And Another Thing…

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To Change The World: Essay I – Chapters 1 & 2

Up front, let me say that this series of posts is not going to be a traditional critique or summary of the book. Rather, I will be processing my response to the material as I work through the book and answering three questions as I go:

  • Do I agree with what the author says?
  • Should his ideas be applied?

and if so,

  • How can they be applied in the context of the churches of Christ?

The book is broken into three essays: “Christianity and World-Changing,” “Rethinking Power,” and “Toward a New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence.” Each essay has about six or seven chapters and I will likely devote two or three posts to each essay depending on the complexity of the material.

Now with all of that said, let’s jump right in.

Chapter One ~ Christian Faith and the Task of World Changing

In this brief introductory chapter Hunter identifies a divine mandate from Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (NRSV) and suggests that this mandate was renewed in God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and culminates in the person of Christ. From this Hunter infers that God has always expected human beings to be about the task of making a better world through our relationships, labor, art, and every other activity which consumes our time. In Hunter’s view, changing the world for the better is not an option for the believer but one of the commitments that we make when we become Christians.

Whether the reader agrees or disagrees with Hunter’s theology on this point, he demonstrates that throughout history, most Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, evangelical or mainline, have shared this view. He offers a long list of denominational, para-church organization, and Christian college mission statements that include “changing” or “impacting” the world as part and parcel of their function. Historically, these efforts have yielded a diverse set of outcomes. Remarkable works of mercy and charity, the life-saving efforts of medical missionaries, dramatic social reforms, and the redeemed lives of millions are sadly balanced by institutional corruption, appalling abuses of power, rank hypocrisy, and lusting for political gain.

Despite these failings, almost all Christian organizations, churches and otherwise, perceive a responsibility to impact their communities, countries, and their world. Hunter writes:

“…the idealism about fulfilling the mandate of creation is sincere, the efforts are earnest, and the intentions are undoubtedly honorable. But is that enough?”

Obviously, Hunter would say no; hence the book. Hunter believes that our failure to generate meaningful change in the present is rooted in a flawed perception of culture and mistaken concepts of how culture changes.

Chapter Two ~ Culture: The Common View

In this chapter Hunter assesses what he believes to be the most commonly held view of how culture is created and changed – a view which stresses the role of the individual, or more to the point, the values of the individual. Individuals with corrupted values generate a corrupted culture; likewise, where one finds a majority with healthy values one finds a healthy culture. If one wishes to change the culture, one must begin by changing the values of the individuals who make the culture. Hunter identifies three common tactics for accomplishing this end: evangelism, political action, and social reform.

Evangelism is a divine mandate which almost no Christian group disputes. However, the advocates of this tactic as a means of cultural change (which include Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and James Boice) believe that if enough Christians make soul-winning the highest priority of their spiritual lives, then cultural change will be an inevitable result.  The faith spreads exponentially, values are reformed on a large scale, and culture is changed.

I find this approach both appealing and disturbing. The appeal lies in its simplicity and that it re-directs us back to the Great Commission, which the contemporary church often seems confused and ambivalent about in the best of times. What I find disturbing on the other hand is the question of motive – it appears to me that evangelism done with the intent of generating cultural change places those whom we evangelize in the role of being a means to an end. My understanding of the Gospel and the Great Commission is that we are to bring souls to Christ that they might be saved; not so that we can transform the culture. It seems to me that Biblical evangelism has no covert cultural agenda but rather an overt spiritual agenda, and nothing more.

Hunter rightly observes that political action has been the tactic of choice for the majority of Christians of all theological and political stripes in the US since the 1980s. Simply stated, those who favor this approach (which include Bill Donahue, James Dobson, Mike Huckabee, and at the other end of the political spectrum Jim Wallis) believe that change is achieved through a top down model. Bad law creates a bad culture, good law creates good culture. In this view the appropriate actions for Christians include lobbying, campaigning and voting for certain candidates, and advocacy in the halls of power for laws which reflect spiritual values. Of course, many leaders have warned against this course of action as well. As regular readers of this blog well know, I fall squarely on the side of the naysayers with this one. As I have said repeatedly and will continue to say – there is no mandate in the New Testament to establish the kingdom by legal fiat. Jesus never lobbied Rome and the apostles never formed a PAC. What’s more, history shows that when the church dances with the ruling powers, the ruling powers almost always end up taking the lead. Believers become nothing more than useful idiots.

Finally, there is social reform. Advocates of this tactic believe that voluntary private organizations can initiate reform movements through partnering with churches and other community/civic organizations. These movements tend to establish chapters in various communities and focus their efforts on marshaling volunteers for community action; strengthening families, mentoring children, volunteering at schools, encouraging personal responsibility, etc. Their work with children focuses on building character, developing skills, and providing strong adult role models. The social worker in me loves this approach, and it certainly has historical precedent: Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are just three individuals who managed to make significant and lasting impact without the power of the state behind them.

