To Change the World: Essay 3, Reflections, Part 2

[This series of posts won’t be a traditional book review. Rather, I’ll summarize parts of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, and then I’ll add my own thoughts. I may criticize the book here and there, but I don’t have much to criticize.]

“Faithful presence”

I assume there’s some ancient theology that uses this term, which is, I assume, why Hunter chose it. But I find it less than transparent. Indeed, many have taken the word to be quietist — that is, as calling for a passive Christianity, much as many neo-Anabaptists. And that’s quite the opposite of the truth.

I’d rather call it “common grace” — that is, raining on the just and the unjust, doing good to all and for all. And that’s a term with some significant history.

But the harder challenge, for me, at least, is finding examples of what this means in practice. As is so often the case, paradigm shifts are built on great stories.

The best story Hunter tells is by Mathetes, a late second-centurry Christian, to the pagan Diognetus, explaining the nature of the early church —

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines.

But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.

They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified.

They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

But we need more contemporary stories. Here’s one from the Faithful Presence website about the CEO of a large automobile retailer. I found this particularly interesting, because I do a lot of work in the automobile industry.

There are the following ways to give authentic witness to your faith in the marketplace: …

Much of business language came out of a particular time and place when religious language was in retreat. … How do you bring more human language back into the setting? In American culture, we’re infused with instrumentalism in much of our language; you “earn” my respect. That means that people don’t intrinsically deserve respect, they can only gain respect by their actions, which relates respect to capacities and actions.

When you held your child the first time, did you look at your child and say, ‘You’re going to need to earn my respect?” No, what did you do? You said, “I love you.” Now, we fast-forward to 20- some years later, to the first time you meet an employee, and we hear leaders say, “You have to earn my respect.” What changed in those years? We need to start with a fundamental commitment to a person’s well-being. They’ll have to earn my respect for how they do their job, but I need to separate how they do their job from who they are as a human being.

When you fight for that in your company all the time, it becomes a different place. There is no place for someone to be mistreated. That doesn’t mean they can’t be terminated if they’re not performing well, but they can’t be treated in a way that says they are just instruments of production. …

What does theology of power look like in the exercising of it? In Philippians 2 you can see the movement of emptying ourselves of power and intentionally saying, “I don’t use my powers to lord over another, but how do I use my power for good?” The Christian use of power based in this model is to equip another to use their gifts to enable the community to flourish.

The purpose of my equipping you is not simply for self-fulfillment; it is to serve the needs of the community.

Good stuff.

Here’s another story, this one from the book —

[There was] a woman who rang up and bagged groceries and whose sphere of influence was only six square feet. Every day she greeted her customers with genuine enthusiasm, remembering customer’s names and asking about their families. She would end every conversation by saying that she was going to pray for their family. Over time, this caused problems, for people wanted to get in her aisle, which resulted in large lines. People would wait, though, because they enjoyed being with her, encouraged just by her presence. At her funeral, years after she retired, the church was packed to standing-room-only capacity, and she was eulogized again and again by people whom she had encouraged for years.

You see, while missional theology is correct and should be fought for, it’s not complete until we include our work, our families, and the rest of our lives in our service to Christ.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in To Change the World, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to To Change the World: Essay 3, Reflections, Part 2

  1. Rich W says:

    Jay,

    I do appreciate your book reviews. This is no exception.

    I am still trying to figure out what is Hunter's strategy. Perhaps more will follow. Or more precisely, what is new about it? D. Lipscomb was opposed to a political type of community service back in the 19th century although perhaps for different reasons. The 20th century cofC often stayed out of politics (except for individuals). Our tele-evangelists were different than the others for they rarely asked for money.

    On a broader scale, many of our hospitals have Baptist, Methodist, Adventist, Saint or Good Samaritan in their names. Over 90% of the NGO's in Haiti prior to the earthquake were Christian faith based. Thus, they were the first on the scene when disaster hit.

    So what is different about what Hunter is advocating?

    Please take this one as an inquisitive dialogue question and not a challenge.

    Thanks,
    Rich.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Rich,

    I have two posts (at least) coming in an effort to illustrate the point in very practical terms.

  3. Rich W says:

    Jay,

    Thanks. I guess I need to demonstrate more patience. By the way, reflections part 3 closely fits my retirement strategy that began two years ago.

  4. Tim Archer says:

    Having growing sympathy for the neoAnabaptist movement, I find the description of "passive Christianity" to be greatly out of place. I've seen few calls for passivity in the writings of Lee Camp, Yoder, etc.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Tim,

    The book makes the case persuasively. The context isn't pacificism but pursuit of God's mission. The neo-Anabaptists argue well the necessity of forming the church in the image of Jesus so the church will truly be the church. But they say very little about life outside the institutional life of the church.

  6. Tim Archer says:

    Well, I finally finished the book and can speak with some understanding about this. I find myself very much in agreement with Hunter's conclusions, though it's hard to figure out his point until the very last chapter (at least it was for me).

    Having read Hunter, I can now state what I said a little more forcefully. "Passive" is the wrong term for the neo-Anabaptist outlook. Interestingly enough, Hunter applies the term "passive" several times to the conservative element that seeks to destroy secularism through politics. They have been passive in allowing culture to dictate the terms on which the battle will be fought.

    However, I did find some of the neo-Anabaptists' statements which Hunter quoted to be objectionable; these are writers that I haven't read. Maybe I'm lumping the wrong people together. Hunter's final conclusion meshes more closely with what I've read of that movement than it does with any other outlook.

    But I'm not interested in defending a movement. I'm in hearty agreement with Hunter's last chapter: we are to live as exiles in Babylon, not God's people trying to restore the Promised Land. We reject the use of power as the world sees it, reject political domination. All of that is very well expressed in this book. Thanks for pointing me to it.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

Leave a Reply