Lesson 1: One Voice

Red and Blue Voting HandsIf love is to be the foundation of a modern Christian narrative, it will have to address some critical issues, such as abortion, family values, industrial capitalism, climate change, and religious freedom. But maybe the first question to be tackled is, “What is the role of the Church in a democracy?”

In recent years, people have offered three quite different answers, often with great passion: 1) The Church should restrict herself to offering individuals spiritual guidance, because religion is a private matter; 2) God calls on the Church to work politically for moral Christian laws; and/or 3) The Church must fight for freedom to practice Christianity according to God’s will. The way that all three are asked acknowledges a big historical change.

A democracy assumes a public conversation in which the Church is but one voice among many. That worked fairly well when all were Christian bodies or groups that valued the Christian tradition. New voices now challenge this past privilege.

A very rough historical summary of the church-state relationship gives some helpful perspective. Salvation is essentially about the change needed to overcome a dangerous situation. In the Bible, this begins when God comes to Father Abraham promising to bless his family, so that they can eventually bless all the other families of the world. God acts to rescue humanity from its self-destructive ways.

Throughout the scriptures, this salvation involves delivering the oppressed and exploited. God’s people are almost always struggling under the dominance of imperial powers, beginning with Egypt and continuing to Rome. Although parts of the Old Testament report some extremely violent actions, the overwhelming way to salvation is practicing love, mercy, and forgiveness to overcome violence.

The practice of these three virtues could change according to the situation. Some times it meant laying low; sometimes going all out for freedom. Sometimes, it meant obeying authorities, because they offered order and defense; sometimes having nothing to do with them, because they were satanic. Always it meant standing firm in God’s justice that demanded care for those abused by evil systems.

For about 300 years, the early church continued this tradition by creatively countering the establishment. She was the atheistic opposition threatening the supposed rule of law and order. Then, rather quickly, she became the establishment religion, a position she held in empire, monarchy, and republic until fairly recently.

When the Church was the establishment religion, she became the one voice who spoke for God. She used her power to control evil, but also to sustain her prestige. She used excommunication to discipline individuals but also to punish free thinkers, the interdict to prevent war among nations but also to subdue opposition.

All of this changed with democracies that prohibited any establishment of religion. Gradually, non-Christian voices were raised in the public conversation. Some genuinely fear that society will now be left to its self-destructive ways. Some make frantic calls to make America Christian again. Some try to separate real from false Christians.

A love narrative begins by accepting the real situation. Having confidence that the human spirit is rooted in the image of God, one of its priorities is to keep a creative conversation going. To that end, it does not insist on its own way, but rather respects all voices.

This does not mean the Church is naive, refusing to acknowledge the indecent and self- destructive state of the present society. It, also, does not mean that the Church fails to recognize that many claiming to be Christian are really an establishment religion that legitimizes the indecency.

However, a love narrative has confidence God’s Word can change humanity and that the way to that transformation is to return good for evil. Many of us think this is especially urgent in a world that casually talks about destroying others with nuclear weapons.

Confident that God still dwells with and in his people, let’s try to address the tough questions mentioned at the beginning of this lesson.

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