“There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer forwhat they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.”
“Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of
things as they are.”
“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”
(Excerpt from King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail)
As a negro Christian I find some similarities between King and the prophetic black Church and Jim Wallis’ work with Sojourners/Call to Renewal. One being their understanding of the Gospel which compelled them to witness to the State as well as to the Church.
Recently there have been some interesting statements from James Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, on Wallis’ long-time efforts to bring evangelicals to the table to deal with issues relating to social justice and Christians becoming prophetic, transcending the tired-old liberal/conservative chasm. Jim Wallis’ newest book God’s Politics has stirred up some great discussion and debate in regards the Church’s relationship to the Nation-State.
Smith is one of the voices of Radical Orthodoxy, an interesting school of Christian thought and praxis that has deeply resonated with me on many levels. Some of the scholars and theologians I have read are Smith, William Cavanaugh, John Milbank, D. Stephen Long, and Daniel Bell. Their critique of liberal social orders resonates with me as I try and struggle to be faithful to the Gospel in this North American
But statements like this (from Smith) make me wonder:
“Instead of Wallis’ leftish civil theology, I’ll continue to believe that our most important political action remains the act of discipleship through worship.”
(Before you read on, please read Smith’s comments in full to get some context of what he saying.)
Here is my question:
Were Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and those in the prophetic black Church during the Civil Rights movement Constantinian Christians because they used the mechanism of the “nation-state” to bring about a more just society? Were they “statist” Christians?
If so, then I wonder, I really really wonder: What would James Smith and those in the Radical Orthodoxy camp have told black Christians in Montgomery, Alabama, during Jim Crow? What would Smith and others say to young black Christians who wanted to see change in the society? “Go to church and worship Jesus”? “Wait for white Christians in power to become virtuous Christians on the issue of race and class”?
The reason I ask this is because there is much I agree with in Radical Orthodoxy — their critique of liberal individualism, the pathologies of capitalism, and so forth. I suspect it’s for these same reasons that I see Radical Orthodoxy books on alot of emerging church bloggers’ reading lists.
But I am still torn about this question: What would America be like now … What would many churches be like right now without the prophetic witness of Christians like King towards both the State and the Church, had they simply remained in their respective church buildings worshipping King Jesus? I think that is a question that
Radical Orthodoxy needs to answer.