Church & State

July 30, 2012

In Colombia, the church (as in universal) has been actively involved in addressing the issue of internal displacement. As you may recall from my May newsletter, an estimated 5.2 million people in Colombia are displaced, one of the highest displacement rates in the world (second only to the Sudan). Displacement is typically attributed to natural disasters, armed conflicts, government policies, or human rights violations. Internally displaced people in Colombia account for 11 percent of the nation’s population, and 19 percent of all internally displaced people globally. Once displaced, victims are exposed to violence, rights abuses, and limited access to shelter, food, education, and health care. The church can help by offering assistance with food, clothing and education, empowering the displaced through accompaniment programs, and advocating for political change. It can do any one of those things, or all of the above … which is what it is currently doing.

As I think about the churches’ response to displacement in Colombia, I’m reminded of past discussions in the church regarding the Vietnam War, revolutions in Central America, inner-city poverty, and so forth. One of my own personal struggles over the years has been when the church becomes engaged in issues of advocacy and activism, as opposed to only providing solace in the face of the immediate problem. If we’re honest, I think we’d all admit that this is one of those struggles that we all have to face at some point.

Faith in Action

I think we tend to ask ourselves if it’s appropriate for the church to “get involved” in a particular issue. Then once we decide on whether or not it’s appropriate to become involved, we struggle with what that involvement should be. Do we provide assistance to those affected, do we support those affected in fighting for change, and/or do we fight for change on their behalf? But at what point do we feel an obligation, as Christians, to speak out against what we perceive to be oppression and/or an injustice?

I think we should ask ourselves in what ways our reading of scripture, our faith stance, etc., inform and/or support a particular political position? Then once we have a position, we may all agree that it’s okay for the laity to take a stand, but then ask, “Is it okay for clergy to take a political stance, too?” Next, how do we deal with opposing sides of an issue, when both claim a sound theological foundation for their perspective?  Do we throw up our hands and exclaim, “Even the Devil can quote scripture,” in an attempt to dismiss and demonize our opponent, or do we face the reality that an analysis based on scripture, tradition, and reason is messy, takes work, and can lead us to different conclusions? For example, I might take a pro-choice stance at church in support of a women’s right to choose a safe abortion as an issue of women’s rights, a reflection of my particular faith stance, while at the same time another cleric down the road might take a stance against abortion, making an argument for a right to life for an unborn child, which is in direct response to his/her faith stance. Who’s right? Are we both right? Do we both have a right to try and sway political decisions? Or should we both stay out of politics, and trust that the politicians can, and will, make a decision based on legal statues and not a particular religious perspective?

Faith in Action in History

Before anyone gets too excited, let me be clear that I’m not talking about the current culture wars in the U.S. Don’t fool yourself into thinking this issue is new; it’s not. At one time in history our decision process was mediated in the West by the Roman Catholic Church, in that when everyone was Roman Catholic the church could essentially make the decision for us. Post Protestant Reformation, however, we’ve had to struggle with these issues independently … and you’ll note I said “we,” as opposed to the “non-RC.” My Roman Catholic friends and colleagues would say that while they obviously have a responsibility to respect the perspective of the church, they, too, take the time to struggle with the same issues as the rest of us, after which they decide whether or not they will stand with the church. An example of this is on the issue of same-sex marriage. The Roman Catholic hierarchy has taken a strong stand on marriage as only between a man and woman, while recent studies indicate that a vast majority of Roman Catholics in the US (70%) support the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Just wars, slavery, civil rights, anti-poverty, and so forth … there are plenty of issues on which people of faith can find scripture, tradition, and reason to support a perspective. In many cases, though, those perspectives might end up being on opposite sides of an issue. Scripture was used for centuries to justify slavery. Likewise, communities of faith, armed with scripture, were active in the anti-slavery movement. It doesn’t take much to see that people of faith can easily find themselves on either side of an issue.

