To change the world – James Davison Hunter
“I would suggest that a theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly….the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us-the community, the neighbourhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted. For most, this will mean a preference for stability, locality, and particularity of place and its needs.”
In Practise Resurrection, Eugene Peterson draws attention to the character of Mrs Jellyby in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. She is a character obsessed with helping the people of far-off Borioboola-Gha at the expense of her own household, husband, children and immediate environment, all of whom she neglects spectacularly . For, as Peterson writes, this “telescopic philanthropy” is much easier and more romantic that living a resurrection life in the here and now:
“the very heart of the church’s life is squandered into disembodied causes and projects in far-off Borioboola-Gha by men and women who give neither time nor attention nor touch to what is going on in their home and workplace. These men and women, the considerable progeny of Mrs Jellyby, are totally absorbed in making plans, gathering support and whipping up enthusiasm for what is dramatic, romantic, challenging gospel work – and far away. Too far away for personal, hands-on involvement. Meanwhile they are far too busy to engage in the glorious practice of resurrection in caring for their own children and keeping the household clean in the tedium of the ordinary.”
This appears to be very much the argument of James Davison Hunter. The efforts of Christians to “change their world”, to save America and its culture within a generation from its downward slide into secularism and godlessness is a false construct, a chasing after the wind. Whether the progressive Left or the conservative Right, Christians in America have been mistaken when they have tried to fight the culture wars by political means. The juxtaposition of Christianity with the nation of America is a false one, and the political means used to fight for Christian rights and beliefs – ultimately futile.
Hunter outlines the various responses of Christians over recent times to the loss of a Christian-influenced culture in America – “defensive against, relevance to and purity from” and ultimately argues for a fourth way – “faithful presence within”. For him, it is Christians living out a faithful presence in their community, their tasks and their sphere of influence that will ultimately make the difference, not some supercharged effort to change the political weather and to regain America for God. Christians must move away from “ressentiment”, from a theology of negation, and affirm and support anything and everything good in culture (Christian or none) while living distinct and different lives in contrast to the aspects of culture that are counter the kingdom of God.
What does ring true for me in all of this is a movement away from grandiose claims and statements of Christians that they are going to change the world, towards a more modest, ordinary, subversive, salt-and-light approach to live locally – in this place, with this people, at this time, recognising the gift of limits, being present in this moment, respecting this environment, seeing God’s Kingdom come here.
At the same time, we need wise leadership and strategic recognition that Christians are needed in all areas of culture, and that institutions remain highly important when it comes to influencing and changing culture. This is not the work of a generation, not a quick fix – but a long obedience in the same direction.
Changing the world as a concept is sometimes easier than changing me, or seeing change effected in a church or local community in which I live and practise resurrection, year in and year out.
It’s much more interesting and exciting to change the world than to change a nappy (diaper).
Now that’s a challenge.
 Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. 1st edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, 253.
 Peterson, Eugene. Practise Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2010, 229.
 Hunter (2010), 237.