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Right versus Left: One Neo-Anabaptist’s Perspective

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : October 5, 2005

My wife and I have been officially a one-car couple for about a week now.  Amy usually gets the short end of the stick, but today I was the one without the car.  At 1pm, I had to walk about 2 miles up to 2nd Moon on Franklin to meet with someone.  On the way back home, I decided to stop at my friend Chris’ house.  Chris decided to walk with me the rest of the way home (we stopped at McDonald’s on the way).  Along the way, we got into a discussion about politically conservative Christians and politically liberal Christians.  We basically agree with Hauerwas–that though both groups have different concerns, they have very similiar methodologies. 

Chris is well known for his general dislike of the "Wallis" school of thinking–which is basically the marriage of evangelical piety and liberal activism.  Chris’ contention is that a religious left is as bad as a religious right.  Part of the problem is that the Church utilizes the American government to achieve ecclesial goals. The religious left/right divide stems in large part from 19th and 20th century arguments about the nature of the Gospel–is it primarily an individual gospel or a social gospel?  The right focused on the responsibilities of the individual in making good decisions–the decision to follow Christ being the most important decision to make.  The left focused on social responsibility–that the church is responsible to foster social justice. Some could say that the religious right cares primarily about soul-winning.  Conversely, the left typically cares about the poor and marginalized. (I realize this is a gross simplification, but there is some general truth here)

In the course of our conversation, I came up with an illustration that
I thinks makes Chris’ point very well–and Chris suggested I share it
with you all.Let’s look at the following statement, which is the sort of statement that someone on the religious left could make:

"Jesus cares for the poor.  As American Christians, we must seek justice.  Therefore, we must use whatever means possible to serve the poor, including using governmental or political means."

What if we were to replace the word "poor" (the focus of liberal religious concern) with the word "lost" (the focus of conservative religious concern)?

"Jesus cares for the lost.  As American Christians, we must seek righteousness (which, biblically speaking, is the same as justice).  Therefore, we must use whatever means possible to reach the lost, including useing governmental or political means."

The first statement seems much more reasonable…right? Why? It is easy for us to conclude that serving the poor is a matter of justice, but reaching "the lost" is a matter of personal faith. But both are intensely religous endeavors.  Both are elements of the Gospel.  Yet one fits within the secular realm, and the other does not.  Why?  I think we need to bring our faith back into authentic holism.  We need to realize that both proclaiming the Gospel message to all people and serving the poor are acts of justice (or righteousness).  Both are elements of making things right–living out the Kingdom of God.  Why is it that we can so easily secularize one, yet not the other?

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of JesusManifesto.com. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.


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    Thanks for the post!
    I guess one part of the reason why those from the left may find your suggestion a difficult transition would be the word righteousness and the connotations that go with it...
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    Mark said in his post that he's using the word righteousness synonymously with justice (as in the Greek they are the same word).
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    Yeah - I understand that justice\justification and righteousness derive from the same root words in NT Greek and OT Hebrew.

    Mark probably already covered it, so sorry! Just to make explicit my point, though, what I was trying to say was that many on the left see that "righteousness" carries the connotations of piety which gives way to judgment\condemnation etc.

    I am not saying this is right, but that to some extent is probably a reality. Therefore, there needs to be a renewed understanding of righteousness as justice...
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    ecclesial goals??
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    I think I know what you're trying to say, Steve, but I think you underestimate our power to change meaning in our own language. You are advocating that justice swallow up the definition of righteousness altogether, but I think it would be just as easy to define righteousness apart from its bad connotations (like self-righteousness)
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    Interesting Chris - I was not advocating that justice swallow up the definition of righteousness altogether...but since you mention it, it seems fascinating! While it may not be the answer, it is an interesting concept to ponder!!
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    Todd--I guess instead of "ecclesial goals" it would be better to say "the mission and aims of the Church." I know that the Kingdom of God and the missio Dei aren't limited to the Church, but it is highly problematic for the Church to use the State as a tool for the furtherance of the evangel.
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    I believe in social justice in the sense that nobody, no group, color, sex or sect, should be oppressed by 'the system'. I don't believe that just because someone is poor they are oppressed. Looking at it from a
    constitutional point of view, I think that is the intent behind "We have the right to pursue happiness." No one group of people, unless their pursuit of
    happiness victimizes another group, should be prevented from pursing happiness. Note, it doesn't say we have the right to be happy, just to pursue it. So the government is there to keep the things that inhibit our
    ability to pursue happiness in check.

