A Theology for Radicals

I’m reflecting on some of the “disconnects” in American life. One is the glaring gap between personal faith and public policy.  How is it possible that the most overtly religious nation in the developed world has the greatest gulf between rich and poor? Why does a country with so many churches imprison more of its people than anywhere else on earth (and still insist on inflicting the death penalty)? What is our justification for resisting universal health care?    

Americans are among the most generous people on earth. They are also highly practical and love problem solving. Given accurate information they usually want to do the right thing.

But because our social lives are so separate (our places of worship, schools, and neighborhoods are often defined by race or class), we build up images of fellow Americans that are prejudiced or inaccurate at best. Our information sources are increasingly narrowly based and tend to reinforce our existing biases. They don’t challenge us to think beyond our own experience or viewpoint.

So a person who volunteers time and talent to helping earthquake victims in Haiti, or building churches or schools in Central America, or who fosters a dozen children, may also advocate public policies in their home town that deny education to immigrant children, reduce access to health care for those who can least afford it, or cut mass transportation to suburbs where most available entry-level jobs are located.   

A few days ago I was sitting with Ben Campbell of the Richmond Hill Retreat Center and some other local Christian leaders discussing urban ministry. Ben reckons that ninety percent of new churches in the Richmond region are non-denominational. There’s a growing interest in urban ministry among committed evangelicals in these flourishing new congregations in the ever-expanding suburban areas. This is a potentially powerful force for good. 

However, Campbell says that for the most part these dedicated, mostly young Christians have no knowledge of social issues or the history of racism and exclusion, no understanding of tax policies, or of the factors that impact housing, public education, and transportation. 

At the other end of the spectrum, many mainline liberal churches are actively engaged in social issues but have lost focus on core moral and spiritual truths. They are not providing an environment that is attractive to a new generation of Christians. In addition, failure to root social justice efforts in the bedrock of a strong inner life and lived-out values can endanger the most idealistic efforts. 

In The Beloved Community, Charles Marsh calls burnout “the activist’s occupational hazard.”  He points to the early days of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC ) when, starting in 1960, thousands of white students came to the South to work for reconciliation and justice alongside African Americans. The movement, he writes, pursued a form of discipleship that was “life affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding: a theology for radicals.”  Resisting the “cultural paradigm of efficiency,” it made time for “reverie and solitude and for rituals that were refreshingly unproductive. A certain kind of contemplative discipline was an important disposition in building community and enabling trust.” 

What would America look like if mainline liberal Christians deepened their spiritual lives and their moral accountability, and if conservative evangelicals committed themselves to a strategic engagement for justice?  We might see a theology for radicals that could lead to a profound transformation of the social and economic landscape.