Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

11/17 2020

What Can Faith Offer a Secular Society?

 

In many parts of the world, “Christendom”—the reality of the Church wielding political, economic, and/or cultural power—is over. Scholars may debate to what extent this is a good development for the Church or the world, but one thing is clear: in the West, the Church no longer exerts the influence on international, national, or even local events that it once did. Some (inside and outside the Church) have wondered whether it will have any role to play at all in society in the years to come. What can faith offer a secular society?

I’d like to share a reflection on this topic based on two readings that were part of my fellowship with the Newbigin House of Studies. This program is a nine-month online fellowship that provides theological formation by exploring the spiritual, public, and missional dimensions of the Christian life. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is a partner seminary for this fellows program, so the fellowship provides credit for PTS’s Master of Divinity and other degree programs.

In short, the readings described below reveal a crucial role for the Church moving forward: to introduce God’s priorities to corporations and governments that are otherwise guided by the logics of capitalism and State survival.

 

Wendell Berry on Ignorance

Wendell Berry is an American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer. I recommend all his writing—it is charming, insightful, funny, beautiful, and convicting. (You may even want to read Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven’s Earthly Life, co-edited by professor Roger Owens.) In particular, I deeply appreciated his essay, “The Way of Ignorance.” After describing various types of ignorance and knowledge, Berry lists four questions we always face as humans:

• Who are we?
• Where are we?
• What must we do to live?
• How can we work without doing irreparable harm to the world, creatures, and ourselves?

Berry’s contention is not that corporations and secular institutions merely cannot answer these questions—it’s that they don’t even ask them. Because these groups admit only certain types of knowledge (e.g. empirical data) while rejecting all others (e.g. tradition, intuition, conscience), they are susceptible to many forms of ignorance—particularly the ignorance that grows out of unbridled lust for money and power.

Here the Church has something vitally important to offer to society. It can ask these questions and help provide answers. Berry reminds us of the two pillars of the Hippocratic Oath: to help, and to do no harm. While every group—secular and religious alike—embraces the task of helping, because it requires only knowledge, it is perhaps the special role of spiritual communities to champion the cause of doing no harm. This commitment, Berry claims, will require a culture of humility and compassion.

 

Shirin Shafaie on Nuclear Policy

For a powerful example of what this special role can look like in the real world, let’s turn to a second reading. Shirin Shafaie is a teaching fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of London. In her article “’Bringing Faith Back In’: Muslim and Christian Approaches to Nuclear (Non)-Proliferation and Disarmament,” Dr. Shafaie highlights crucial contributions that faith leaders have made in influencing national and international nuclear policy.

In 1995, when the UN secretary-general asked the International Court of Justice whether the use of nuclear force is permissible under international law, the Court answered, “[we] cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.” Sadly, the ultimate priority of national and international bodies is State survival.

The Roman Catholic Church holds a unique position within the UN as both a religious tradition and a nation (the Vatican), but instead of pursuing State survival at all costs, they have voiced the need for human survival, along with pointing to the financial cost of nuclear weapons in the face of global poverty. While The United Methodist Church does not have such status as a nation, the tradition has not remained silent. On multiple occasions, the UMC Council of Bishops has issued statements condemning the possession and use of nuclear weapons. They grounded their position in the theology of shalom, describing it as “just peace,” a contrast to the common notion of “just war.”

There are many more examples of Muslim and Christian leaders engaging with this globally important issue. But let’s close here with Shafaie’s own words of observation and hope: “Far from being irrelevant or merely idealistic, faith leaders have in fact been perfectly capable of providing national governments and the international community with policy-oriented, theologically grounded, and morally substantiated analysis and recommendations for nuclear disarmament.”

 

Jon Mathieu is a master of divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a 2019-2020 Newbigin Fellow. While his background is in mathematics, he has been engaged in ministry in Pittsburgh for more than a decade. After years serving as a campus minister, ministry director, and writer in evangelical contexts, he is now following God into more expansive and inclusive visions for ministry. His writing appears at RELEVANT and Red Letter Christians.

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8/14 2017

When Faith Gets Political

Image Source: Getty / Chip Somodevilla

 

Years ago, I was serving as a short-term supply pastor for a very small congregation in rural Virginia. My third Sunday there fell on the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, so I decided to weave a couple of sentences from Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech into my sermon. It seemed appropriate, especially since I was preaching from the book of Amos that day.

The following Sunday, after worship, the head deacon pulled me aside and apologetically informed me that “some” people in the congregation were upset about my sermon from the previous week. When I asked him why, he explained that these congregants felt the sermon was “too political.” I was stunned, because I didn’t think my sermon was “political” at all. To me, it was simply a sermon about justice, a prominent theme in Amos: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

They’re getting “too political”.

As I watched events unfold in Charlottesville over the weekend, I wondered: on Sunday, will preachers who speak out against hatred and violence, and who publicly denounce the sin of white supremacy, be told they’re getting “too political”? I imagine many of them heard just such criticisms from their congregations.

But as my colleague Roger Owens has articulated so well (see “The Church—Political, Yes. Partisan, No.“), there’s a big difference between standing up for what we believe is right and pushing a partisan political agenda. I’ve spent the last decade of my life studying and writing about conflict in congregations, so I know that every community of faith contains a plurality of political ideas. I’m not suggesting that we try to force uniformity on every political issue. Faithful people often disagree on how we should order our common life, and that is to be expected.

Every person is created in the image of God.

Yet, over time, the church has actually reached widespread consensus on some things – and one of those is that racism, or any form of bigotry, is fundamentally wrong. It hasn’t always been this way, of course. In fact, for centuries many Christians justified the mistreatment and even enslavement of other human beings, often using the words of Scripture as their rationale. Gradually, though, we have come to see the truth that was there all along: that every person is created in the image of God and is worthy of respect, love, and care.