    One of the problems I have with the leftie view (religious and otherwise) of social justice is that they seek to make people happy. And they think everyone should pay for it. They aren't concerned with their development or spiritual well being, just that they are happy now. I say this because I married into a Methodist family who thinks high of volunteering at the soup kitchen around Christmas time but makes no mention of saving grace.

    I guess my point is the governments responsibility is to watch over our freedom, and we as Christians have the right, and responsibility, to reach into our own pockets, take time out of our schedules, and bring about
    change.
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    First, I think the religious right probably wouldn't have much problem with the comment about using the government to reach the lost. I think that is the agenda behind the "moral majority." The idea that good morals makes good people and good people will like Jesus.
    Second, I agree with anabaptists ideologically, but practically, I just think that there are certain systemic injustices that can only be changed through the system or reforming it. Yes, individual Christians should care for the poor, etc., but Christians should also be concerned about how their government treats their friends and neighbors. I don't think it's a matter of either/or, but both/and.
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    Jeff, I don't think that anabaptists would necessarilly disagree with that. How it's done, might be debateable though.
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    Why see it as the church using the state as a tool? If the reign of God really is something that exists at least in part beyond the life of the church, then the goals and aims of the kingdom of God are something that lie beyond the church as well and are a part of a common life of all humanity. The church then does not have to view the state as an instrument to accomplish its God-given objectives, but instead can view itself as participating with men and women of other religions and belief systems in a common endeavor to show what God's reign looks like. This can be done whether or not the men and women of other faiths would even recognize their participation as pointing to the in-breaking kingdom.

    It seems to me that the idea of cooperating in a common endeavor that is larger than the church is a more helpful way to conceptualize this problem than the idea of instrumentalizing the state, or pitting its objectives against those of churches.
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    Part of the problem is that the Church utilizes the American government to achieve ecclesial goals.

    Amen brother!

    And it doesn't just relate to the American government, to pretty much every government in a country with a significant Christian presence.

    It is the role of Christians to display charity, to share their faith, to demonstrate love, not the role of government. It is an abdication of the Christian's call to simply think we can satisfy our call by getting government to do these things for us.
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    I've found this exchange interesting because I'm not sure that people have given a specifically theological reason for justifying participation in governmental activities/legislation/lobbying/etc.

    I've seen logical ones, but not theological ones, per se.
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    Mark-

    I've had this fight with Chris before on his blog. The problem with the thinking here is that its so black-and-white.

    Though I agree with your Haurwasian perspective for the most part, I don't see what's wrong with the church utilizing the gov't as one means of accomplishing its calling. Wallis and others who are calling for this aren't arguing for an exclusively governmental approach to our ecclesial "goals."

    To address your example, yeah, I think it is ok to utilize the gov't in some limited ways to achieve the "conservative" goals as well. I don't want state-run evangelism campaigns, but I have no problem registering my church as a 501c3 (Is Missio Dei a 501c3?), nor would I refuse monies from some sort of faith-based govt program (if there were no unethical strings attached).
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    Mark-

    I've had this fight with Chris before on his blog. The problem with the thinking here is that its so black-and-white.

    Though I agree with your Haurwasian perspective for the most part, I don't see what's wrong with the church utilizing the gov't as one means of accomplishing its calling. Wallis and others who are calling for this aren't arguing for an exclusively governmental approach to our ecclesial "goals."

    To address your example, yeah, I think it is ok to utilize the gov't in some limited ways to achieve the "conservative" goals as well. I don't want state-run evangelism campaigns, but I have no problem registering my church as a 501c3 (Is Missio Dei a 501c3?), nor would I refuse monies from some sort of faith-based govt program (if there were no unethical strings attached).
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    I'm not for complete extraction from any and all utilization of the Government for Christian aims. I just want us to tease out a theologically reflective approach. I don't reject all uses of the government, but while many on both "sides" are calling for a greater involvement in politics, I think we should be less involved--but at the same time we should be active in more direct ways--like directly relating to the poor and caring for the homeless directly as much as possible as a church, rather than relying upon government to further these goals. I guess the thing that bothers me the most is that reliance.

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