Monday, April 22, 2013

Challenging the American Christian Public System: Review of A New Evangelical Manifesto-A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good

*Originally published in Englewood Review of Books

No matter how many times I read about evangelicals, their history, their theology and their current work, I find myself struggling to piece it all together, to explain who they are and how they came to be.  Perhaps it is because it is not a centrally defined movement and so much of its history and faith is nebulous in that it started in different places by different people who acted in different ways with similar core beliefs.  In the introduction to A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good, editor David P. Gushee offers his definition of evangelicalism as a foundation for the essays that are to come:
“…evangelicals are spiritually serious, theologically orthodox, evangelistically engaged, morally earnest Protestant Christians, members of hundreds of particular denominational traditions and tens of thousands of congregations all over the country." (p. ix) 

In this characterization, Gushee does not explain what evangelicals believe but rather wishes to define the movement as a wide variety of adherents apart from the most radical sects within, usually identified as right wing conservatives and fundamentalists. 
Gushee prefaces this book by saying that it sprang out of the work being done by the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.  His hopes are that the essays contained within would promote the principles of the mission statement of the organization.  It is too long to reprint here, but I will include portions of it that I think are necessary to understanding the particular stance of this group and their aims in the collective essays.

“Christians by definition are those who bear witness to our faith in Jesus Christ….one way is to offer proclamation and action concerning the moral will of God for human communities…some Christian moral witness occurs at national and international levels, where many significant challenges to human well-being are often created and addressed.  Christians have no choice but to engage religious, economic, cultural, and political institutions with our best efforts to articulate and embody the love and justice of Jesus Christ for the well-being of God’s world.” (p. x)

Specifically, the NEP wishes to engage the world in these ways: 
“We want to see Americans to choose to believe in Jesus and live as his disciples.  We see that the evangelistic and discpling work of American Christianity has been badly damaged by a generation of culture war-fighting-some doubt Jesus…because of Christians...We want to see an engagement of Christians in American public life that is loving, rather than angry; holistic, rather than narrowly focused; healing, rather than divisive; and independent of partisanship and ideology, rather than subservient to party or ideology.  We see in many sectors a Christian public engagement that calls itself Christan while often damaging the work of Christ and violating the teachings of Christ…We want to see a Christian public witness that reflects the actual life, ministry, and teachings of the Jesus Christ we meet in Scripture and expience in the church at its best.” (pp.x-xi)

The book is a collected series of essays that are organized into three sections:  “A New Kind of Evangelical Christianity” which looks at a broader view of the state of the church today, “Leading to Holistic Love of Marginalized Neighbors, Such as…” which addresses the ways in which evangelicals are currently working with those in our society and world who are marginalized, including human traffic victims, Muslims and women, among others, and “…and Redemptive Approaches in Public Life” which explores Christian interaction with some of the hot button issues of the day, including the death penalty, nuclear weapons, consumerism and torture.  (pp. vii-viii)
Within each section, various authors and leaders within the evangelical movement offer their thoughts and interpretations on certain issues affecting the church today.  Some of these essays were penned by notable evangelical leaders including Brian McClaren and Richard Cizik, former “Vice-President for Governmental Relations of the National Association of Evangelicals.” (p. 26)

Cizik’s chapter on “My Journey toward the ‘New Evangelicalism’” is particularly interesting, in part because he is one of the founders of the NEP, as he recounts the tumult that came into his life when he was abruptly fired from the National Association of Evangelicals over some comments that he made on NPR (thanks public radio!).  What, pray tell, did Cizik do that was so incendiary as to remit his immediate dismissal from the position that he had held for ten years (and for an organization that he had worked for twenty-eight years)?  He mentioned in an interview on Fresh Air that he could support civil unions between gay couples and that he had voted for Obama in the 2008 Virginia primaries, which revealed his alignment with the Democratic Party, a mortal sin to many in the conservative wing of American faith. (p. 27) It was from the rubble of this situation that Cizik began to form the New Evangelical movement. 
Within this chapter, Cizik describes the beliefs of “New Evangelicals” which I find particularly helpful in understanding both who they are and the impetus for this book.  “We believe in (1) the authority of Scripture as the Word of God; (2) the virgin birth, saving death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus; (3) the  call by our Lord to be born again; and (4) the command to share that faith with others.” (p. 30) He then explains what makes the “New Evangelicals” new:  the commitment to “reaching out beyond our own constituency to be “bridge-builders” with others for the sake of the public good,”(p. 30) and the commitment “to not politicize the church.”(p. 31) 

