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BOOK REVIEW: A NEW EVANGELICAL MANIFESTO: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good

ImageBeing religiously conservative does not necessarily mean being politically conservative. There is a significant, emerging segment of conservatively theological Christians who agree with politically liberal counterparts while staying true to their own faith regarding a wide variety of political issues in contemporary America. A NEW EVANGELICAL MANIFESTO: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good (David P. Gushee, editor: Challis Press, St Louis, MO, ©2012, 257pp.) is a statement of conviction by a score of young, “progressive” evangelicals who are theologically conservative but politically liberal. They are convinced that the close identification of evangelicals with the conservative wing of the Republican Party has harmed the witness of the church to the good news of Jesus. This book is a call to renew the vision of evangelicals in a way that will better reflect the glory of our Lord.

The 16 men and 4 women authors present a mixed bag – but they agree in fundamentals. Their 22 essays are in three sections:

  • Section I:             A New Kind of Evangelical Christianity… (7 essays)
  • Section II:            Leading to Holistic Love of Marginalized Neighbors, Such As… (8 essays)
  • Section III:           …And Redemptive Approaches in Public Life. (7 essays)

The first 4 essays of Section I set out the “case” against traditional Evangelicals.

Brian McLarin speaks of the 3 “N’s of traditional evangelicalism: a Nostalgic desire for the “good old days,” a Nativist desire for the WASP’s to be in control, and Negativism toward any challenge to those desires. These, he says, are driving young people from the evangelical fold today.

Steve Martin maintains that since Constantine the church has often sided with the powers of darkness instead of relying on the power of Christ – as he believes evangelicals are doing.

Cheryl Bridges Johns has hermeneutical advice. She maintains that in using the Bible primarily as propositional truth about God instead of as the living oracles of God, fundamentalists rob them of mystery. The result? “…the generation that devoured Harry Potter, Tolkien, and the Vampire Diaries” is fleeing the church. They yearn for the “…mysterion, the ever-widening mystery of Christ that beckoned believers into the life of God” (p. 22).

Richard Cizik, Executive VP for Governmental Relations of the National Association of Evangelicals for 10 years, was fired in 2008 after working with the organization 28 years. He, a co-founder of the NEP, tells the story of what happened, arguing that he let too much “fresh air” in for powerful evangelicals in an interview on an NPR program, “Fresh Air.” He says evangelicals are rigid, authoritarian, and unwilling to consider alternate views of social issues – and names the guilty. I see this as an unseemly section of this volume that adds little to its central purpose.

Essays 5, 6, and 7 round out Section I in a positive way. Paul N Markham, Glen Harold Stassen, and Steve Martin get to the nub of what the NEP wants to do (as opposed to what they see as the failure of traditional evangelicals).

Markham says the unifying issue among the NEP is a desire for social justice and the willingness to work for this in formal organizations that cross denominational (or even non-Christian) lines. “New Evangelicals understand that living a vibrant Christian life is about more than simply believing in this or that doctrine. We are willing to… work together to see God’s will come to fruition in the world” (p. 48).

Stassen cites Emerging Churches, a study by Bolger & Gibbs of churches attracting young adults fleeing traditional evangelicals. The most critical factors are (1) identifying with Jesus, thus embodying the kingdom; (2) rejecting the dichotomy of “secular” and “sacred”; and (3) living in community, both church and the secular community where we are.

Martin looks at Jesus’ command to “love your enemies.” He says if “your” is singular, this speaks of the neighbor who hates your barking dog; but, if “your” is plural, it speaks of loving those whom my group deems to be enemies. This is a dangerous love, as Jesus discovered when he pointed out in Nazareth that Elijah and Elisha both worked miracles of mercy for Gentiles.

This sets the stage for eight essays regarding a Christian response to the marginalized written by Jennifer D. Crumpton (2 essays in this section), Andi Thomas-Sullivan, Rick Love, Lisa Sharon Harper, Laura Rector, Scott Claybrook, and Adam Phillips.

Crumpton draws on Jesus’ quote of Isaiah 61 in his announcement of his mission for both of her essays in this section:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

In Essay 8, which deals with the sex trade including those of both sexes shanghaied into sexual slavery, she does an excellent job of showing that these are people who are genuinely oppressed and need to be freed. She cites Wilberforce’s crusade against the slave traffic in the early 19th century (as do others of the essayists) as an example of how we need to be expressing outrage so little is being done in the world to stop this offence against humanity. Yet, in Essay 12, which deals with “Women” as marginalized in American society in particular, she asserts (without demonstrating) that women in America are truly among the marginalized. The main issue she discusses is women in church leadership.

