Christian Public Engagement After a Time of Crisis
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This article is part of our “Law and Religion Under Pressure: A One-Year Pandemic Retrospective” series.
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“Distance and duties divide us,
But absence will not seem an evil
If it make our re-meeting
A real occasion.”
– W.H. Auden
The pandemic has been a period of change and reflection. A period where a collective and sacrificial burden was placed on our daily removal with the condition that we remain “empty and silent most of the year.” Now, with the worst seemingly behind us, a newness of life grows imminent – as Americans return to their facile compendium of chores, bred by the programming of our culture and insatiable desires. A return to T.S. Eliot’s “broken blinds” and a return to our “lighting of the lamps.” The normalcy of day-to-day existence becomes a restored condition, until the collective conscience is once again brought near by the experience of common dread.
Spoken in divine simplicity, Joshua Feigelson remarks on a profound truth that brings to light the teleological significance of our temporal existence: “time is one of the first acts of freedom.” Time has been restored to us; and, now, the agency of will demands our attention. We must make decisions anew with the time we are given in the spaces we inhabit. As such, a time has come to ask the church for a favor.
It is perhaps a cliché at this point to call on Christians to redeem the time – for they, consumed by the eschatological knowledge of eternity, are in surplus of it. As one song goes: “[o]nly time is ours, the rest we’ll just wait and see.” But, that is the request I make. To redeem the time, not to cultivate more enclave communities for the propagation of the faith, but to build toward a renewed sense of public engagement that wrestles with the question of the new normal. And, that question is this: how can the distinctive Christian ethic participate in the changing dynamics of modern intentions?
In essence, the task being asked of the church here is to find a process by which it might better take part in the work of the Holy Spirit, as Willie James Jennings wrote, “who relishes each moment with us, never discounting our time and never treating the time of creation and each creature as inconsequential time.”1Willie James Jennings, Acts 4 (Amy Pauw ed., 2017). This process inevitably leads to a challenge for the church to take on the burden of creative imagination and to learn what it means today to be a crafty steward (Luke 16:1-13). Too often the church has relegated its public spaces to the gathering of believers through the transactional model of therapeutic deism. Those who attend Sunday services welcome the preaching of the word so long as the words uplift their spirits and solidify their faith in the status quo they’ve come to enjoy from the customer service of the professional clergy. Through this process, Christians either become idle or simply see Sunday worship as dispensable and abandon the habits of organized religion altogether. As a result, those who stay and those who remain become entrapped in the nauseating performance of tepidness – becoming useless to participate in the labor of the Spirit. If Sidney Mead was right (and I think he was) in his assertion that the spiritual character of the nation digested the spiritual components of the church to create a new theology for civic participation, then the last two decades has been a slow, categorical expulsion of the church from the soul of the nation as a viable center for public influence. The church has been deserted, to borrow from G.K. Chesterton, not for its ideals, but for its reality – leaving divisions that cry out for divine reconciliation.
These divides are stark. Whether we see it as simply the separation of the secular versus the sacred – as James Davison Hunter describes. Or as the separation between ideals based on conceptions of the transcendent versus the immanent sacred – as Steven D. Smith posits. Or, the separation of the general from the specific planes that leave the civic and ecclesiastical affairs in constant tension – as Sidney Mead noted. Regardless, the church, in all of its particularism, has found itself again on the defensive, edging toward mutually exclusive visions of future progress defined by either “enclaves of exclusion” or “temples of assimilation” that ring aloud the ideals of the Democratic party.
So, what is required for the church to meet the challenge of common life? The answer is far too complex to distill into a single article, but there are general solutions that I can offer as an opening salvo to a larger game demanding our participation.
First, what is required is a renewal of character and self-restraint, illustrated profoundly by Edmund Burke who wrote that “[m]en are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.” This self-restraint for the community of faith requires a building of alliances bent on grassroots democracy and a common vision of a society together. Along with self-restraint comes the challenge of devising a soft theology where the people of God can test the mettle of their convictions through a refinement of conscience. Certainly, there are hills on which the faith must take a stand – most notably the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor. 15:17). But, there are also a host of other issues that invite the church to participate in dialogue in order to help create the confidence for life together. To reduce most doctrines to unquestionable proscriptions is to fundamentally misunderstand the gravity of divine desire and our pathetic capacity to wholly know the mind of God.
