Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love* *or by what we are against

Written by: on March 9, 2017

‘I’m ‘present’ – now get out of my way!’

In his book, To Change the World: the irony, tragedy & possibility of Christianity in the late modern world James Davison Hunter gives us a quite a bit to chew on and work through.  He levels powerful critiques against what he sees as the three dominant streams of Christian engagement with our culture: ‘Defense Against’, ‘Relevance To’ and ‘Purity From’.   Part of the power of these critiques is that he does not deal with them as abstractions, but rather locates each of them squarely within a stream of Christian tradition in the United States.

This tactic gives his critique something to sink its teeth into and Hunter, for the most part, makes a fairly convincing case.  The danger, of course, is that real examples can often be turned into straw men for the sake of making a good point and one suspects (and reactions to his work support) that the targets of his critique within the ‘Christian Right’, the ‘Christian Left’ and the ‘Ne0-Anabaptists’ would take issue with some if not much of what he argues.

‘Saying with a T-shirt is way easier than with our actions….plus Capitalism!

As good authors almost always do much of Hunter’s critique is delivered to form an appropriate counter to the alternative that he proposes.  Hunter proposes what he calls ‘Faithful presence’.  I think this is, first a great name and second very sound theologically.  It also has a certain air of familiarity to it where it almost feels as if you have already heard it or it makes you wonder if you haven’t actually already heard it….
[In fact, I wasted – I mean invested! – a solid hour trying to find out if that term was widely used anywhere before it’s usage by Hunter here….. I didn’t find that it was, but I did find a newly released book by pastor and professor David Fitch entitled Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission’  that seems to build on the idea…]
While I think this is a important path for 21 century Christians to be walking down, it seems to me that the real issue is one of interpretation.  One suspects that most of those in the groups that Hunter is critiquing, while likely using different language are striving to be faithfully present in our current context.  The difference is, of course, found in what that looks like.

Hunter asks: how do the movements of historical Christianity in contemporary America measure up to the configuration of factors that I believe create conditions conducive to cultural influence ? (Hunter, Kindle location 1605)  This desire to be influential is a natural one and one that you might argue is clearly mandated in the Great Commission.  Another way to describe this cultural influence is to talk about ‘changing the world’ – which, despite the title of the book, Hunter suggests is incredibly difficult for an individual to accomplish.

It is out of this desire for influence that the ‘warts’ of Christian expression grow.  This week I was watching a show where the main character stated that all of her friends (20 somethings living in NYC) are entirely defined by what they hate, that they formed their identity around what they were against.

It strikes me that this is often true of our Christian identity in america as well – especially as it relates to our engagement in politics, which as Hunter points out, has become our primary way of cultural engagement – we are often organized against something:  The ‘Religious Right’ or as they often are referred to in secular political discourse today simply: evangelicals . . . . are primarily (fairly or not) identified as being: anti-abortion/choice; against marriage equality, etc.  Even when they try and come out ‘for’ something, like religious freedom, it is often in poorly chosen circumstances that can be framed as being ‘against’ other faiths.

You can always count on Monty Python

But, before my more progressive friends get too full of themselves, (And here I think Hunter is right on), the ‘left’ of Christianity ends up mirroring the conservative right – as a logical response to one another.  It is probably important to note, that I think for the vast majority of people it is despite best intentions on both sides.  People want to be faithful and are trying to be present and represent their faith in a meaningful way, but they often end up defining themselves over and against the other as opposed to for something else.  The perfect case in point here being that the call ‘for’ tolerance often itself becomes intolerant of opposing views.

It is all very reminiscent of scene from Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Bryan’ where various Jewish factions: the people’s front of Judea; the Judean people’s front, the people for a free Judea, etc…. all united in their distaste for Roman rule only ever end up fighting with each other over which small points they disagree on.   As a proud Presbyterian – a denomination that has ‘split’ literally dozens of times just in this country alone (there are currently 29! different denominations in the US – which doesn’t include any that dropped the name).

It strikes me that this is the heart of the matter for all of us – regardless of how we choose to define faithful presence. As long as we are defined by what we are against we can never change the world – but if we strive to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, then we must constantly be doing the hard work of making sure that we are for God, for others, for justice, for grace, for mercy – even (and especially towards those we might call our enemies) – this is, of course, complete foolishness in the eyes of the world and it isn’t a ‘winning strategy’ in the political realm, but it is the only way to truly be faithfully present in the world in the way of Jesus Christ and as a witness to God’s transformative love – which, in spite of our own powerlessness – is fully capable of changing, transforming and remaking this world into the kingdom of God.

This is where the example of Jesus is paramount (I mean, I guess, when isn’t it….): Our model for presence needs to be the incarnation.  Jesus came and lived among us or as Peterson puts in THE MESSAGE Jesus ‘moved into the neighborhood’.  Hunter says that the incarnation is foundation for faithful presence:

For the Christian , if there is a possibility for human flourishing in a world such as ours , it begins when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us , is embodied in us , is enacted through us and in doing so , a trust is forged between the word spoken and the reality to which it speaks ; to the words we speak and the realities to which we , the church , point . In all , presence and place matter decisively . (Hunter, Kindle Locations 4672-4676)

Presence and place do matter and each of us has been placed in a particular place and time.  The most faithful thing we can do is to be present where we are – like Jeremiah – and be open for the power of God’s Word become flesh to change us – where we are and to change the world in and through us.