From this perspective, it is quite clear that any attempt to claim that some people are superior to others is a lie. It is a lie designed to sow division, to set God’s children against one another – and as such, it must be rebuked and resisted. This weekend I saw many courageous people rebuking and resisting the lie of white supremacy: the clergy members who peacefully stood their ground against armed white nationalists; the pastors and teachers who spoke out in their congregations; the citizens who used their voices to say, clearly and firmly, “this is not acceptable.”

And yet, in another sense, rebuking and resisting white supremacy feels like an awfully low bar – but it’s a bar that many white Christians (myself included) are often hesitant to cross. Maybe we’d rather not invite confrontations with our friends, neighbors, or family members. Maybe saying nothing feels a lot safer than speaking out. Maybe we’re afraid of being criticized for getting “too political.”

But the truth is: saying nothing is both a mark of privilege and a sign of complicity. Even if, deep inside, we believe that white supremacy is wrong and has no place in our churches or our society, no one can possibly know that is what we believe unless we say it clearly and show it plainly through our actions. As author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

It is our job to work for justice.

As Christians, it is not our job to push a partisan political agenda in our communities of faith. Our faith is founded on the lordship of Jesus Christ, not on membership in a particular political party. But as Christians, no matter what our political affiliation may be, it is our job to work for justice, to raise our voices and speak the truth in Christian love – even when it may be uncomfortable. As Christians, it is our job to call sin by its name and to engage in confession and repentance. As Christians, it is our job to affirm that every single person is a beloved child of God.

To be clear: this is not always easy to do. It takes courage to get up in the pulpit of a white congregation and preach against the evils of racism. But it also takes courage to call out offensive remarks or racist jokes at home or in the workplace. It takes courage to look carefully at our institutions and identify systemic patterns of racism embedded within them. It takes courage to name our own privilege and use the power we have to try to make things better for everyone, not just ourselves.

This is a time for moral courage. This is a time for telling others what we believe, for standing up for what we know is right. It is a time for proving that our beliefs aren’t just empty words, but rather deep convictions that move us to action. Some might call this “getting political.” I’d call it discipleship.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is associate professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.

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5/26 2016

The Church—Political, Yes. Partisan, No.

church and politicsI felt sheepish showing up to work on Tues., April 26 this year. I wasn’t wearing an oval American flag sticker boasting “I Voted” on my lapel—the one that has become the ultimate symbol of responsible citizenship. I had not voted and I wasn’t going to.

The fact is, I wasn’t allowed. Pennsylvania holds closed primaries, so as a registered Independent I’m not able to vote in them unless I join a political party, which I don’t plan to do.

Many years ago I heard the South African bishop and Methodist pastor Peter Storey, chaplain to Nelson Mandela while he was in prison and ardent opponent of Apartheid, warn pastors not to join political parties. The church, he said, needs leaders who are truly free, not beholden to a party platform or partisan agenda.

In other words: we need to be free from partisanship in order to be faithfully political.

The Church in Politics

There’s a myth that the church shouldn’t meddle in politics. But if politics is the way a community orders its life across time for the common good, then the church should meddle away, working to make sure the marginalized, ignored, and forgotten have a share in the common good.

What the church shouldn’t be is partisan. Partisans confuse their identities with the agenda of a party. Christian partisans mistakenly believe that the mercy, peace, and justice—the shalom—of God’s Kingdom can be captured by the narrow agenda of a political party. And when this happens, as it often has, the results can be disastrous, especially for the church as it loses the integrity of its prophetic witness.

When my friends in North Carolina—former colleagues, professors, and church members—head to the capital building in Raleigh each “Moral Monday” to witness against what they take to be the damage the state’s ruling Republicans have done to the poorest and the most marginalized in the areas of voting rights, education, and discrimination, they are doing this not because they are partisan Democrats (many of them), but because they see that such policies don’t live up to God’s vision for a flourishing society. They are being political, not necessarily partisan.

As soon as the church becomes a spokesperson for a political party, it has lost its freedom to be faithfully political in a society that needs Christians guided by a Kingdom vision of human flourishing for all, rather than the narrow agenda of a party.

I remember in 2003 protesting at the beginning of the Iraq war. I joined friends from seminary in downtown Durham, N.C., a town where it wasn’t hard to find people willing to protest anything George W. Bush thought was a good idea.

I had a Mennonite friend other protesters tried to avoid; I wasn’t even sure how close I wanted to stand to him. He didn’t fit in. People stared at his sign in confusion. It read:

A Consistent Christian Ethic of Peace: No War, Racism, Abortion, Euthanasia.

A sign as unwelcome in North Carolina as it would have been in Oregon—how often does that happen?

My friend didn’t belong to any party’s camp. In a way, he was protesting with the protesters, but protesting against them as well as he stood up for what he believed to be a culture of life in the midst of a culture of death.

However you feel about his positions, one thing is clear: his political engagement was anything but partisan.

What can we do?

And in an election year, we need to remember that voting is not the only form of political engagement.

As the theologian Holly Taylor Coolman has recently written, “We need a fully-orbed account of political engagement. Political engagement involves elections and governance and law. It also involves service and solidarity and principled protest. It happens at the national level, the state level, and the local level. It is a conversation with the next-door neighbor.”

True conversation with the next-door neighbor is hard. It’s even harder when the conversation happens from partisan trenches. But such conversation, along with other forms of political engagement, are necessary for Christians who seek to foster the common good.

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

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