What Do We Do Now?
by Rick Nowlin
In the light of the last presidential election and the ramifications thereof, where do we "progressive evangelicals" who fit into neither political camp go today? We despise the carnage of abortion, rail against the abuse and addiction that is pornography, and lament the decline of the family, just like the "red-staters" who went strongly for George W. Bush. On the other hand, we sympathize with Democrats in reviling the wasteful war in Iraq, grinding poverty and recalcitrant racism, not to mention Bush's consistent mendacity and ideological rigidity, both of which go against my idea of Christian character.
Perhaps we've reached the point that, if we want the kind of just society that we believe the Scriptures call for, we have to look to God Himself to pull it off. And since we know He will never share His glory or sovereignty with another, that's just the way He wants it.
But let's be honest. The truth is that, in human terms, we "progressives" don't have a lot going for us today. We don't have the fund-raising ability or political connections of the cultural conservatives. We don't have an inflammatory message that demonizes and scapegoats our opponents. We don't have their well-funded media, including influential books, magazines, pamphlets and broadcast outlets. Essentially, we don't have a product to sell in a culture where selling is everything, even when it comes to religion.
That in a nutshell is why our task is so difficult. As the late Sydney Harris wrote in his essay, "The Negative Character of Power": "A positive program is rarely able to summon enough political or social power. A campaign based on decency, generosity, rationality, farsightedness and constructive proposals does not rouse us to action. Every politician has known this since the Romans began feeding Christians to the lions." On the other hand, what we do have is a trust that, if we are obedient to the Lord, He Himself will glorify our efforts toward the "shalom" He desires and His efforts cannot but succeed. Of course that's all we need, but we can't expect things to happen right away. Although he was ultimately successful, William Wilberforce spent his lifetime trying to get slavery banned in Great Britain; for what we say God wants, it may take no less from us.
For that reason, if we are to become an "alternative" evangelical voice, we have to be truly "alternative," not just in goals or agenda but also in character. We cannot afford to shout down our enemies or question their faith, tempting or legitimate as those activities may be, the way many conservatives do with us. We can afford neither to see our critics as implacable enemies we are obliged to destroy nor misrepresent what they are saying. We cannot afford to get too close to people and organizations who reject the Lordship of Christ over all of life but who may agree with us on one or two key points such alliances have secularized and thus practically killed the originally God-ordained civil-rights movement and will eventually damage the "religious right" down the road if they haven't done so already.
In short, we need to be the incarnation of the "amazing grace" John Newton wrote about in that classic hymn. You see, the cultural conservatives, as much as they love to talk about "getting back to 'God'," don't really believe that the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Gospel, is sufficient to transform lives and, thus, societies in their view, He needs a little "help." That's why they have placed essentially all of their eggs in the baskets of the transformation of culture and politics with direct action but will ultimately fail (indeed, have already failed). Because their aim is cultural authority, not ministry, they lend themselves to shortcuts that look and sound good on the surface but lack any eternal Kingdom value.
So what do we do differently?
First and foremost, seek the Lord through prayer, thorough reading of the Scripture not just the parts we favor and corporate worship (and fasting might help). These should be a given; however, it's always tempting to "move ahead" of God by coming up with potential strategies that He is not obligated to bless. As I mentioned before, our attitudes and motivations must always be pure, and our focus must remain first on God's purpose and second on the benefit of others, not on starting a popular "movement" for our own aggrandizement. The first sentence of the Rev. Rick Warren's popular book THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE is this: "It's not about you."
Be willing to serve. Nothing is more effective for Christian witness than helping your brother "beside the road," whether you go to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or participate in a clothing drive.
Listen to our critics and accept their advice if necessary, which means reaching out to them. You never know God may be speaking through them as well.
Withstand people who flatly oppose our message and given the current political climate, you best believe that some will. We will be ridiculed as utopians; some of us have already been denounced as "socialists." Our message of biblical reconciliation likely will be denounced in print, on the airwaves and even in hostile pulpits as "soft on sin." Persecution is inevitable for the serious Christian, of course, even from those who may identify themselves as believers.
As I said before, we need to be in this for the long haul, and we likely will not live to see our aims reached. But electoral or cultural victory is not our aim; faithfulness to our Savior is the important issue.
Rick Nowlin is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and ESA member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.