Thursday, August 26, 2010

Chicago Versus Barmen

My son sent me a link to the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, a 1973 document composed by evangelical luminaries with a social justice orientation, including Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Lewis Smedes, plus others whose names I did not recognize. I looked up the others. They seem like nice people.

I expected that the declaration would start with general principles of Christian social action that were not especially controversial or arguable, and then overreach in what followed to unwarranted conclusions. That makes for interesting discussions, certainly. I also expected, because of the word “declaration,” that it would carry echoes of the Barmen Declaration, Karl Barth’s courageous confessional statement in Germany in 1934. I wondered if these would be echoes more of style than of substance.

I was wrong on both counts. The Chicago Declaration goes subtly wrong in the first paragraph, embedding worrisome assumptions in the rest of the document. Sentence two doesn't really follow from sentence one here.
As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm that God lays total claim upon the lives of his people. We cannot, therefore, separate our lives from the situation in which God has placed us in the United States and the world.

I take such statements apart by putting them in other contexts. If a document is consonant with Christian doctrine, then it should hold up, with appropriate modification, from the mouths of other Christians in other times and places. If it does not, then there are red flags.

I cannot fit this declaration in any way into the words of Jesus. I cannot imagine Paul writing this, nor Augustine, nor Aquinas. That is not an automatic write-off, of course. We can justly and honestly extend words of Scripture to new situations, deriving truths for today from ancient truths. In fact, this is what we are called to do. But those little red flags go up again. We can perhaps imagine Luther, Calvin, Wesley, or John Paul II venturing into these discussions. They are closer to us in time, and wrestled with political and social questions as they applied to the Church.

There is always an enormous difficulty in making a general rule, as the situations in which Christians have some political influence and those in which they have none may call forth different responses. Whether we consider that The Man in Jesus and the Apostles’ day was the Roman power or the Jewish religious authorities, it still remains that the early Christians did little or nothing to influence them in how they should corporately behave. That would suggest noninvolvement. But most Christians have lived in times and places where at least someone in the Church had power, sometimes dominant power, and we developed a whole set of guidelines for that. The contradiction for social justice types is if they want to point to the first few centuries as pacifist because they were noninvolved, then it rather undercuts their claim that we should be involved when it suits them. You can’t have that both ways.

Though as in all complex things, it may not be either-or, and there may be ways through the swamp.

As to Barmen similarities, there were no especial echoes. Presumably the 1973 signatories would approve strongly of the 1934 document. Certainly there is no requirement that they echo form or style, but I don’t find the newer document cutting so deeply to the root as the earlier one, as here.

8.25 - 6. "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Matt. 28:20.) "The word of God is not fettered." (2 Tim. 2:9.)
8.26 The Church's commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ's stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.
8.27 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.
We acknowledge that God requires justice. But we have not proclaimed or demonstrated his justice to an unjust American society. Although the Lord calls us to defend the social and economic rights of the poor and oppressed, we have mostly remained silent. We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the body of Christ along color lines. Further, we have failed to condemn the exploitation of racism at home and abroad by our economic system.
I will note additionally that the Religious Left often portrays itself as a counterpoint to the Religious Right, formed as a necessary corrective to the excesses of Falwell and Robertson. (I wonder who the left would quote if they didn’t have those two knuckleheads? Perhaps other knuckleheads would rise.) The date on the Chicago document would suggest that the opposite is true.

There’s more to say on this, because I don’t think the 1973 document is entirely wrong. The Religious Right does indeed often defend a traditional religious culture, and hence a status quo, rather than the eternal gospel.


Texan99 said...

"Defending the social and economic rights of the poor" is not a concept I associate with the Gospel at all. Mercy towards the helpless poor and widows and orphans, certainly. Also, a very troubling, and repeated, exhortation to divest ourselves of property and security, which can only distract us from God. But I strain even to imagine Jesus speaking of the "social and economic rights" of anyone at all. The Church doesn't exist to enact whatever "social justice" means.

Surely we'd all do better to worry about what we ourselves freely give, and a lot less about what others are forced to give. If complacent security in our own wealth is spiritually dangerous, I don't see how complacent security in the government dole is preferable.

This is also an example of what Lewis referred to as the "Christianity and Spelling Reform" syndrome: Christianity as a tool to some secular purpose.

Anna said...

Great point, Texan. I grew up in relative poverty so I have very right-wing views on poverty policy and very little use for the DHS (spit). Gets me labeled as "heartless" more often than not but I call it how I see it. I think history will prove opinions like my own closer to reality (if it hasn't already).

jaed said...

That kind of conspicuous and self-righteous calling out of Other People's Sins makes me want to bellow "Tend to your muttons!" It always comes in the guise of "repenting our sins", but strangely, it always turns out to be finger-pointing at someone else, someone less enlightened. Sometimes this someone exists in history, sometimes in the present day, sometimes the someone is nonexistent and actually is made of straw, but it's always Someone Else, not Us. We deplore Other People's Sins. We have sinned in Failing to Denounce Other People's Sins. Forgive us, O Lord, for failing to adequately condemn Those Other People Over There. I thank thee, O God, that I am not as other men are, racists, heartless capitalists, materialists, or even as this Republican.

Bah. Don't these people read their own holy book? Or can't they see themselves in a mirror?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

jaed, I was thinking of going exactly there, after I had already posted this. I had planned a different criticism of the Chicago Declaration, but I was coming around to thinking that this was a better one.

You put it very well, better than I had. Unfortunately, CS Lewis puts it better still. See my next post.

jaed said...

He surely does put it better, but he didn't manage the pun on "publican", I bet. ;-)