It was impossible to read James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World without considering recent events both locally and nationally. Two weeks ago a sudden and unexpected mudslide wiped out a small community in Washington State, leaving devastation and death in its wake. Care and compassion have been expressed in tangible ways by the Christian community through churches, individuals and organizations providing counseling, provision, comfort and significantly providing funeral or memorial services regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof. World Vision with headquarters in Washington State, a well-respected Christian humanitarian organization announced a change in hiring practices through Christianity Today. The initial response in local media was matter-of-fact. Since World Vision is based a short distance south of Seattle you would expect local media to pick it up. What was unexpected was the firestorm that quickly ensued among evangelical Christians. (A momentary pause, how could they not think it would matter?). Not long after the Gospel Coalition quickly responded citing the “worldliness” of World Vision. It has since been reported by World Vision’s President, Richard Stearns that in two days 10,000 sponsorships were dropped, people answering phones were verbally harassed. It is no wonder that World Vision reversed their decision. Sigh. Then in this past week a shooter on a Texas military base kills three. Without great fanfare news reports also mentioned the aid provided by a military chaplain.
Interestingly these three examples illustrate reaction and response buffered by faithful presence. Reading To Change the World gave me insight not only into the tone of what was written and the perspective on display, but also my own reaction and response. A deep breath.
Within the last seven years I have come to realize that I was a born, raised and fed fundamentalist. Not intentionally If you had said I was a fundamentalist I would have disagreed; I was Evangelical! (Stomp foot for added emphasis and clarity). That was certainly true, but my framework, my perspective and most of all my understanding of Scripture blurred the line between the narrowness of fundamentalism and conservative Evangelicalism. Through the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s James Dobson’s words and ministry, Focus on the Family did much to shape and undergird my Christian beliefs. However as I began to branch out, coaching high school girl’s basketball and eventually doing work in recreation and community partnership my perspective began to change. I could no longer see through the lens of “us” versus “them.” Hunter’s words expressed the sentiment I once embraced, “America belongs to people of faith… It was there faith that provided the spiritual and moral foundations for America’s greatness.” This was a righteous battle, no doubt about it. I shared the conviction that the key was in the judicial system.
What I did not recognize was the underlying motivation anchored in fear and control. The desire to bring healing to our nation was anchored in America returning to Christian belief. So I wonder did the end justify the means? Hunter wonders if the Christian Right movement also has “generated greater hostility toward the Christian faith than ever before in the nation’s history?” The challenge is what do we draw our identity from? If it is what we are against, as a fight against secularism then how does that inform one’s identity?
If the Christian Right was fighting secularism, surprise, the Christian left (including progressives) aimed at combating the damage of the Christian Right. I’ll be honest I had not fully acknowledged that for each group the staging area is within the political realm. Is the Christian Left using the same language as the Christian Right? Is the “first order of priority to take back Christianity from those who would pervert it?” Have we lost our way? Did our desire eventually change our purpose and focus?
It is fascinating how language is used to articulate the different layers and meanings, especially in the realm of politics and political action. In the neo-Anabaptist movement a compelling feature is a “set of commitments for engaging the world.” Jesus’ actions are seen through the lens of political action. Language involves what we say, what we mean, as well as what we do and the manner in which we do it.
The language and means Hunter offers as a way toward God’s shalom is through faithful presence. “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.” Perhaps the word generate is what resonates most deeply. Relationships and institutions both come forth from the practice of faithful presence. Although there was a certain sense of not knowing exactly where to really put the neo-Anabaptist camp I see hopeful signs of movement toward faithful presence. In a few weeks there will be a gathering of people, communities, churches and non-profits for the Inhabit Conference as part of the Parish Collective. A defining hallmark of the Parish Collective is presence, in community, in relationship, committed to place.
As I read To Change the World I was reminded of Jesus encounter with the Samaritan woman. There are familiar aspects in this story, ones that we recognize or have been reminded of time and again. The time of day when the woman came was not the normal time for drawing water. Jesus spoke and carried on conversation with her, something that just was not done. What we often miss is that Jesus put himself in need of her. He asked her to draw him water. Jesus was not powerless, but he demonstrated the proper use of power. He empowered. Being in need of the other may help us to develop genuine relationship.
We can continue to wage the war in the media, we can continue to put our focus on what defines and distinguishes us, or we can engage in the costly and life giving means of faithful presence as it is carried out in so many places – bringing the community together for prayer and comfort or aiding others out of harms way. Today I crossed from my comfortable home to serve soup and listen to a man tell me that he misses his mother. I feel the tension between where I live and how I live and those I am becoming more at home with. I confess I stopped and started trying to figure out how I would write this blog post. The books that impact me the most I find the hardest to write about. “The practice of faithful presence, then, is the incarnation of a kind of leadership that realizes in the relationships we have, in the tasks we undertake, and within the actual places (both physical and social) we inhabit, the shalom that comes from God and that is God in the person of Jesus Christ.” I am still processing, letting the challenge and opportunity sink in.
 Oso, Washington landslide occurred on Saturday, March 22, 2014. Catholic Community Services has announced it will pay for funerals. Accessed April 4, 2014 http://heraldnet.com/article/20140403/NEWS01/140409729/Catholic-church-to-help-with-funeral-burial-costs.
 The Gospel Coalition Blog. Accessed March 26, 2014. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2014/03/25/the-worldliness-in-world-visions-new-hiring-policy/.
 Refer to Matthew Paul Turner’s Blog posted dated April 3, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://matthewpaulturner.com/blog/.
 World Vision U.S. Board Reverses Decision. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.worldvision.org/press-release/world-vision-us-board-reverses-decision.
 This report was attributed to the Ft. Hood Base Commander on evening news reports. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/03/fort-hood-hero_n_5087039.html.
 Defining aspects of neo-Anabaptists are it’s “intellectual apologias, it plays out more in theology than in practice more in political sensibilities than in institutional structures.” Ibid., 150.