About the Author

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

11 responses to “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love* *or by what we are against”

  1. Mary Walker says:

    Yes, I agree Chip. It’s too easy to define ourselves but what we are not. It seems to fit in with our proclivity to set up we/they situations. I also think there is a desire to belong to something and to think our group is the best. Leaders of course are never guilty of pumping up the flock by pointing the finger.
    I sure enjoy your posts!!

    • Mary, you are definitely right – we deeply desire to be ‘right’ and ‘good’ and it is so much easier to tear down the ‘other’ so that we can look better in comparison…. this is the counter-intuitive freedom of the gospel – we can’t measure up on our own and it isn’t about a comparison to those around us (so we don’t have to worry about that), instead it isn’t about us at all – it is about Jesus – which is where our salvation and justification is found

  2. Stu Cocanougher says:

    “As long as we are defined by what we are against we can never change the world.”

    That is a mark of leadership. Inspiring people to right a wrong or fight an enemy can be a good thing. But what happens when the war is over?

    As I look back at history (including church history) great warriors often make lousy leaders in peacetime.

    • Katy Lines says:

      What happens when the war is over is what’s occurring in South Sudan right now. The various people groups of SSudan were united against a common “enemy” (Northern/Arab Sudan). When the war ended, they quickly remembered they hated each other and have rediscovered a “new” enemy in their former allies. Hence, a civil war.

  3. Beautifully put Chip: “…but if we strive to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, then we must constantly be doing the hard work of making sure that we are for God, for others, for justice, for grace, for mercy…”. I like the concept of faithful presence too. Simple, but profound for developing relationships with attachment and security. It allows us to just be present and ourselves as we consistently show up to live our lives with others.

  4. Geoff Lee says:

    There’s a new dating app just come out that tries to put people together more by what they hate than what they like- they think they will be much more successful.
    There’s a real challenge here as we seek to be a loving and faithful Christian presence in the world AND to stand up for Biblical truth in a post-Christian culture. If you speak into any of the current controversial areas against the liberal orthodoxy you are immediately labelled “-phobic” and handed your head back on a platter.
    I do like Hunter’s emphasis on affirming as much as we can in culture – Christian or no. The more we can speak for certain things rather than against the better.
    Great post Chip.

  5. Jim Sabella says:

    Chip want an insightful statement: “As long as we are defined by what we are against we can never change the world…” I agree. If that is our distinguishing quality then our message has become a pounding drum and clanging symbol. The only message that brings hope for change is the message of Christ. And He requires of us three things which should be our distinguishing qualities, do justly, love mercy and walk humbly. Thank you Chip.

  6. Your statement, “Presence and place do matter and each of us has been placed in a particular place and time.”
    I agree with your statement. Our presence is significant and the timing was instrumental by God. We all were created for a purpose. Some of us are world changers. We have many to look at Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy, and more. We also had those who had a negative effect.
    The churches impact on our political system I believe has pushed us into a world of hurt. They are feeling empowered and believing they are the world.

  7. “People want to be faithful and are trying to be present and represent their faith in a meaningful way, but they often end up defining themselves over and against the other as opposed to for something else.”
    Wow, this is so true, Chip. In this political maelstrom, I have heard over and over and over again that the reason my Christian friends voted for 45 is that he would “stop abortion” unlike the “baby killer.” Even when I brought up all of the other things that may be destroyed in the process, the AGAINST was so much more powerful than the FOR in terms of the greater good. There is little love on either side of the debate and we as Christians are doing more to fracture the culture than to change or rebuild it.
    Earlier this week I overheard (eavesdropped) two women talking on the bus about Christians in their community and it broke my heart. Words like “closed-minded” “bigoted” “uneducated” and other even less flattering terms were used. I assumed (wrongly) they were talking about the election, but they were talking about a local school board town hall in which a group of Christian parents had loudly opposed just about everything they (teachers, I later found out) supported for the district. These weren’t even controversial things like sex-ed. I know that is only one district in one city, and I know another school district where a group of Christian parents is rallying around teachers and schools to get funding and supplies that can’t be afforded. The problem is that, when one group of people refuse to practice faithful presence, it has a much larger impact than one group of people who do practice it. Word of mouth is a powerful thing.

  8. Katy Lines says:

    1. I agree that you & I make very similar points in our posts. What can I say? Great minds.

    2. Your first image struck (nearly literally) me ironically– on the highway this afternoon we were cut off by a speeding SUV sporting a “Greg Laurie Harvest” sticker (a popular church here in OC). Nice statement, driver dude.

    3. Incarnation– tenting among us. Jesus’ example speaks strongly against the recently released Benedict Option, which calls for withdrawal and regrouping.

  9. Chip great post. I felt like I was listening to one of your Sunday sermons. “Presence and place do matter and each of us has been placed in a particular place and time. ” Yes I think it is important to state the contextual nature of our ability to influence others everyday. I do think that we must also consider the challenge we face in not having a unified understanding of “faithful presence”. This had led to the cultural categories Hunter addressed in his book. Although, his categorization of each was a bit of a stretch, I do think that each group feels as though they are in some way accomplishing this but unfortunately the world has yet to see or bear witness to their influence because it has not really exemplified Christ and his Kingdom in a faithful way.

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