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Christians and cultural transformation

Tuesday, 11 August 2020  | Peter Corney

The current ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests, particularly as presented in the US media, jolted me into a fresh consideration of the role of Christians in social and cultural transformation. While I deeply sympathise with the core concern of the protest and the majority of the protestors, it was disturbing to see the level of violence and disorder and the reactions of Donald Trump. For those of us who witnessed the civil rights demonstrations in the sixties under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King and other Christian leaders with their insistence on non-violent action, the comparison was a disturbing commentary on the present changes in our culture, its moral leadership and the source of its ethical motivation.

I was reminded of lines from W. B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’, written in 1919 at the end of WW1 and at the outbreak of the great flu pandemic. The seeds of Europe’s social, political and economic fragmentation in the 1930s and 1940s were sowed at this time. The bitter harvest of those seeds were the Great Depression, Fascism and the destruction wrought by WW2:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

The following are my thoughts and reflections on our need to renew our vision of the Christian responsibility for Social Transformation in these times of great disruption and change, especially in relation to the disturbing growth of ‘hyper individualism’. The pandemic provides an opportunity for fresh Christian examples of working for the common good.

Renewing the Christian responsibility for Social Transformation

At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus announced:            

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because He has anointed me            

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom

for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

- Luke 4:18-19

As followers of Jesus many Christians understand this announcement to contain the imperative to proclaim the Gospel in both word and deed, to pursue both evangelism and social justice. Another way of expressing this is to see our mission as including the task of Social Transformation (see Kenneth Bailey’s commentary, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural studies in the Gospels, 2008, 147-169).

If we accept that the task of Social Transformation empowered by the Gospel is integral to the mission Jesus has entrusted to us, we need to also understand that it is a complex and challenging one. In developing countries, Christian development workers have discovered that the process of Social Transformation involves at least six elements:

1.    The spiritual and moral transformation of individual people by the Gospel.

2.    The transformation of people’s world-view by education and worship.

3.    The transformation of community and social relations.

4.    The transformation of local leadership and economic and political structures.

5.    The transformation of education and health.

6.    The transformation of a community’s physical and technical resources (capacity building) that enables major changes to be made.

All these things are interconnected; one impacts on the other.

A question we need to ask ourselves is: ‘Does this model apply to Christian communities in the cities of developed countries like Australia?’ The need remains as critical in many parts of the ‘developed world’ as the ‘undeveloped world’. All societies are in constant need of reformation and transformation by the Gospel and the values of the Kingdom of God. It would not take long to compile a list of areas in Australian society in need of transformation right now!

For example, homelessness affects a significant number of people in Australia and we have seen the failure of state governments to provide sufficient social housing for particular groups of needy people in our communities. Could a Christian social transformation model be applied to this need by local churches and particularly new church plants?

One of the reasons we tend to deflect or avoid a response to this in our minds is because we think of the institutions that already exist to meet needs like this, often initiated by the Church in the past and presently supported by or provided by the State. But in many cases they are currently very inadequate; social housing is an acute example but only one of many.

In the case of social housing, several approaches might be applicable:

1.    Political pressure at local council level and state and federal political level.

2.    The purchase and provision by churches of houses or units set aside for this purpose and on - going support by local churches for their management or arranging to connect with existing Church welfare agencies.

3.    Certain church families providing short-term accommodation in their homes or on their properties by building a small flat or unit.

4.    A new Church plant could be built around a particular social need.

A local congregation could choose one or more of these options according to its resources.

Equipping and envisioning the Church for Social Transformation

Equipping and envisioning Church members well to take part as constructive initiators and facilitators in the processes of Social Transformation is challenging and a very important first step and requires careful education, training and reorientation of expectations.

Most clergy and pastors are trained in theology and pastoral skills but rarely in social and cultural awareness or community development and social transformation skills. This leads us to an attractional model of ministry centered around our physical buildings, services and events. This model is not working very well in our current culture. So my first point is to say how important and strategic I think is this venture and this time. There are some fresh experiments in ‘missional church planting’ and the house church movement. The so-called ‘Underground Church’ is also an interesting model (see the Underground People’ on Vimeo),

After many years in pastoral ministry one of the things that has become very clear to me is that, unless you keep your foot on the pedal as a leader and teacher, there are three things that drift off the local churches’ agenda:

1.    Evangelism.

2.    Social justice.

3.    Critical engagement with the culture. (By this I mean whether our discipleship is seduced and modified by the culture’s norms or whether our discipleship challenges those norms and we seek to live differently and so to influence our culture.)
What happens is that our focus has a tendency to drift inwards, probably because we are so practiced at self-interest! Our piety becomes introverted and singular, concerned only with our own relationship with God. Of course in the end this is a false trail for two reasons. First, the Bible allows no such singular focus. We are to ‘love God with all our heart soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves’. And loving my neighbour means I will want to introduce them to Jesus, if they are hungry I will want to feed them, if they are in need I will want to help with practical compassion, if they are being treated unjustly I will want to see justice flow for them. The second reason self-interested piety is a false trail is that our anxiety about our relationship subtly leads us away from trust in God’s grace to us in Christ and the Cross. This false trail is deeply ironic because this singular focus also leads to the erosion of the very thing we have become so preoccupied with – our personal relationship with God. This is a false trail because love and obedience are inextricably linked in the New Testament. The words of 1 John 2:3-6 make this very clear:

We know that we have come to know him

if we obey his commands. Those who say,

“I know him”, but do not do what he commands

are liars, and the truth is not in them.

But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly

made complete in that person. This is how we

know we are in him: whoever claims to live in him

must walk as Jesus did.

