, and affects all our choices in the things that matter. Kobi’s and Aziz’s presentation goes to this level of our human journey.

This kind of public discourse goes far beyond the shriveled nature of today’s political sloganeering to remind us both of our human vulnerabilities, and of our potential to enlist those vulnerabilities in the cause of affirming life’s goodness.

Sunday evening, 6:30pm, Souhegan High School Auditorium. Free.

Real Change?


Could this gesture of giving mean more than the food on the plate?


I’ve got nothing against letter-writing campaigns, and I don’t know anything about Bread for the World’s David Beckmann. However, I do think it’s worth questioning the premise of the following paragraph:

Beckmann believes real change comes through politics, not soup kitchens, which is why Bread for the World encourages its member churches to launch letter-writing campaigns on such unglamorous issues as tax credits for the working poor. Moses, he points out, was not sent by God to pick up a few cans and warm blankets at Pharaoh’s court. He was sent to change the world.

via Miller: A Minister’s Mission to Fight Poverty – Newsweek.

The question that author Lisa Miller begs is, “What counts as real change?” As James Hunter points out (post here and others), most of us– including those of us who profess that God’s rule is ultimate– readily go along with the popular notion that “real change” is the province of politics. In the spirit of confession, I’ve been one of those people.

That unspoken assumption needs aired; it doesn’t withstand examination. Politics, in fact, might be the very last place to look, in order to find “real change.”

Lisa Miller gives us a false choice: that churches must choose between acts of compassion (which, in her reading, are well-intentioned but naive), and acts of lobbying (which, in her reading, are savvy and worldly-wise). Both can be good and helpful things to do, and both can effect some kinds of change. But real change?

Moses wasn’t changing the world– God was. Real change , while inevitably involving human actors, will be deeper and broader than any end we might imagine.

Missing the Mark

We’ve been reflecting on the work of James Hunter in recent posts (here, here, and here), on the limits of political power and the flattening of public life that results from reducing “the public realm” to the merely political. As Hunter himself acknowledges, this is cultural– and culture doesn’t change quickly. To use a meteorological metaphor (as he himself does), cultural change is more like a change in climate than it is like a change in weather. And while we can very well imagine what tomorrow’s weather will be, we can not so very well imagine what a different climate might be like, or how– or whether it’s even possible– to help bring it about. Cultural change, while a human artifact, resists human manipulation.

Hunter’s criticism of American Christianity is that both the Christian left and the Christian right have bought into the politicization of public life, thereby squandering the unique authority of the Christian worldview to provide an alternative way of being a society together. For example, politicization by its very nature leads to a public conversation marked by zero-sum outcomes: I’m right; you’re wrong. I win; you lose. An alternative– which is, as Hunter points out, one mark of a healthy culture– is a public sphere characterized by affirmation rather than negation. His words:

What’s even more striking than the negational character of political culture is the absence of robust and constructive affirmations. Vibrant cultures, healthy cultures, makes space for leisure, philosophical reflection, scientific and intellectual mastery, [and] artistic and literary expression, among other things.

Within the larger Christian community in America, one can find such vitality in pockets here and there, and yet where they do exist, they tend to be eclipsed by the greater prominence and vast resources of the political activists and their organizations. Once more, there are few if any places in the pronouncements and actions of the Christian right or left, where I could find these kinds of affirmations, [where] those kinds of gifts are acknowledged, affirmed or celebrated. What this means is that rather than being defined by its cultural achievements, its intellectual and artistic vitality, [or] its service to the needs of others, Christianity is defined to the outside world by its rhetoric of resentment and the ambitions of a will in opposition to others.

I think Hunter is largely correct. I think those of us who have hope for what a different kind of Christian contribution to public life might be, have a lot of work to do– both in bringing down the hyper-politicized barriers between so-called liberal and so-called conservative Christianity, and in building up a richer public life that is not collapsed into the merely political.

“Imagine a public realm not subsumed by the political….”

In a previous post I quoted James Hunter, a professor at the University of Virginia, as saying that there “are no political solutions to the problems most people care about.” As we here in New Hampshire– and in other states– now turn toward the November general elections, we would do well to spend some time reflecting on the limits of politics; what those limits might mean for the way we engage politically; and the potential for religion and religious leaders to help us imagine public life in a new way: a way that restores depth and breadth to those things which the practice of politics has flattened.

Another tidbit from Hunter:

So from my vantage point the biggest part of the challenge, at least as it bears on the things we’re talking about right now, is our ability to imagine a public realm that is not merely subsumed by the political. A public realm in which the common good is not merely sought through political means. A public realm in which we have the capacity to develop deeper and more integrated and cohesive notions of human justice that can inform political debate….

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