In response

I spent so much time responding to paulflai’s recent post on ‘Social Service and Social Action’ that I figure I might as well post it here as well (with pertinent links):

Posted 7/6/2006 at 3:41 PM frailb wrote:

I’ll bet that the lack of social action in the Christian community is not really a specifically Christian problem.  But I do think that, for most people, there is no awareness of what must be done on the ‘action’ level until they have entered into the world of ‘service’.  Recent studies have shown that Christians–especially evangelicals–are more likely than the general public or their ‘liberal’ counterparts to engage in ‘service’…contrary to the general perception.  If that’s the case, I think there’s a good future for ‘action’ in the Christian community.

Of course, an optimistic trajectory isn’t sufficient.  There needs to be mobilization…from donation to engagement, from service to thoughtful action.  Perhaps I’m naive, but I think that if there’s any group in America that can be energized, it’s evangelicals (unfortunately, many marketing techniques have caught on to this fact).  Despite our many, many, many flaws, we emphasize a direct personal engagement with Jesus himself, which has usually proved to be a strong motivator for all sorts of things.

I think one difficulty in mobilizing ‘action’ is that so much of it is cloaked in the language of liberation which I think has two weaknesses. 

1.  Liberation language sounds ‘liberal’ while most evangelicals are ‘conservative’…there’s an allergy there.  And the sometimes-violent rhetoric of liberation can be scary to conservatives (even though we have our own ‘spiritual warfare’ language). 

2.  Most evangelicals cannot relate to the language of liberation because the only sense of ‘struggle’ is with respect to personal morality, not with systemic-social oppression.  But really, most evangelicals are not among the ‘oppressed’.  I believe it was Hauerwas who said that the desire to ‘go out to the poor’ betrays the assumption that the poor are ‘out there’ and not ‘one of us’.  Sadly, evangelicals have not always been the inclusionary community for the ‘oppressed’ which makes it difficult to feel a personal or even communal response to liberation language.

Liberation language is certainly present in Scripture and I think that evangelicals need to listen to it (read Colossians Remixed).  But perhaps evangelicals need an on-ramp language that softens their conscience to it.  In the same way as it takes ‘service’ to lead to ‘action’, we might need a more evangelical-friendly language that brings people closer to the truth that the God of the OT and NT has his eye on both persons and societies; that the calls for justice and mercy are concrete realities, not just spiritual allegories.

We’re also in want of Christian heroes.  It’s difficult to be a ‘social action’ hero in the evangelical community because evangelicals are really sensitive about ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’–we’re always testing to see if people are ‘really believers.’  If it turns out that the supposed-hero works with Catholics or has a homosexual daughter, then the alarms go up.  Sounds weird to say it, but maybe what it’ll take is some nice boring suburban Caucasian or Asian Christian heroes to be models and mobilize their own churches (e.g., see what Rick Warren does nowadays in Africa).  People like Tony Campolo and his more contemporary analogs are prophetic but, like most prophets, are usually tuned out by the mainstream.

Yeah, I know I’m being soft on the church here.  But I’m not urging the prophetic to be less piercing.  What I am suggesting is that there needs to be more lulling and leading by the shepherds.

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