No more “redeeming the culture” or “Advancing the kingdom”?

From Christianity Today magazine, May, 2010

James Davison Hunter says our strategies to transform culture are ineffective, and the goal itself is misguided.

In an interview and discussion of his book Christopher Benson | posted 5/14/2010 09:09AM:

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World


Christians need to abandon talk about “redeeming the culture,” “advancing the kingdom,” and “changing the world.” Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care—again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn’t new; it’s just something we need to recover.

Benson summarizes:

Hunter critiques the political theologies of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists, showing that unlikely bedfellows—James Dobson, Jim Wallis, and Stanley Hauerwas—are all “functional Nietzscheans” insofar as their resentment fuels a will to power, which perpetuates rather than heals “the dark nihilisms of the modern age.”

If the “will to power” is more Nietzschean than Christian, perhaps he has a point.

But he also is aware of the wrong way to read his critique:

Well, the title of my book is ironic, because I’m trying to disabuse people of changing the world. We cannot control history—God alone is its author. We’re accountable for our actions as individual believers and as a body of believers. The nature of that accountability is clear from Scripture, theology, and history. The point is not to change the world but to serve faithfully in our relationships, tasks, and spheres of social influence.

One of my worst fears about the reception of this book is that my proposal for “faithful presence” will become a bumper sticker for personal pietism. The default mode for Christians is to translate everything into their own experience. Faithful presence is not the work of the individual alone but also the individual in concert with the community.

If the will to power expresses itself in coercive action, how might Christian faithfulness provide an alternative approach to injustice, discrimination, poverty or other public problems?  Hunter provides an analogy – which is creative, authentic, and yet perhaps also insufficient:

What would a post-political gesture look like in the pro-life movement? Borrowing an example from a friend, imagine ten thousand families signing a petition in Illinois that declares they will adopt a child of any ethnic background and physical capability. If they wanted to do something spectacular, they could go to city hall for a press conference, announcing that in the state of Illinois there are no unwanted children. That would be a public—but not political—act. Such an act leads with compassion rather than coercion.

OK, but the question I am left with is, are there any unwanted people in Illinois, or Alabama or wherever?  Is it only babies that make us feel warm and fuzzy about people in need?  How do the problems of the inner city contribute to the huge numbers of unwanted pregnancies?

This is stimulating because it raises the level of discussion; shrill tones convince no one, and thankfully there are ways to discuss these important issues.


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