Cizik’s experience speaks to a dichotomizing shift in the evangelical movement between the elders, who define themselves as “The Moral Majority” and the guardians of Christian America, and the newbie’s who desire to have a less polarizing influence in society focused more on emulating the life of Jesus than enforcing right beliefs.  His essay paves the way to how subsequent essays deal with and reverse the way that evangelicals have addressed certain people groups and issues in the last century. 
Regarding new perspectives on marginalized people, some chapters, such as chapter 8 on human trafficking, are very good, exposing the hidden slavery that our nation has been largely ignoring for decades and challenging the church to “accept our role as bold transformers of society.” (p. 79-80) 

Not all chapters are winners though. Chapter 9 on “Those Suffering from Preventable Diseases,” does not explore the scope and depth of the issue, so much as it serves as an advertisement for the work of the ministry “His Nets.”  For a group that often times gets ignored or stigmatized (I’m thinking specifically of those affected by the AIDS epidemic) this chapter was not handled very well.  Though, this will inevitably happen with any anthology. 
In section three on new approaches to many issues affecting the American public, the authors boldly challenge the traditional positions held by evangelicals.  In chapter 16 on “Ending the Death Penalty” (gasp! goes the crowd), author Timothy W. Floyd challenges that Christians ought to seriously consider whether this form of “justice” is at all in line with the will of God and the testament of Jesus.  He writes:

“Moreover, trusting the state to make the “right” decision as to who deserves to live and who deserves to die is problematic for Christians.  It is idolatrous to trust in government as the ultimate giver and taker of life.  Although many Christians cite Paul in Romans 13:1-7 as endorsing the power of the state to take life, Romans 13 should be read together with Romans 2 immediately preceding it, which counsels Christians to not repay evil with evil nor to exercise vengeance.  The government has a proper role in restraining evildoers (as Paul acknowledged), but deciding who deserves to die is properly reserved only to God.” (164).

Floyd’s proper contextualization of Romans 13 is a breath of fresh air to the Christian movement which has stood oppressed under this Scripture by the idea that the state’s authority lies above Gods commands.  To me, this statement seems more Anabaptist than evangelical, and to the author I say “hear hear;” thank God that someone is willing to stand and say that not all things “American” does not mean “Christian.”  He continues in saying:
“The death penalty is often justified on the ground that certain people are wholly evil and are   incapable of redemption… Christians should reject this notion.  Believing that certain persons              are so evil that they do not deserve to live is not faithful to the biblical witness about humanity. A biblical view of human nature insists that no one in this fallen world is beyond the possibility of redemption.  God’s mercy and grace are available to all.  Indeed, we are commanded to love  our enemies precisely because God loves them.” (p. 165)

Again, Floyd makes good use of the evangelical claim of following “Biblical” commands, turning it on its head and showing how the Bible does indeed support what is sometimes relegated to the camp of “liberal.”
Overall, this collection of essays serves the purpose of introducing the church to a new way of thinking evangelically.  In line with the evangelical tradition, it contains many different voices sharing similar perspectives.  It challenges the modus operandi of a movement which has swept the American church at an incredibly appropriate time in our history.  As the nation continues to divide over what might be called “right” and “left,” “conservative” and “liberal,” we need a new voice which seeks to unite two polarized positions.  This is not necessarily THE manifesto of the New Evangelicals, so much as it is a roadmap that points to what New Evangelicalism is and what it might be able to do.  While the public sphere fights over how Christians should feel about DOMA and drone strikes, these authors seek to allow the life of Jesus, rather than emotionalism, determine how to interact with these and other issues. 

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