In the last century, our social order has been radically desacralized. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described this as a “world come of age,” in which Westerners attempt to manage life without God. Sociologist Philip Rieff deemed this a third era in world history, an age in which social order has been severed from sacred order and in which the West’s cultural institutions and products are “deathworks” that bring destruction and decay to society rather than life.
What is true for the West in general is true for the United States in particular. Orthodox Christianity has been decentered socially, culturally, and politically. Although we have made incremental progress in our advocacy for the unborn and for certain other causes, at the same time our society has embraced destructive views on gender, sexuality, and family.
As America’s roots in Christianity are severed, we must unify and learn to minister effectively, even from the margins. When the newly-risen Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he showed them the holes in his hands and side, indicating that they would face opposition in their public witness just as he had. “If I reigned from a tree,” Jesus effectively said, “then you can minister from a tree also.”
Indeed, when the crucified and risen Lord ascended, he left behind a new community, the church, to bear witness to his kingdom. This church gives political witness when it gathers on Sunday to declare that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, and also when it scatters throughout the week into the various sectors of society and culture. Corporate worship on Sunday morning prepares us for public life on Monday morning. It affirms and forms God’s people as ambassadors of the risen Lord. But how can God’s people witness faithfully and effectively in a desacralized public square? I would like to suggest four ways to think about witnessing from the cultural margins.
When I speak of a desacralized or “secular” public square, I do not mean that most people are atheists or that religious language has disappeared. I mean, as Charles Taylor has argued, that Christianity has been displaced from its former position at the center of society and that our culture now sees orthodox Christian beliefs—especially those concerning gender and sexuality—as implausible, unimaginable, and even reprehensible.
In this situation, God’s people must cultivate the type of word-and-deed witness that continually points to the true nature of our cosmic King. Although our secular neighbors have heard of Christ the King, many or most of them imagine him differently than he really is. We must find ways to introduce them to him.
To do this, we can make clear that the Bible’s narrative of the world—rather than any cable news network’s narrative—is the true story of the world. We can identify the idols that haunt our public square, showing their counterfeit nature as gods and their untrustworthy nature as saviors. We can make clear that our ultimate allegiance is to Christ rather than to any political ideology, party, or leader.
Decentering the Self
As we center the conversation on God as he truly is, we must decenter the self. We can do this by seeking the good of the city rather than merely the good of our own political party, ethnic group, or social class. We can be concerned not only with the truth of our social and political stances, but the disposition and demeanor through which we communicate that truth. Truth without grace makes one a political bully; grace without truth makes one a political wimp and nonentity. We must not represent the gospel of grace in ways that undermine the gospel.
Reframing Disputed Issues
When we pledge ultimate allegiance to Christ and take seriously the Bible and its transcendent moral framework, we will often find ourselves able to reframe disputed public issues in imaginative and persuasive ways. Although we might come to the same conclusion on an issue as our secular counterparts, our way of framing the issue may be different. On other issues, although we may agree about the framing, our conclusions will be different. In freeing ourselves to be distinctive when the situation demands, we, God’s people, can regain the integrity and strength of our voice.
Revitalizing Cultural Institutions
Many of our nation’s institutions have become “deathworks.” While revitalizing them seems a daunting task, and while not many of us can “move the needle” in big institutions that dot the political, legal, educational, and commercial landscape, we can work toward positive change in certain core cultural institutions.
As Mary Eberstadt has argued, the disintegration of the family has led to the disintegration of the public square; let us work, therefore, to strengthen our own families and those near to us. As many have noted, the weakening of our churches has led to spiritual and moral degeneration in society at large; for that reason, we can and must commit to strengthening and serving our local congregations or parishes. Moreover, through our workplace vocations, we can play a role—even if small—in revivifying our broader cultural sphere, whether in art, science, education, politics, or commerce.
When Christ returns to set the world to rights, his people will meet him first and foremost as Christians. But we will also meet him as Americans. For this reason, and with the desacralization of our public square in mind, we must embrace the call to be public witnesses, even from a position of social, cultural, and political weakness. If the cosmic king of the universe could reign from a tree, then we his ambassadors can minister from one also.
Bruce Riley Ashford is a fellow in public theology at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics and author, most recently, of The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach.
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