This week’s reading of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World took some important twists before landing on it’s recommendations. He begins by easily identifying a common belief from both the American Christian left and the American Christian Right that Christians are called to change the world. He also traces multiple tactics towards shifting American culture towards reclaiming (?) Christian grounding as a primary strategy. Admittedly at this point I was bracing for a treatise on the value of American Christian imperialism. Fortunately a quick google search assured me that this was not in fact Hunter’s landing spot. However it did cause me to pause to wonder at how we safe guard sharing our faith from becoming an act of cultural imperialism. I was reminded of Erin Meyer’s admonition “When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less.” Learning to value another culture before sharing a Christian perspective would in fact allow us to recognise where God was already at work within it. It might also help us to recognise how to celebrate the value of those we are learning from. And so I continued to learn from Hunter as he moved through his recommendation of faithful presence as an alternative to baptised domination.
Hunter contends that “faithful presence in practice is the exercise of leadership in all spheres and all levels of life and activity. It represents a quality of commitment oriented to the faithfulness, wholeness, and well-being of all. It is, therefore, the opposite of elitism and the domination it implies.”  Such a vision leans into the image of the church as ‘salt and light’; going out into the culture, the world, with intentional presence. It is also a profoundly incarnational vision. Hunter is advocating for Christians to be active participants in community improvement. The benefits of this view can be traced through the history of Canada’s Universal health care.
Tommy Douglas began his career as a baptist pastor in a small town in Saskatchewan. During his preparatory study, he was highly influenced by the social gospel movement . His faith motivated him to both take up concern for all people, and to preach from this perspective as he led worship. His commitment to offering leadership that would nurture the well-being of all led him to political life, where he first served in the Federal cabinet and then returned to Saskatchewan where he served as premier. It was from this influential position that he worked toward universal Medicare. While there was tension between the doctors and the provincial government at first, Douglas’s efforts were fully realised by the end of his final term in office . Once the rest of the country witnessed the successful implementation of the system, the remaining provinces and territories followed suit. “The practice of faithful presence, then, generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness—not just for Christians but for everyone.” When are we more vulnerable than when we are need of medical attention? The primary sign Jesus offered of the Kingdom coming near was healing the sick, so Medicare is a logical imitation of the incarnational example of Christ. However, decades after Douglas’s greatest achievement, few would acknowledge their access to healthcare was connected to Christian influence. He also went on to serve as leader of the newly established New Democratic Party for a decade; a party that at its best, privileges communal interests, in particular the marginalised—often opposing the elite. (Whether they continue to be successful in this regard can be debated.) Douglas affirmed “We are all in this world together, and the only test of our character that matters is how we look after the least fortunate among us. How we look after each other, not how we look after ourselves. That’s all that really matters, I think.” At it’s inception it was highly influenced by the social gospel, and yet now, few would connect it with Christian faith. And herein lies the risk of working towards transformation through faithful presence. Once the good is achieved, how many will recognise Christ as an influence on the provision?
If the church loses her critical role in the sustainability of shifts that result from faithful presence, making a difference will be short lived. “Formation into a vision of human flourishing requires an environment that embodies continuity, historical memory, rituals marking seasons of life, inter generational interdependence, and most important of all, common worship.” Weekly worship attendance continues to decline in Canada, down to 20% in 2005 and presumably continuing on that trajectory. Even if we optimistically assume that those attending are all receiving that “vision of human flourishing”, this important site of cultivating faithful presence is necessary.
I agree with Hunter when he says “(t)he viability of Christian faith and the possibility of sharing that faith depend on a social environment in which faith—any faith—is plausible.” It is a reasonable strategy to contend for religious freedom both out of a vision of including the marginalised, but also to protect Christian freedoms. It rejects baptised domination. But it comes with a risk. The risk of Hunter’s proposal is not whether faithful presence will effect change. Tommy Douglas is evidence that it will. Instead the risk is losing Christ as the author and source of visioning in the midst of focussing on communal improvement.
1. Erin Meyer, The Culture Map (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2014), 22.
2. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 260.
3. “Tommy Douglas,” Wikipedia, February 22, 2019 , accessed February 28, 2019, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_Douglas.
4. “Tommy Douglas,” Wikipedia, February 22, 2019, , accessed February 28, 2019, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_Douglas.
5. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 263.
6.”Tommy Douglas Quote,” A-Z Quotes, , accessed February 28, 2019, https://www.azquotes.com/quote/819045.
7. Ibid., 283.
8. Colin Lindsay, “Canadians Attend Weekly Religious Services Less than 20 Years Ago,” Women and Paid Work, November 21, 2008, , accessed February 28, 2019, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-630-x/2008001/article/10650-eng.htm.
9. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 283.
10. Ibid., 263.