“Acclaiming Jesus, as Lord plants a flag that supersedes the flags of the nations, however ‘free’ or ‘democratic’ they may be. It challenges both the tyrants who think they are, in effect, divine and the ‘secular democracies’; that have effectively become if not divine, at least ecclesial, that is, communities that are trying to do and be what the church was supposed to do and be, but without recourse to the one who sustains the church’s life” (Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright)
N.T. Wright is not primarily focused on the church’s approach to public life in Simply Jesus. If anything Simply Jesus is a precursor to a longer book on Christians in the public square and culture. Yet, we get glimpses of where N.T. Wright is going. One of the more thought provoking pieces comes at the end.
Wright briefly makes mention that secular democracies are taking up space that the church ought to be in, except that western cultures and states are not accountable to the one that sustains the life of the church. It’s a pretty bold statement. Democracies that are not explicitly accountable to Jesus are in some ways shadows of what real life and real society ought to be. Cut off from the fountainhead of Life our cultures may run adrift.
You can see this drift in our national discourse. The state is now primarily concerned with the care of the poor, with the protection of the environment, with product safety, and even with the protection of the consumer from financial transactions (think sub-prime mortgages). Yet when you take a look at the program implementation you see that programs aren’t always helpful in lifting the poor out of poverty, products and drugs are still occasionally recalled, and consumer protections become less robust over time.
The state is taking on more and more social protections that it is not designed to do effectively while the church is less and less engaged with understanding these matters or programs. We have two big reversals. The state is becoming more like the church, while the church is content with abdicating its role to the state. Instead of becoming an innovator of ideas that life up communities of poverty, or a leader in advocating for fair lending, the church is mostly on the sidelines. Or let me put it another way, the more God’s people do to solve the problems of poverty, stewardship, and ethics the less the state will need to do.
Now don’t get me wrong the church is heavily engaged in compassion ministries. We are on the front-lines of care for the least of these, we are growing in our stewardship ministries, and many of us know that people do get taken advantage of and also make bad decisions with their finances. I am not talking about awareness or number of programs, I am talking about the ideas that go behind the programs and initiatives that are out there. How do we transform local communities? We need to be much more engaged with our own ideas and we need to be aware of current policies and programs. That’s the level of robustness that is needed, because these problems aren’t just the isolated problems of individuals they are the aggregate problems of society. We need the wisdom of business and the wisdom of the local community. We need to know economics as much as we need to know social dynamics and program effectiveness. It’s not either or on the challenges that face us. It’s both and. The church can be a safe place for these discussions, because if you can’t have these discussions at church, where else will they happen? If we are God’s people, let’s take that role seriously when it comes to our social challenges.
There are some real questions on how much the church should or could take up in extra programming for the poor, but at the very least we ought to more fully advocate for the poor. We can be on the frontier of innovative thinking. We can stand for basic fairness. The church can be a signpost to another way of living even if the implementation will always be carried out by sinners and less than perfect institutions. If anything the church can have those liabilities in mind when engaging publicly.
Our whole system is supposed to be based on checks and balances, which assumes the worst possibilities in human intention and nature and yet still produces a process to govern.
Ultimately this isn’t what Wright is writing about, what he is doing is helping us remember that ultimately we are all accountable to the Lord of Life, Jesus himself. Such a starting place would help clarify and simplify how we should proceed in the realms of life.