To accomplish this goal, a new theology of conscience must emerge that wrestles with the difficult nature of moral complicity. Looking at the writings of Paul in his various letters tackling this issue, the “weak” versus “strong” dichotomy refers to believers who found themselves tethered to the concerns of maintaining Old Testament laws of purity, versus those able to put aside the purity laws in favor of a new covenant through the finished work of Christ. In his magisterial commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo posited that the reference in Romans 14 regarding abstaining from drinking wine is in reference to the fear of the “weak” that the “wine had been contaminated by association with pagan religious practices.”2Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans 873 (1996). The same can be said regarding eating vegetables only – the “weak in faith” again believing these dietary rigors is more pleasing to God than the liberties of the “strong” that can eat everything. Through this illuminating theology, a new Christian public engagement can emerge based on the exercise of a “strong” conscience that is able to overcome the “narrow canal” of rigorists and break through to the place where “to the pure all things are pure.” (Titus 1:15)
Second, the church must have a renewed vision for social responsibility and a reparative vision for social progress, one based on the repatriation of the poor and disenfranchised into the fellowship of the church and its communal mission to serve those in need. This will require an embedded church – something that was impossible during the pandemic. Discussed by Jeffrey Stout, this renewed mission will require the creation of an organizational structure that spreads across the centers of community life through a robust engagement in urban planning, while providing the congregation an output to demonstrate their confession of faith through political agape and physical proximity. A true opportunity to match labor to need and live out the meaning of Christ’s instruction: “[t]hey need not go away; you give them something to eat.” (Matthew 14:16). To join neighbors toward the redistribution of life and the creation of communities from the bottom-up – allowing historical context and circumstantial experiences to form friendships for sharing common identities and converting the places we inhabit as places fit for divine activity. As Harvey Cox succinctly wrote, “[i]n order to be a healer, the church needs to know the wounds of the city firsthand.”3Harvey Cox, The Secular City 115 (1990).
In his powerful description of the reconciliation of the diaspora and empire in the Book of Acts, Willie James Jennings describes the creation of “the common” as “the condition of joined life where the haves and have-nots are bound together in clear sight of one another and in shared support.”4Willie James Jennings, Acts 9-10 (Pauw ed., 2017). While the Apostle may have hoped for a new nation-state bent on the identitarian notions of tradition and place (see Acts 1:6), Jennings keenly notes that the sending of the Spirit was meant to replace such dreams with the temporal mission of cross-cultural reconciliation. Stamped with visions of home, Christians are driven by the ineluctable desire for pending life. But, that is not yet their lot. Here, the work remains – done in the trappings of a vagabond, seeking to reconcile all things to Christ.
Thirdly, there must be a renewal in intellectual engagement with the patterns of political fractures and the definitive ethics that drive the habits of the modern condition. To this end, I can only point to the works of James K.A. Smith, who profoundly breaks through on this topic with his wonderful discussion of the installation of liturgies as the byproduct of the Christian character. In his first volume, his description of habits as “second nature” could not be more suitable: “[t]hey represent our default tendencies and our quasi-automatic dispositions to act in certain ways, to pursue certain goods, to value certain things, to cherish certain relationships, and so forth.”5James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation 56 (2009). My solution here is simply that: to instill the habits of intellectual curiosity through dialogue and community immersion. To sit at the table of critical race theorists and transgender advocates and learn about their stories and the avenues by which the church may better serve their immediate concerns – even if in the end, you find little room for common purpose. (See Acts 17:32). If the elasticity of practice is a mandate of scripture in the proverbial words of Paul when he spoke about “becoming all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:22), the church must learn to extend itself across the aisle in hopes of sowing peace in the warfare of our climate of suspicion.
Maybe, with the implementation of those things above, the American Church can create a new philosophy of friendship rooted in mutual affection and common interest. In time, that “symbolic smile” of Jacques Maritain may once again return, and we can find a community of citizens willing to trade in their partisan allegiances for a restored vision of an American Order. Overcoming our narcissism may well be the labor of future generations, but we too can cast vision for the undoing of suspicions. A vision rooted in dialogue and love: a vision based on the extension of our thresholds for toleration when the discordant voices of our neighbors appeal to our tendencies to strike back.
Man is searching for a semblance of balance in an unbalanced design – subject to the whims and self-interested conformities that come so readily with life online. This life became our existence, and now that things are returning to normal, the church must take the lead in restoring its public reputation for service. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
We live in a complex society, and complex questions demand multifaceted responses. As such, the church must embrace this complexity by carving out tools in-kind when it comes to public engagement. It must be a model for balancing competing interests, pursuing ultimate truths, and cultivating sound prudence in an age of mass information. How the religious community responds to their historical bequest and adapts to the complexity of culture without conceding its exceptionality remains the challenge. Until then, I leave you with the words of that great Frenchman in his Reflections on America: “[d]eep beneath the anonymous American smile there is a feeling that is evangelical in origin — compassion for man, a desire to make life more tolerable.”6Jacques Maritain, Reflections on America 92 (1958). ♦
Anton Sorkin is an employment attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, and a doctoral candidate at the Emory University School of Law. His research and writing focuses on law, religion, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @anton_sorkin.
Sorkin, Anton. “Christian Public Engagement After a Time of Crisis.” Canopy Forum, April 27, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/04/27/christian-public-engagement-after-a-time-of-crisis/