There is of course an opposite trap to this introverted spirituality, one that those of us with a passion for social justice sometimes fall into: working for justice in God’s world without keeping God’s love alive in our hearts. This pathway leads to ‘spiritual anorexia’, cynicism, a negative, despairing attitude to the state of our culture and a loss of hope. We become part of the problem!

Christianity and Culture

Some historical observations about Christianity’s relationship with culture are helpful as we consider our engagement with Social Transformation in a changing culture. These observations show how the Christian response will differ from one historical period to another and how it may be positive or negative. I have borrowed and adapted categories first developed by H. Richard Niebuhr as he reflected on this (in Christ and Culture, first published in 1951). Six relationships can be observed historically:

1. Christianity under the culture: Persecution under the Roman Empire in the first three centuries; Byzantine Christianity oppressed by Islam under the Ottomans; the Church under Communism in Laos or China today.

2. Christianity against the culture: Where the Church is actively opposed to the dominant culture, as in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany with Bonheoffer and Niemoller, or The Solidarity movement backed by the Catholic Church and opposed to Communism in Poland in the 1980s.

3. Christianity over the culture: Where the Church dominates and controls the culture, exerting power over it as in the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages till the 15th Century or Geneva under Calvin.

4. Christianity withdrawn from the culture: Where the Church disengages and withdraws into ghettos or closed communities like the Anabaptists in the 16th Century, the Amish in North America or the Exclusive Brethren and some forms of Evangelical pietism today. The motive may be either fear of contamination from the culture or a desire to create the Kingdom on earth in an ideal community.

5. Christianity absorbed by the culture: Where the Church is seduced by the dominant culture’s values and conforms to them, adapting its values and beliefs to fit the culture. The contemporary Western Church reveals many examples of this such as: liberal theology, where Christians adapt the Gospel to the current world-view or plausibility structure; prosperity gospel teaching, where ordinary Christians adopt the same materialism and consumerism of those around them; and racism and tribalism - Apartheid in South Africa, tribal conflict in East Africa, and the culture of violence and confrontation in Northern Ireland are all tragic examples from the recent past.

6. Christianity transforming the culture: Where Christianity acts like salt and light in the culture, reshaping its values and affecting public policy like the influence of the 18th and 19th Century English Christian social reformers. Not long ago we celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the work of Wilberforce and the Christian movement for the abolition of the slave trade.

However it is not as well understood that Wilberforce and his friends in the Clapham circle created 69 different societies for the reformation of English society and the spread of the Gospel. Western countries like Australia, Canada, North America, New Zealand and many of the Commonwealth countries are the inheritors of their far-reaching work of social transformation. The scope of their concerns took in education, factory reform, child labor reforms, health, workplace safety and prison reform. They were even involved in the passing of special laws for ‘the protection of native peoples’ in the British colonies (which sadly colonists did not always follow.) They began The Bible Society, CMS, The Mission to India, the RSPCA and the list goes on. It was a remarkable achievement.

While late 18th and 19th Century Evangelical Christians like Wilberforce were not without their blind spots, they represent a very inspiring model of their faith in action reshaping their culture. We could learn a great deal by studying their goals, methods and strategies, and, in the case of the abolition of slavery in British territories, their commitment to the long struggle.

An artistic reflection on our disturbed times

In Ridley Scott’s iconic film Blade Runner, we find ourselves in the Los Angeles in the future. The setting is bleak: ‘Ecological disaster, urban overcrowding, a visual and aural landscape saturated with advertising, a polyglot population immersed in a Babel of competing cultures, decadence and squalid homelessness’ (see J. Clayton. J., ‘Concealed circuits: Frankenstein’s Monster, the Medusa and the Cyborg’, in Raritan Quarterly Review 4, no. 15, Spring 1996, 63-69). But juxtaposed with this social decay is brilliant technological achievement. High above the teeming filthy streets live the wealthy few in luxurious gated skyscrapers.

In one of the early scenes we find ourselves in the head office of a high tech corporation who are the creators of Cyborgs – advanced robots who are almost indistinguishable from humans. But some of the Cyborgs have gone feral and hunting them down is the core of the films plot. A ‘Blade Runner’ is a bounty hunter of rogue Cyborgs. As we view the interior of the luxurious penthouse office we see an Owl perched on a stand. Then the Owl takes flight, passing in front of the vast plate glass windows behind which a brilliant orange sun is setting.

The symbolism is deliberate. The Owl has always been seen as a symbol of wisdom. In Roman mythology he accompanies the Goddess Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom. But it was the German Philosopher Hegel who famously wrote that ‘…the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk…’, by which he meant that philosophy only comes to understand an historical condition as it is passing away (from the Preface to the Philosophy of Right, originally published in 1821).

This image right at the beginning of Blade Runner is telling us that the film’s bleak vision of the future is what the sunset of our epoch will look like – the twilight of Modernity and Post Modernity (or Hyper-Modernity).

The question for our culture is: As the Owl spreads its wings and the sun sets on Western Culture, is our wisdom about the cause of its decay clear and sharp enough to enable us to transform it from decay to renewal? Has the West fallen so far from the values and world-view that delivered us the best that Western culture has produced that we cannot recover?

In these times we need something more powerful than the Wisdom of Minerva – we need the Wisdom of God to help us transform decay into new life. As we regularly pray the Lord’s Prayer, ‘…may your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven…’ let us pray that God will move and inspire us, his people, to once again bring the transforming truth and values of the Kingdom of God into our culture and society in both word and deed as we faithfully wait for the final consummation of His Kingdom and the renewal of all things.

Peter Corney OAM is the Vicar Emeritus at St Hilary's Kew, author, and these days a mentor to young ministers and Christian leaders.


Graham Stanley Turvey
August 19, 2020, 2:23PM
Kenneth Barnes' book Redeeming Capitalism has a lot on this sort of topic.

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