I’m writing this as my initial contribution to a blog collective called The Despised Ones. Why are we Despised? Because we are each in our own ways attempting to explore the Kenosis stance Christ modeled in the incarnation as expressed in Philippians 2, “who being of very nature God, emptied himself…”. The critically important stance for evangelicals, then, becomes one of voluntary powerlessness.
The evangelical church has a difficult time with power. We want it when we shouldn’t. We try to get it through political means. We lord it over others. And we argue that we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ without separation.
Rather than focusing on gaining, maintaining, and exercising power, we need to focus on powerlessness. This is difficult to maintain. It’s too easy to be tempted to claim privilege in my powerlessness. “See what a good Christian I’m being? I’m siding with those who don’t have voice. Doesn’t that make you want to imitate my approach?” Then there is the temptation to say that my personal struggles give me a unique perspective on the contemporary world. “You don’t know what it means to suffer, but I’ve had to deal with [….] which gives me a vantage point to which people should listen.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about how the evangelical church has been dependent upon separation from the broader world. Many of the others writing their blogs here have been raised in fundamentalist homes and schooling and find themselves pushing back against those prior images.
More than a simple critique, what is needed is a program for what a new model of engagement might look like. I’ve labeled this model post-Constantinian Christianity. Many have written on the problems created for the Christian church when the Emperor Constantine legitimated Christianity as the official belief of the realm. In that moment, being a believer became a means of social status, of privilege, of power. As tempting as it is to suggest that we need to capture the spirit of the first century Christians, the world today is much too complex and pluralistic to allow a proper appropriation of those images. We can’t go back. We must go forward.
So here is a modest proposal for how my post-Constantinian Christianity shapes up.
First, we affirm that Christians aren’t supposed to prevail. Moreover, we shouldn’t care about winning or losing. That’s not our call. In cultural dialogue on issues like same-sex marriage, we don’t simply defend our cherished positions. Rather, we are to be obedient in being Christ to those we engage.
Second, we renounce all claims to privilege. It may be a historical reality that America’s Founding Fathers were at least nominal Christians. That’s hardly surprising given the monochromatic culture of the day. But that fact doesn’t mean that a Christian has a unique place in American history or politics. I don’t care how someone addressed me at Christmas or if they celebrate Christmas at all. It’s simply not my problem. We are to be obedient to Christ to those we engage.
Third, concerns over power must be about “the least of these”. The only kenotic approach is to look for ways of dismantling the advantage that comes as a result of the ascriptive status that comes from birth. Even here, the cautions of HR Niebuhr ring clear: I must be careful not to assume I can control outcomes, even legitimate ones, or I give over to pride and arrogance. I’m not fixing the least of these. We are being obedient to Christ to those we engage.
Fourth, pluralism demands faithful engagement. Evangelical Christians are daily rubbing shoulders with neo-atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, religious “nones”, and so on. Our role is to be present to those other voices. We must listen, find commonality, express humanity, and be willing to be empty vessels through whom God can work His will. We are being obedient to Christ to those we engage.
Finally, we must be patient. Even a Wesleyan like me affirms a sovereign God who is working his will in restoring all creation to himself. It is His timing and his means of gauging results. I’m not about obtaining outcomes. We are simply being obedient to Christ to those we engage.
I don’t know why that sovereignty led us to such a conflation of the Gospel with state power, personal acquisitiveness, and military force. But I am convinced that setting aside all of those things in the spirit of a servant and a slave provides the prophetic witness needed by both the church and the world. In that act, the church and the world will see the Christ whom we’re following.