Most disciples of Jesus would profess that churches are called to make a public witness to Christian faith. But it seems that more and more of us disagree with what that witness should look like and how it should function. What does it mean for the Church to testify to the truth of Christ Jesus?
I’ve recently come across a review of a yet-to-be-released work by Jennifer McBride called The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness. McBride is a theologian and author who teaches at Wartburg College in Iowa. The review and an accompanying interview with McBride are in the December issue of Christian Century. But — D’oh! — I can’t link you to them because the articles are only available online if you’re a subscriber. I’m intrigued by the interview, written and conducted by David Heim. And I’d like to spend this space this week breaking it down. Yes, I’ve ordered the book. So, there may be more of this coming in a couple of weeks.
In response to Heim’s first question, asking the author to elaborate on an assertion that Christian public witness has gone bad in the United States, McBride says:
“The main problem is that Christian presence in public life tends to be triumphalistic. The purpose of Christian witness is to point to Jesus and the reign of God he embodies, but a triumphal presence actually contradicts Jesus’ way of being in the world as depicted in the Gospels.
The triumphal character of Christian witness has contributed a good deal to how polarized our society and churches have become. Christians so thoroughly disagree about war, sexuality, ecological care, immigration and other issues that we wind up on opposing sides of the political spectrum. This is cause for great concern, because partisan politics ends up defining what is Christian; it shapes the way we think and speak about public issues.”
I’ve wondered a lot about this in the past dozen years or so. The Church that I see and experience in the heart of the Bible Belt in the Southwest United States has become so politically juiced that it’s become difficult to think or speak theologically if one Christian’s understandings of Gospel oppose another Christian’s understandings of country or patriotism. Have you noticed? Some Christians will unapologetically claim that one cannot be a true disciple of Christ if she belongs to a certain political party or adheres to a certain political belief. Farther along, and worse, in my judgment, is the way the Church’s identity has been compromised by our embracing the world’s politics. We have become so entangled in the sheets and blankets of the dirty bedrooms of American politics that we are labeled as “right wing” or “conservative” or “Republican” by outsiders we’re trying to convert to Christ. Non-Christians are attaching to the Church the same corruption, deceit, ethics, and behaviors that characterize the worst kinds of politicians. “Tea Party” and “Christian” are becoming synonymous in our culture. And we have only ourselves to blame.
Who do we think we are, seeking or claiming some kind of privileged status in the government or in American society at large? What makes us believe it’s good to force others — by boycott, insult, petition, million-dollar campaigns, attack ads, holier-than-thou attitudes, pamphlets, protests — to live by the same standards we profess as Christians? Why are we so surprised that the more the Church gets caught up in this world’s politics, the more noise we make about legislation and ethics, the louder we claim to have all the answers for how everybody in the world should live, the less and less interested the world is in Christians? Is it really any wonder that society is hostile to us?
You’ve noticed, right? Generally speaking, Christians are now portrayed by the media and understood by the culture as angry, anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, shove-it-down-your-throat, power-hungry, politicos. It wasn’t too long ago we were merely thought to be irrelevant. Too nice. Too naive. Now it’s become just the opposite. Pay attention to our general attitudes. Notice the worldly lengths to which we’ll go in order to get our way. Christian prayer has to be mandated in the public schools, but not Muslim prayer. Christian marriage has to be recognized as legal, but not homosexual marriage. The Ten Commandments must be displayed on the courthouse wall, but not the tenets of Buddha. Christian churches should be exempt from local and state taxes, but not a mosque. Really? Should the Church of Jesus Christ be seeking or claiming some kind of privileged status in government? Should Christians receive more and better benefits from the world’s governments than anybody else? On what basis? At what cost?
We are setting ourselves over and above others, claiming by our words and actions to know more and to be better than everybody else, in direct contradiction to the way our Lord lives on earth. More from McBride:
“We tend to think that as the sinless one, Jesus distinguished himself from sinners by setting himself up as a model of ethical perfection. But Jesus was in solidarity with sinners in at least three main ways that define his person and work.
First, as God incarnate, he assumed sinful flesh, as Paul says in Romans 8:3. He took on human nature’s damaged state and through his body became intimately acquainted with the complexity and messiness of fallen existence.
Second, he begins his public ministry by being baptized with sinners in response to John the Baptist’s call to repent and in this way ‘numbers himself with the transgressors’ (to use Isaiah’s language about the suffering servant).
Third, and finally, refusing to be called good (Mark 10:18), he instead accepts responsibility for sin as a convicted criminal on the cross. Throughout his ministry Jesus denies any claim about his own moral righteousness and instead actively accepts responsibility for the world’s sin and suffers on the cross out of love for fellow human beings.”
What would it look like for the Church to be in solidarity with sinners? To identify with sinners? To be one with sinners? To recognize every day our own sinfulness in the presence of sinners? To sympathize with, to minister with, to be seen with, to learn with, to walk alongside sinners? What would that look like? How would that improve our Christian witness? In what ways would it transform us more into the image of our Lord? How might it change the world?
Seems to me, it’s got a much greater chance of making an impression than another angry ad or fiery Facebook post.