“The answer to poverty is community”- Jurgen Moltman
It is no longer easy to avoid the ravages of poverty. A drive through any city today reveals the extent to which wealth and the lack of viable income can coexist within a single city block. Even a quick glance at the news in any medium reveals that homelessness is closer to all of us than we care to imagine.
The response is generally the same for any political group, regardless of culture war colors. Each party and interest group assumes that the answer lies in some sort of political solution, some act of government. Justice, they shout, comes through legislative decision. For these groups, it is the elected community which will solve the issues of wealth disparity and poverty is the American political and economic community, whether federal or local, free-market or government funded entitlements.
This assumption is rooted within the modern project. Modernity, through the likes of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, has sought to erase contentious religious systems from the public square to be replaced by a reasoned political system. The modern vision, then, is for all communities to be related and subsumed under a public politic, relegating religion to private belief. The over arching system of government is then, the one legitimate community. In short, the answer to any social struggle is the political/economic system. So whether Tea Party or Green, Democrat or Republican, even Libertarian or Socialist the Modernist assumes some degree of governmental response to the questions of the day. (Note)
The Church today, even those most rooted in a Post-Christendom model of Church and State, continues to follow this Modern assumption. It’s the one facet of Christendom that we cannot seem to shake off. But really, it’s not much of a surprise. In the Tercentennial study of the Church of the Brethren membership it became clear that we are more identifiable by our political party affiliation than by shaped by Brethren values. We are more Red and Blue than we are “Continuing the Work of Jesus.” Well, more accurately, and more respectfully, our senses of what it means to follow Jesus look more like our party affiliations than anything else.
Within the history of radical Christianity, from Acts through the desert ascetics all the way through to the Radical Reformers, the emphasis has fallen on the Christian community as the treatment for social ills. Poverty, disproportionate gaps in wealth, health care, even natural disasters all received the same response- The Church, not the State, came to the aid of believers and non-believers alike. For example, the great story of the Middle Ages is that more priests and monks died of the Black Death than any other vocation because they were the ones out tending to the sick and dying. Kings and Lords did not enter their streets to save the citizenry.
The effects of this Modernist infection are two fold. First, we assume that the proper expression of doctrine occurs within the secular political process. We simply translate our systems of belief and values into the agnostic realm of government. Second, and probably less obvious, is the translation of secular modes of politics and decision making into the life of the Church. Here we assume that votes and position platforms, uniformity of belief within camps, and even debates and sound bites are the norm for discernment and decision making. The irony is that as we look back on Church History and condemn the presence of armies at ecumenical councils such as Nicea and Constantinople, while at the same time we adopt the swordless system of Modern politics as our own.
It was recently asked why the Church of the Brethren today is so divided. The answer is simple- We are more defined by political affiliations and the idea that political processes will restore the Church. We expect the political systems of governments to resolve the needs and struggles of everyday life and unite the Church. We think that discernment is a 51% game, and that those in leadership or power have agendas to fulfill. We think our Church is the holy image of American representative democracy. The problem is that progressive and traditionalist alike have sold out to the wider political narrative and practices of Modernity, only to forget that we as the gathered Body of Christ are set apart, and must find ways of being together that are more reflective of God’s narrative of reconciliation.
Our diagnosis is simple we have an acute case of Modernity. The cure, not so simple: We cannot wait for the State to save us. Nor can we expect the practices of public politic to redeem the Church.
Note The nature of each of the these groups is really one of degree: To what extent need the government be involved for the well-being of the most number of people? Even here the assumption is that the government’s own self-limiting is a response to the problem. I also am aware that I assume the economic system is a form of the political, whether a laisssez faire or interventionist capitalism.