Hunter concludes the chapter by saying that the belief that any of the above mentioned tactics, or even a mix of tactics, can generate sweeping and lasting cultural change is “almost wholly mistaken.” He elaborates on this conclusion in the chapters that follow; so I will stop here for now. I want to throw out some questions for your consideration and to prompt a conversation.

  1. Do you agree with Hunter’s assertion that believers have a divine mandate to change our culture? Why or why not?
  2. Which of the three tactics discussed above (evangelism, political action, social reform) do you find most appealing? Which do you think is least effective or appropriate? Why?
  3. Can you share any personal experiences of being involved with a group of believers who generated change in their communities or on a larger scale?
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3 Responses

  1. andy says:

    1. Perhaps, but as a secondary goal, and with care that we aren’t simply changing things that don’t appeal to our personal preferences. For instance if part of the culture involves neglecting and abusing the poor, we absolutely should try to change it — preferably through converting souls to Christ — but failing that we should still do our best to change peoples’ attitudes towards the poor.

    2. My legal studies have led me to believe that the law follows social movements, and not vice-versa, so I reject the top-down approach. In terms of changing the culture of modern America, I think evangelism and social action have to be entertwined. I think people today are unlikely to simply believe based on teaching and that investment in individuals carries more weight than good theology. Once established, however, I think belief becomes the motivation for social action and can help make it a way of life for someone rather than temporary fad.

    3. I could list several, but I’ll say that in the best cases I can think of churches were meeting spiritual and physical/mental needs of people.

  2. odgie says:

    Andy, thanks for kicking in. In response to your response:

    1. I like this response, especially the part about differentiating between what needs to be changed and what we simply dislike.

    2. What do you mean by investing in individuals?

    3. I’d love to hear one of your experiences – I and any other believer reading this could use the encouragement.

  3. Jr says:

    Odgie,

    How did I just see this post? Good stuff. My responses…

    1) I’m not sure about that. I think his premise is flawed. Telling Adam to tend the garden is hardly a “mandate to change the culture.” That is one of the oddest correlations I have ever heard. It is also hard for me to say that something pre-fall is a “mandate to change culture.” Could the garden have been any better than it was? Perhaps his case with Noah, Abraham, and Moses is better, but the Adamic one fails I think.

    Nonetheless I do believe that where we are in our societies (and when we are there) have an ultimate divine purpose; namely, for men to seek God (see Acts 17:26-27). We do see the Jews in exile who were told by God to work and be involved in the nation they were in for the betterment of it (see Jeremiah 29:4-7, particularly v.7). Though this can get tricky, particularly when we speak of political involvement, I think that is the attitude we should have (after all, we are exiles too). And of course, pagans may see our good works and glorify God (1 Peter 2:12).

    2) I think evangelism is the most appealing. It’s like the thought that says that when you make the slave the ruler they become just as brutal when they are in power as the rulers who were over them. All that does is rearrange the deck chairs. No hearts are changed in the process. The Gospel, however, changes hearts. God changes hearts. God sanctifies. And this leads to a better worldview, that is, a God-centered one which (should) refocus how we look at everything and everyone. Culture will not change without change of hearts. Faith comes by hearing.

    I am adamantly against the political action technique because I believe it confuses the Gospel. Imagine talking to 100 American non-believers about Jesus and you begin by saying “Jesus wants us to not have nuclear weapons” or “Jesus wants smaller government” (can work both ways). What you have done is immediately turned off half of your audience before you even get to the Gospel.
    If someone is going to hate me or my message, I want it to be because they hate Jesus and His message (which is what rejecting the Gospel would be). Plus, it makes Jesus a pawn in an earthly, evil, corrupt political game no matter which way you use him (left or right). Jesus is no pawn.

    Additionally, in today’s fad-enriched post-modern feel-good mentality people actually think that because they think funding should be increased for Education that they are showing the Gospel. That whole “preach the Gospel, if necessary use words” nonsense I’m always hearing. Plus, it places the responsibility of us as individual Christians and us as the Church onto national governments! I call it a cop-out.

    The social reform is nice because it is without the backing of state. However, I see a danger of it getting mixed up with the political. Say you are tutoring children and you don’t believe there is enough money supporting tutoring and even government laws/regulations that prohibit effective tutoring. You want that to change, so you run for school board. Then after realizing it’s because of the state government policies, you run for state government or form a kind of PAC, etc. All the while doing it “for Jesus.” While I don’t disagree completely with this approach, I do think motives can get mixed up and the question needs to be asked concerning how vocal one is actually going to be in regards to Jesus being “for tutoring.” (this was a rather simple and silly example, but an example nonetheless.)

    I also think we can run into the same problem as the political action when people think that because they work at a soup kitchen that they have done something for the Kingdom. When in fact, all they’ve done is give something eternally insignificant. So like Andy I think a mix is needed here. Just as faith without deeds is dead, I think deeds without faith is rather pointless (Romans 14:23b, 1 Corinthians 10:31).

    Sorry for the length! I can be wordy.

    Grace be with you –
    Jr

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