Christians, Culture and Power

By Mike Kuhn

Never ask a fish “how’s the water?”

I know…fish don’t talk so they can’t respond. But the point is that water is the environment the fish lives in and therefore the fish takes it for granted—true of fish and water but also true of people and culture. Unless we’ve had the experience of living outside our culture for some time, we may not be aware of the particularities of our culture and have some difficulty articulating what distinguishes our own culture from any other. Our culture is the air we breathe. It is the water the fish swims in.  It is ubiquitous such that our acquiescence to it is rarely questioned.

Yet many suggest that it is culture, not mere individuals, the gospel aspires to impact and change.  Culture is represented by inherited values, beliefs, practices and even artifacts. The impact of the gospel is to amend, reshape or possibly abandon these, replacing them with new values, beliefs, practices and products that reflect the reality of Christ’s Kingdom. So it stands to reason that if the gospel is being heard and heeded in a given location, the culture represented in that place must also change. Or so it would seem.

Frankly, the gospel does not seem to be making inroads in changing very many cultures these days.  There were some historic revivals which radically impacted a particular culture such as the Welsh Revival or the Great Awakenings. But scanning the horizon today, we are obliged to conclude that the gospel is not profoundly impacting culture. The cultures of Western Europe and North America seem to be morally and ethically adrift. The Middle East is still enduring the “Arab Spring.” The jury is still out on its overall impact on culture, but so far the net effect does not seem too positive.

It’s not that various ways and means of impacting culture have been left untried. In his book, To Change the World (Hunter, 2010), James Davison Hunter assesses attempts from various sectors of the Christian public to impact culture. The first is the so-called “Christian right” which has attempted to mediate the transformation of culture through policy and legislative means. At the other end of the spectrum is the “Christian left” often viewed by the “right” as the liberals who have abandoned propositional truths of the Bible, seeking to effect social change in the arena of public justice.[1] According to Hunter, neither of these sides of the spectrum has been very effective in producing change because both sides have resorted to power through politics as their means of achieving their goals. In Hunter’s view, both sides have acquiesced to a culture that, in the lack of common moral and social consensus, has resorted to an ever-expanding politicization in order to hold society intact. Living in an increasingly politicized culture, Christians have instinctively resorted to the means of political power to effect change in their culture. Hunter contends that this is wrong-headed—not the way Christ intended His people to effect change. In brief: Christians are so surrounded by a politicized culture such that they reflexively resort to political means to effect change.  It’s the old “fish in the water.”

Hunter’s analysis pertains primarily to the United States—my homeland. As I read his book, it seemed to me that the same critique could be made of my newly adopted land—Lebanon. The tendency to resort to Politics to effect change is not only a US problem. The root of the problem is the tendency to use the most prominent power structures (i.e. politics) to accomplish ends.

Hunter: “When one boils it all down, politicization means that the final arbiter within most of social life is the coercive power of the state. When politicization is oriented toward furthering the specific interests of the group without an appeal to the common [well-being], when its means of mobilizing the uncommitted is through fear, and when the pursuit of agendas depends more on the vilification of opponents than on the affirmation of higher ideals, power is stripped to its most elemental forms. Even democratic justifications are not much more than a veneer over a will to power. The actions themselves may be within the bounds of legitimate democratic participation, yet the basic intent and desire is to dominate, control or rule.” (Hunter, 2010, p. 106)

Politics is coercive power—hardly the appropriate means to effect change in Jesus’ Kingdom.  That’s not to say that the gospel should not impact politics (it should and does) or that Christ-followers should not be involved in politics (many are). It is, however, a critique of contemporary Christianity, or should we say “Christendom” pursuing change through coercive political means.

This “will to power” can be detected in the slogans that are tossed about in Christian rhetoric and media—“take back our country, drive out the enemy, recapture the land, extend the Kingdom, etc.” (Similar slogans abound in the rhetoric of the various Middle Eastern factions vying for power.)  Hunter discerns that “what is never challenged is the proclivity to think of the Christian faith and its engagement with the culture around it in political terms.” (pg. 168)  He points out that solutions to the issues we care most about are rarely achieved through political means—issues such as the deterioration of family values, the desire for equity across races, classes and genders, the absence of decency and care for the poor and elderly. Some may respond that political solutions do indeed contribute to resolution of these issues. But is it not true that political changes reflect public values rather than generate them? Is Hunter not correct in stating that “at best, the state’s role addressing human problems is partial and limited?”(Hunter, 2010, p. 171) The author finds it ironic that:

“In the Christian faith, one has the possibility of relatively autonomous institutions and practices that could—in both judgment and affirmation—be a source of ideals and values capable of elevating politics to more than the quest for power. But the consequence of the whole-hearted and uncritical embrace of politics by Christians has been, in effect, to reduce the Christian faith to a political ideology and various Christian denominations and para-church organizations to special interest groups.”(Hunter, 2010, p. 172)

Hunter proffers a different paradigm which he labels “faithful presence within.” Time and space do not allow much elaboration, but suffice to say it is a conscious and intentional pursuit of well-being for all. Much as Jeremiah instructed the exiles to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” (Jer 29:7) so Christians act as a priestly community seeking the well-being of the world—even those considered to be “enemies” of the faith. (Read the book to fill in the details.)

To my mind, this vision has traction in the post-Christian West as well as the Middle East. For far too long, other faiths in the Middle East have perceived Christianity as “Christendom”—a will to power expressed through colonization, wars and cultural and economic dominance. We may well critique this over-simplified view. Nevertheless the perception remains leaving in its wake fallow ground and hardened hearts to anything that connotes the Christian faith. What if the world’s Christians were possessed with a will to transcend political wrangling and offer Muslims and others their best efforts at holistic well-being? What if Christ-followers inserted themselves into the conflicts of the Middle East as givers rather than opportunists, as earnest peace-seekers rather than partisans to the military conflicts? Would it make a difference? Admittedly, any change would be slow, but I think it would be worth a try, not so much because it would work, but because it would be more true to Jesus’ Kingdom and, whether you’re East or West, that’s worth trying.

_____________________

Hunter, J. D. (2010). To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] Hunter identifies a third group which he calls the “neoanabaptists.”

3 thoughts on “Christians, Culture and Power

  1. Polltakers in the U S have determined that politicization of the American church, particularly right wing aggressiveness in this area, has been a major factor in the decline of churches in America.

  2. Thanks for yet another thought-provoking article! Mike, you footnoted the ‘neo-anabaptist’ movement as a third group that Hunter mentions. I haven’t read Hunter’s book, but it would seem that this presents an alternative approach to the ‘will to power’ approaches Hunter is critiquing. How would you characterize their stance in culture compared to the ‘faithful presence within’ that you point to as a more helpful way forward?

    • Hi Brian and thanks for your comment and question. Hunter devotes a whole chapter to the neo-Anabaptists citing Yoder, Hauerwas, Willimon and Shane Clairborne as examples. In Hunter’s view, the neo-Anabaptists have gotten a lot right in that offer a radical critique of evangelicals’ dual loyalty to both “a political economy of liberal democracy and consumer capitalism.” But he critiques the movement for casting its vision in political language (e.g. “the Politics of Jesus”). His understanding is that, by casting their vision in political terms, they invoke a political/power wielding understanding of the gospel. He cites a number of authors to justify his position. In the end, Hunter feels that each of the three Christian sectors he observes (right, left and neo-Anabaptist) have associated the “public good” with politics.
      I think he makes an interesting point even though I am sympathetic with some views of the neo-Anabaptists. His main critique is of the ubiquitous nature of political rhetoric and power-wielding in the various sectors of Christianity which he has observed.

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