Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Joining the Manhattan Conversation

The ripple effect of the recent Manhattan Declaration continues to grow across the blogosphere. In case you missed it, the MD (full version here) was released as an "Historic Declaration of Christian Conscience," issuing a "clarion call to Christians to adhere to to their convictions," and informing "civil authorities that the signers will not - under any circumstance - abandon their Christian conscience." Penned by Chuck Colson, Dr. Robert George and Dr. Timothy George, it was originally signed by more than 125 Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical leaders. Thousands more have signed it since.

The MD begins with a historical overview of the Church's social consciousness, including the many times they have "defended the weak and the vulnerable and worked tirelessly to protect and strengthen vital institutions of civil society. . ." It then goes on to list the three big issues they call all Christians to support:

1. sanctity of human life
2. dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
3. rights of conscious and religious liberty

As is to be expected, reaction has been mixed, with some hailing this as a historic new day, while others, Christian and non-Christian alike, see it as a bit more troubling.

Fred Clark calls it "Fatuous Foolishness." He categorizes it as "wince-inducing misplaced self-importance and lack of perspective," making the case that "Their own awesomeness is a topic the authors address with relentless relish."

Hugo Schwyzer calls it a scandal, full of "smugness and cheap grace." He concludes that it "is an exquisite example of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called 'cheap grace.' Those who sign it, embrace it, and live out its call can comfort themselves with the thought that when they campaign against same-sex marriage and women’s health, they are doing the most important work in all of God’s kingdom. Changing how they spend, how they travel, how they eat — the really challenging things — are rendered irrelevant by comparison. This is a scandal and a shame to the body of Christ, and deserves bold and prophetic repudiation."

Brian McLaren says it's more of the old adage, "doing the same things and expecting different results." He takes serious issue with Colson's argument that these three are THE top three issues all Christians should be worrying about.

Scot McKnight has publicly endorsed it. And the comment stream following that endorsement is an education into the varying underlying beliefs and opinions of a whole host of people, Christian and otherwise.

John MacArthur chose not to sign it, stating that it doesn't present the gospel clearly enough; in addition, it doesn't recognize the "fundamental conflicts of doctrine and conviction with regard to the gospel and the question of which teachings are essential to authentic Christianity." In other words, since it includes Catholic and Orthodox leaders and scholars, Evangelicals ought to stay away.

John Stackhouse calls it a "waste of everybody's time." In fact, he says it is "strangely useless." He argues that it "gives no clear direction about what anyone is supposed to do once they have read it." Furthermore, he states that "it is not clear to us that such declarations, and the outlook that prompts them, really increase non-Christian willingness to respect conservative Christian concerns, let alone to seriously entertain any proclamation of the Gospel."

That's probably enough of a sampling for today, don't you think?

So, joining the ranks of Stackhouse, McKnight, and MacArthur, here's my opinion on the matter.

First, I agree with the underlying premises behind these three points. I believe as a child of the Giver of Life I am called to an ethic of life, of recognizing that all of life is a gift of God. We do live in a 'culture of death,' and Christians need to be working harder at affirming and supporting a life-giving way, from conception to the grave. I also believe in a scriptural ethic for marriage as the life-long union of male and female, and have pointed out elsewhere that I believe anything less than that is damaging to society. And I believe, as a Christian, that it is important to behave in a way that is consistent with my conscious, just as I believe it should be for people of other belief systems.

What I do find troubling, though, is a phrase that seems to be quickly brushed over.

While the whole scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions.

In other words, "Yes, we need to be concerned for poor and vulnerable people, but that's just not as important as abortion, gay marriage, and freedom of religion."

Which, in at least 2/3 of this issue, seems contrary to the gospel. In fact, the religion that Colson et al want to practice is supposed to be made up of caring for the poor and the vulnerable, not in making public pronouncements about social concerns, nor in fighting for government recognition. When I look at the story of Jesus laid out in the gospels, when I read stories of the early church, they didn't publish papers and issue policy statements regarding the 'sinful ways of those pagans;' instead, they reached out in compassion to the poor, to the widows, to the orphans in their distress. This very document lays claim to that story:

. . .we claim the heritage of those Christians who defended innocent life by rescuing discarded babies from trash heaps in Roman cities and publicly denouncing the Empire's sanctioning of infanticide.  We remember with reverence those believers who sacrificed their lives by remaining in Roman cities to tend the sick and dying during the plagues, and who died bravely in the coliseums rather than deny their Lord.

And yet they now interpret that heritage as fighting gay marriage and demanding religious freedom. I think they got that part wrong.

Is 'fighting for' traditional marriage a good cause? At its root, I would say yes. But I would also say we need to be really careful about what we mean by "fighting." Public declarations such as this probably won't do much to win the hearts and minds of those in the other camp.

Is 'fighting for' religious freedom a good thing? I suppose so, although I don't see it as a cause championed in the scriptures. For thousands of years the church has survived and thrived in places lacking in religious freedom. It seems the greater question is not "how do we maintain the freedoms we've loved," but "how do we live as the people of God no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves."

Is 'fighting for' the sanctity of life a good thing? Absolutely. And the one place in this document that I heartily endorse. But even here there is a shortfall; the document explicitly addresses abortion and end-of-life issues. Yet it remains silent on the larger concept of a culture of violence surrounding this culture of death. We live in a land in which the economy spends billions on exporting violence, we are currently involved in two wars, our entertainers regularly fill our lives and minds with images of death, rape, mutilation, and torture, all in the name of 'fun.' I don't think you can divorce the abortion discussion from the larger pool we're all swimming in, as if it is its own unique discussion. So long as we use violence as a draw to movies and television shows, so long as we use tactics of alienation and affinity to sell products to consumers, so long as our first response to attack is to fight back, so long as we keep selling the message that "it's all about you!," we will never win the hearts and minds of people with our call to affirm life.

So, to conclude. They meant well. They have offered us a great discussion starter. But their declaration on our behalf that this is The Definitive Statement smacks as a little bit of posturing. And their insistence that fighting for religious freedom is more important than looking after the poor and the vulnerable is simply wrong.

To that end, I'm choosing not to sign. But see me standing on the floor enjoying and engaging the discussion, rather than simply dismissing the MD.

1 comment:

Cathy said...

I am with you up until condemnation of the wars we are involved in. You can question the hows of these wars - but the ultimate objective of these particular wars is to save and preserve life and freedom. While not our primary Christian mandate as individuals, neither is defending the oppressed by ridding them of totalitarian governments frowned upon in scripture - it just isn't the objective of the church.