A comment thread from Jim's "Moral State of the Union" post frustrated me a bit until I was encouraged later in the week by a sermon mp3 by N.T. Wright. (I like to listen to sermon podcasts during my morning hikes in the park.) Here's an initial comment on Monday's post:
"Together, we can end the moral scandal of poverty, the degradation of God's creation, the cultural assault on our families and children, and seeing war as the only way to confront evil." --This statement sums up well the problem with contemporary liberalism, which refuses to acknowledge the fallenness of man and creation. You can no more "end" these things than you can eradicate sin.
Here's a representative response:
You know, just because you don't think you can eradicate war, poverty, or environmental degradation, it doesn't mean you shouldn't try. And it certainly doesn't mean you should decry other people who make an effort. If you live your life with a foundation of hopelessness and inevitability, your time on this earth will be complacent. Why discourage people who live with a sense of purpose and redemption for the here and now?
These two general perspectives (though not necessarily these two commenters) then proceed to nuance, clarify, and occasionally insult each other as usual. (BTW, comment moderators have been making a list and checking it twice, and the first round of warnings before blocking abusive commenters is nigh-REPENT! BE NICE!)
But even if the original commenter didn't mean that because sin is inevitable we shouldn't even try to fight social injustice, I agree with the comment that such objections to messages of hope and challenge is counterproductive. It reminds me of when I mentioned Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger to one of my college Christian fellowship leaders and he asked if I'd heard of a counterpoint book: Prosperous Christians in an Age of Guilt-Mongering. (I kid you not.) As if there was such an epidemic of guilt-ridden Christians giving so much of their money away to the poor in sacrificial generosity that a book-length response was imperative. As opposed to a real epidemic of global hunger and starvation in the face of which much of the church was indifferent (especially Evangelicals in 1978 when Rich Christians first came out and was accused of being communist-ah, remember Cold War fundamentalism?)
Much has changed to awaken the church's conscience since then, but back to that N.T. Wright sermon that puts this debate in some helpful perspective (really, you should click here for an audio excerpt with additional context, and here for the full talk):
If somebody came to you and said, "Look, I have real difficulty with battling with sin. I find that I'm tripped up with temptation and I sin a whole lot. And I don't seem to be able to help it. But the good news is that after all, God is going to redeem me one day and I'm going to be with him in heaven or in the new earth or whatever, and so I really don't need to bother about it now, do I?"
Now, if somebody said that to you, I hope you would hit them with a fairly strong dose of inaugurated eschatology. You mightn't call it that. You would want to say: Precisely because God's going to do that for you in the future, you need to get to work on that now in the power of the Spirit. Now, supposing we were to run the same about the way the world is right now. ...
We won't build the Kingdom of God by our own efforts in the present. It remains God's gift, by his grace and by his power. But we can produce signs of the kingdom: In love and justice and beauty and healing and fresh community work of all sorts-internationally, locally, all over the place.
That last point, which some of the detractors on the blog claimed was their original point, is precisely the core of The Great Awakening as I read it. Here's a direct quote from the book:
It may be that only a revival of faith can spark the necessary changes in public opinion and political will on the really big issues, and that a spiritual transformation is necessary for social change. It's about changing hearts and minds on many of the biggest moral issues of public life that fundamentally challenge who we are and what we believe. Revival is always about what God can do through us, and is now doing afresh. ...
Far from advancing a "politics only" solution, because evil and sin are real, and because they are manifest in our worst social problems, it takes a work of the Spirit to really change things. So is the thread that sparked this post an argument merely about emphasis? If both sides affirm the basic Christian concepts that: a) creation-including humanity-can only be fully restored by God at the eschaton, and b) the church is called to promote that restoration in every sphere of influence in the meantime? If so, then get over it-and get to work!
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web editor for Sojourners.