The Social Gospel Movement

For many years the church has been trying to discern when and how faith informs political action. For example, the abolition of slavery movement might be considered the beginning of what became known as The Social Gospel movement. The Social Gospel movement was a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that applied Christian ethics to social problems, and was most prominent in the early 20th century United States and Canada.  Its focus was on issues of social justice such as excessive wealth, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Social Gospel leaders would have been considered theologically liberal, but by today’s standards, fairly conservative on social issues. An example of issues taken up by the movement, leading it to be politically active, was labor reform, such as abolishing child labor and fighting against the 12-hour workday. While most scholars agree that the movement peaked in the early 20th century, many others would say that the Social Gospel movement played a role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

I think it’s important to note here that even those who saw themselves as part of the Social Gospel movement were not unified in what that meant. Leaders, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, used expertise in Biblical ethics and economic studies to preach theological claims around the need for social reforms, while others felt that taking up specific social issues was a mistake and not what the church should be doing when the heart of the church’s work should be focused on saving souls.

Struggles in Faith Becoming Action

Ever since my early college days I’ve struggled with when faith should shift into action. I appreciate that we can accompany, companion and pray for the poor and oppressed, and in some cases provide sustenance through clothing and feeding programs, for example. But then we have to ask ourselves when that, in itself, is an insufficient response. Is our job only to console, or do we have a responsibility to work toward change? If we don’t actively advocate and join the struggle for justice, will things ever change (and should that matter)? As Christians, do we have a responsibility to work toward change? … to work toward solutions to systemic problems? … to work toward justice for all? … to work toward God’s Kingdom? Does scripture have anything to say about unjust political and economic structures? Does scripture about God’s kingdom inform us and guide us in our discernment of when faith needs to be transformed into action?

As an Episcopalian, the question is not whether we should speak out. In fact, in the 2009 General Convention, the church adopted Resolution D027, the Five Marks of Mission. The fourth mark reads, “To seek to transform unjust structures of society.” To me, that’s clear that justice involves more than “responding to human need by loving service” (which happens to be the third mark), but requires active socio-political engagement, since that’s the only way I think we can transform unjust structures.

At a church speaking engagement prior to beginning my time of service in Colombia, a woman asked me if I would work toward systemic change while I was developing social programs to support those in need. To be totally honest, I wasn’t sure how to respond to her question. My tendency is toward advocacy and systemic change. But, working as a missioner in another country, and being in holy orders, the answer to that question isn’t so straight forward. And, frankly, this raises yet a different issue for me with regard to political action. I question whether or not it’s my place to engage in systemic change in Colombia, or anywhere else for that matter, except in the U.S. That’s not to say that I don’t agree with systemic change, or activism that might lead to change. On the contrary, I think I can, and do, support those who advocate for change. But empowerment and accompaniment as a missioner aren’t about “my doing,” but rather in supporting, and making it possible for Colombians to “do.” I also struggle with whether it is even appropriate for a foreigner to be a socio-political activist. In addition, given the rise in poverty in the US (we’ve slid back 50 years, with poverty being at the highest rate since the 1960s), the failure of our political system to protect us from social and economic injustices, and the failure and paralysis of the U.S. federal government (can you say, “budget?”), I don’t think I’m in any position to tell anyone else how to fix their social and political problems. … A certain scripture about taking the log out of my eye comes to mind here.

Bottom line … these issues are part of our spiritual journey. I don’t have the answers. I think all of us, as individual Christians, and collectively, as a church, have an obligation and responsibility to struggle with where and how our faith might, and should, inform and encourage our engagement in social and political activism. We’re called to serve and heal the world, responding to human need, but also to act, to transform unjust social and political structures. With any luck, our discernment will lead us to stand on the side of justice … God’s justice … for

… internally displaced people

… children living, and dying, with AIDS

… children dying from starvation and malnutrition

… people being sold into sexual slavery

… Palestinians living in occupied territories

… the physically and sexually abused

… all those in situations of forced labor

… all those illegally and unjustly imprisoned

… and …

3 Responses to “Church & State”

  1. rr7box900z Says:

    Amen, Brother… We could expand that list, ad infinitum. What worries me more than finding answers is the number of us, individually and collectively, who seem utterly disengaged in discernment of any kind. Thank you for your life-by-example!


  2. Lucretia Jevne Says:

    Not to mention our baptismal covenant to “strive for justice and peace among all people” It seems to me that loving our neighbor means ensuring that neighbor’s dignity which is more than just food and shelter.


  3. Karen Hotte Says:

    Thank you for naming much of the conundrum in which I find myself as a Christian, seeking the Kingdom of God. Great discussion of the difficult issues as we continuously balance both faith and works.


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