Saturday, March 3, 2012

Conversion & Justice

I think our prayers are sometimes too tame. Tame, yes, through lack of faith or theological imagination; even tame for lack of zeal. I think "feeling it" is relevant to our petitions. It's not everything, but it's not nothing. And I'm preaching to myself.

But it's not even these things which have been bothering me lately. I only just put my finger on the fact that much of our prayer--especially corporate prayer--is misdirected. Or rather, not focused on the center of the church's relation to the world: "Your kingdom come." I am hard pressed to think of any truly God-centered prayer which is not somehow included in that simple petition.

I in no way want to downplay the church's identity as a gentle and healing presence in and among the world, but it seems to me that predominantly construing our identity in those terms too easily colludes with the entrenched sinful ways of the world, too easily relegates the church to the role of chaplain to the status quo.

On the other hand, there can be a kind of attempt to engage the status quo--the vast self-preserving web of socioeconomic, racial, political and personal realities we call society--that is well-meaning but misguided. Not everyone will know what I mean here, but there are times when people want to pray for our world in ways which intend "kingdom come" but are really just manifestations of their personal passions and interests.

What I want to say to everyone is that our corporate prayer life should mostly be about conversion and justice. I'm leaving aside, for the sake of this post, how our corporate prayer life intersects with our primary Christian calling to love God with all of our hearts. I assume anything and everything relevant to that must necessarily be central to our personal and public Christian lives. But right now I'm ranting about something that bugs me, so I'm not going to talk about the other stuff right now.

There is a big hurting world out there and its two biggest needs are the intimate knowledge of God leading to holy love and the loving charity of its Christian resident-alien neighbors. It's easier, I think, to engage personal and family-system oriented concerns; easier to engage broad and impersonal social concerns (i.e. the decline of public morality, abortion), than it is to hone in on where the rubber meets the road of "kingdom come." I am emphatically not saying that Christians should not be invested in broadly impersonal social concerns, or that the typical concerns of boomer "moral majority" Christians are illegitimate. I am also not saying that intensely personal pastoral work doesn't matter--just ask any one of my seminary faculty who has served me pastorally these past two and a half years whether or not I should be able to grasp the blessings of that ministry. I am simply disturbed by what I see as secondary concerns or corollary concerns displacing the "rubber meets the road" of kingdom come.

I know that many of my fellow seminarians and (post-)evangelical twenty-somethings have been hurt by the church specifically because they focused on conversion and justice and left sensitive pastoral care by the wayside (and often gave undue prominence to those moral majority social concerns). I speak as one among your ranks. But I fear throwing out the Messianic baby with the bath water. We need all of these things. And I know that many of us have a deep-seated fear of being identified with George W. Bush and everything he represented (this fear is why I think Blue Like Jazz was such a hit), but that doesn't mean that conservative, congregational evangelicals get everything, or even most things, wrong.

I am deeply thankful to the biblical and spiritual values I received from my fundamentalist-charismatic church and home life. I also had to run away from them (the communities, not the values) because they were driving me crazy. But, as my friends doing an independent study on American denominationalism have learned, it's the Baptists and Methodists who evangelized this continent. I have to ask myself whether that or the status quo looks more like the Great Commission.


Rebecca said...

... Yeah. The fact that they evangelized the continent, finally contextualizing the gospel into the language of the common people, is a good thing and a work that always needs to be continued.

The fact that they unreflectively syncretized theology and politics? That was a crime of ignorance from which we still haven't recovered.

Mike Radcliffe said...

Koyzis's Political Visions and Illusions is especially helpful on that point.