Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Redemptive Movements in Social Issues

This post might be epic, so brace yourselves…

Let me start by giving a little bit of context. For a long time, evangelicals have resisted any involvement in "social" or "environmental" issues because they were perceived as "liberal" issues. The Bible and its gospel, it was assumed, have nothing to do with material and "earthly" concerns. It is solely about spiritual redemption and forgiveness. I'll be honest, I see very little difference between this conception of the gospel and the ancient Gnostic heresies. Evangelicals are finally beginning to embrace these other issues thanks in no small part to Post-Modern Emergent Church thinkers who have forced the Evangelical community to recognize that material/physical concerns are every bit as much a part of the redemptive work of the gospel as the forgiveness of sins. So just as a side note, I cringe whenever I hear Evangelicals bashing Post-modernity or the Emerging Church not because I don't think there are things about both those movements that need to be criticized but because I think a blind rejection of them will likely lead to a repeating of the same mistakes that caused Evangelicals to be laughed out of the intellectual world and forced into a "Christian ghetto" after the rise of Modernism.

So… the basic story is that Evangelicals are now thinking about social and environmental issues. In discussing a session of a conference of Evangelical Scholars that I am at right now in New Orleans, a friend of mine who is a grad student at Wheaton College asked what I think is a very appropriate question. She asked what is different about Christian involvement in these issues versus secular involvement? It seems like, she argued and I think she is right, that our involvement in these issues should be very much a reflection of the gospel message. So how do we do that?

I think first of all that we have to frame the discussion by understanding what we mean by the gospel. I think the mistake of the past has been to adopt one metaphor among many used in the New Testament for redemption, namely a legal metaphor concerning the forgiveness of sins, and assume that is the entirety of the gospel. Its certainly a part of it, but I think it is not the end of the story. A personal friend and former professor of mine named Dave Malick gave a presentation at this conference this morning in which he rehashed something he used to teach us in his classes- a way of charting stories known as the "Mono-myth" or "Cyclical Story." It follows the four seasons and traces the fall from summer to winter and the redemptive movement (spring) out of this to return to summer. This cycle is I think what is captured by the gospel- in terms of the legal metaphor, we were created perfect, but have fallen via sin into death. But our guilt has been taken away by the substitutionary death of Jesus and therefore we rise again to life. In terms of the greater cycle of redemption, it seems that our sin carries with it the consequence of destroying the order of creation, bringing pain and misery, evil and brokenness into the world. Jesus has begun the work of redemption, a work that we continue and that he will finish at his return, of restoring the order of the world to the way things should be. Another conference session I sat in on today (actually, the one that sparked this conversation) given by a scholar named Daniel Block proved very helpful for me in understanding this. His belief is that humans were created to be representatives of God (I wholeheartedly agree), which implies a service to God. In fact, the context of man's creation in Genesis two implies a service to God in taking care of the garden. So in contrast to our very frequent understanding that the earth is here for us to use, we are here to care for the earth (this discussion revolved primarily around environmental issues). He begins to make this connection as well- the same language used of man's role in the garden is used to describe the Levite's role in the tabernacle/temple. I think we can extend, then, his argument beyond environmental issues and also argue that the people of God, as God's representatives, have a similar obligation to care for the other people of the world. All of this is in the context of a redemptive movement, of restoring the world to how it should be, of establishing God's kingdom. It is all supposed to be a reflection of the gospel.

Thus far, however, all I have accomplished is laying out a redemptive theology that encompasses more than the forgiveness of sins. I think if this means anything, though, it must be something that is practiced, something that we do. So the question on the table is how, practically, do we reflect this redemptive mindset in our engagement with social and environmental issues? How does the way that we go about addressing these issues reflect the idea that we are acting as agents of redemption in service to the Agent of redemption, Jesus Christ?

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