While I have a minute today, I have been working through James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World along with another book which I think is the right theological companion to it, and it turns out that Chuck Colson has published a “response” to Davison’s book at Christianity Today. After all the PR for the work of Colson’s conservative social activism, the money quote comes here:

That brings me to my biggest concern about Hunter’s argument: The “faithful presence” he advocates most likely will result in Christians remaining silent in the face of injustice and suffering. Instead of seeking the welfare of the city in which God has placed us, we are indifferent to its decay and that decay’s impact on the life of our neighbors.

This isn’t a logical necessity: Faithful presence doesn’t per se require silence and indifference. But I’m hard-pressed to come up with an historical example of quietism and commitment to fighting injustice going together. And it is insensitive to the social and cultural context in which Christians are called to live out their faithfulness.
Now, re-read that a couple of times before you go forward here because it’s a more than a little absurd.

Let me explain and disclaim something first: If anyone reads into this post as a denunciation of Chuck Colson, well, that’s what happens on the internet: people have to find something to complain about. For the record, Chuck Colson does good political work for the sake of our country. He finds things that really matter in our society and our world and wants people to do something about them and not just sit on their hands, and I admire that. He is also plainly a believer in Jesus Christ, even if his public proclamations which involve theological categories usually make me more than a little itchy.

However, I am not a fan of Colson when all things are said and done, and the reason is in the very next paragraph of his CT essay:
In his Christianity Today interview, Hunter said, “When Christians turn to law, public policy, and politics as the last resort, they have essentially given up on a desire to persuade their opponents. They want the patronage of the state and its coercive power to rule the day.” I doubt he would have said that to Dr. Martin Luther King or to William Wilberforce when they waged long and heroic battles against injustice.
In the first place, this is not an argument: this is a supposition – and, I think, a bad one. Comparing Wilberforce and King in this way is a randy and enthusiastic mixing of serious distinctions.

For example, with all due respect to Dr. King, he did not share the theological presuppositions of Wilberforce. Wilberforce’s spiritiual mentor throughout his most rigorous political battles was John Newton – who is well known as a staunch confessional Anglican. More to the point, Wilburforce was convinced that while laws may restrain the evil-doer, societal change was only truly possible through conversion in faith which would cause men to resist radical causes and revolution. Dr. King, however, was first and foremost a populist in politics, and saw the appeal of democratic socialism if he was not in fact a socialist. His view of government as a coercive and frankly authoritative voice in society came before his commitments to the second birth and evangelism as tools of reforming men and therefore their societies.

And it is in this where Colson makes his critical error in this discussion, and in what is ultimately the debate over what the church is and what it is meant to do in and for the world.

In Colson’s view, evangelism is in the best case a partner with social activism – which is certainly Dr. King’s view, but not so much Wilburforce’s view. But Hunter’s critique of this is summed up in his book thus:
To the extent that collective identity rooted in resentment has been cultivated and then nurtured through a message of negotiation toward “the other,” many of the most prominent Christian leaders and organizations in America have fashioned an identity and witness for the church that is, to say the least, antithetical to its highest calling. … The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians – and Christian conservatives most significantly – unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry.
Colson does not address this in the least, and continues down the same path he has been on for decades: marrying the church to a political social agenda which, in the end, is not a partner with the mission of the church but a much later consequence of the mission of the church.

Now: here’s what I sat down to post before all of that necessary preamble – it is utterly faithless (but, to be clear, not necessarily damnable) to say what Colson says in criticism of Hunter’s point. For Colson to say that “the ‘faithful presence’ [Hunter] advocates most likely will result in Christians remaining silent in the face of injustice and suffering” demands that the reader interpret 3 things which, I think, are indefensible coming from a person who says Jesus has died for our sins and is raised from the dead to be both our Lord and Christ:

[1] It assumes that somehow “faithful presence” is itself a passive ethic. Let me use a radical example to explain why this is absolutely indefensible: there are no places in the world where there are Mennonite or Amish communities where the community is not greatly impacted for the better and the presence of those living the radical solution is not obvious and active to those not in the radical solution. There are certainly faults among the Amish and the Mennonites – they are human, after all, and not caricatures or demigods. But the historical example of these communities speak so loudly and boldly against the “do nothing” conclusion Colson offers that one has to wonder if he’s serious about challenging the position Hunter is offering.

[2] It ignores the value of evangelism in Colson’s core ministries. Listen: when Colson is at his best, he has established a parachurch platform for local churches to draw resources from in order to convert the lost in prison and turn them away from their sin and their path of present corruption and eternal damnation. At his best, Colson has his arms around the lost for the sake of the Gospel, and a heart for people who otherwise are going to hell. But his criticism here completely neglects that the foundation of the great wins his ministry has produced in these prisons is primarily to make of men something new in Christ, and not to teach them more law so that they have more rules to follow. Colson’s solution for men in prison is a faithful presence for them from those who believe in Christ.

[3] It makes the church far subordinate to the parachurch, which is an inversion of the Bible’s economy and polity of the world. That statement deserves a week’s worth of 10-page blog posts, but I will settle for saying this: when the day comes that we as Christian have made our local churches into museums for the Gospel where it is displayed but never taken down into the street to save a lost person, and we call that a “faithful presence,” we will not be good and faithful servants: we will be Pharisees of the highest order, sons of Benjamin, taught by the greatest of teaches, who count all that as silver and gold rather than filthy rags in comparison to Christ and his work for those who are lost rebels. However, then, we define “the work” or “the presence”, let it never be in such a way that our first objective is ever obscured by our other concerns for other human beings. We are right to want to save people physically from danger, but the greatest danger to them are their unrepentant souls – something you cannot legislate away.

Hunter’s challenge to we who call ourselves Christian is this: our engagement is first to save the souls of our enemies, and therein save their bodies and their homes and their properties. If we seek to first save men’s bodies and their homes and their property, we will never get to their souls.

Articles by Frank Turk

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