Sullivan’s essay on those suffering from preventable diseases recounts her work in beginning a non-profit, “His Nets,” while a student. The “nets” are treated mosquito nets that protect against malaria in tropical areas. Her work has great success with finance coming from individuals, churches, businesses, and governments. This is an example of the “cross-line” cooperation spoken of in Section I.

Rick Love, whose essay deals with Muslims as marginalized neighbors, says, “We are promised a love that drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18; 2 Tim. 1:7), but we experience a fear that drives out love.” He draws parallels between the Jews/Samaritans of the 1st century and the Christians/Muslims of today – and points to how Jesus treated Samaritans as an example to follow.

Harper points to a tradition of people in America who have risen as “prophets” to call our nation to greater justice in racial matters. She also points to the evolution of American law from colonial days to “Jim Crow” era legislation that served to marginalize people of color. This part of her essay was particularly enlightening to me.

Rector reminds us Jesus said we must become like children to enter the kingdom. God’s kingdom is not “adult only.” While the Jews valued children, Jesus accepted them in a way no rabbi would. She observes we need to move beyond an ineffective culture war to have…

…an ethic of life and theology of childhood that say children must be protected not only in the womb, but also from poverty, a lack of medical resources, environmental cost, violence, a failing school system and other ways they are put at risk. (p. 130)

She says much about how family issues in general affect children – particularly divorce. She also mentions how immigration policy often separates children from families, as also does military service.

Claybrook speaks of “The Dying” as marginalized. He wrote about a year after his mother lost a long fight against cancer; much of the essay details his personal experience. His essay, accordingly, is quite emotional in tone. He points out the need to do a better job of ministering to the dying and their families. He also notes we need to do better in helping families deal with grief, especially the guilt for relief many families feel when a long terminal illness is over. In these things, he differs little from traditional evangelicals. His difference is that he wants to open a conversation over euthanasia and assisted suicide. Because he recognizes the dangers inherent in these, he does not advocate either – but wants Christians involved in the conversation with minds open to the possibilities of these alternatives to prolonged suffering.

Phillips, considering “The Global Poor” as a marginalized group, begins by pointing out that the church is the global body of Christ – and that we need to quit thinking of the poor of the 3rd world as “them” and begin thinking of “us,” since when one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers. Yet, what he advocates is advocacy – with government programs being his objective. For example, he says:

Advocacy is central to the equation of millions of lives being saved. Without advocacy for smart policies like PEPFAR [President Bush’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief] and the Global Fund that gets at the root causes of poverty and disease, efforts by individuals, churches, and institutions are simply charity and not justice…. It’s a twenty-first century way to exercise our earthly and national citizenship today, as Paul lived out his in the first century.

He uses the examples of Wilberforce advocating for the end of the slave trade and of the modern churches in Zambia banding together in 2001 to prevent an illegal run for a third term by their President Chiluba as evidence of the power of Christian advocacy.

SECTION III, “…AND REDEMPTIVE APPROACHES IN PUBLIC LIFE,” addresses several thorny policy issues with essays on “Ending the Death Penalty” (Timothy W. Floyd), “Making Peace” (Paul Alexander), “Abolishing Nuclear Weapons (Tyler Wigg-Stevenson), “Over-coming Global Warming” (Jim Ball), Reducing Abortion (Charlie Camosy), Resisting Consumerism (a 3rd essay by Jennifer D. Crumpton), and “Standing Fast Against Torture” (editor David Gushee). Each of these give good background to the issues they discuss.

Floyd looks at the death penalty as practiced in America today – and concludes it is ineffective in its intended result of deterring murder and biased in its approach. He gives no attention to God’s instruction to Noah where the death penalty first appears in Scripture. He does argue for the possibility of redemption if death penalties become life sentences with no parole.

Alexander’s discussion of making peace was, to me, one of the highlights of this book. Using the passage of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus talks about an eye for an eye, turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and loving ones enemies he puts us into the context of the first-century Jew – and then discusses how these lessons can be applied in our world today. His essay is a clarion call to Christians to act like “sons of God” (cf. Matt. 5:9), with fewer “political” overtones than most of the essays.

Whig-Stevenson recognizes he is no “expert” on nuclear armaments.  Nevertheless, he ably questions the validity of the “cold war” rationale for maintaining them, the MAD doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. He correctly notes that the greatest danger of nuclear attack today is either from a rogue state or a terrorist organization. Knowledge of how to build these weapons means we will always have nuclear weapons in the mind. So how can we abolish them? He calls for the USA and Russia to lead the world to revulsion against them such that their use would be beyond contemplation, beginning by laying down their own nuclear arms. Useful policy or wishful thinking? I leave you to decide.

Jim Ball assumes global warming, and calls for the usual sorts of measures to abolish it – mainly stopping the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. He fails to connect his proposed measures with Christian principles, except that of caring for God’s creation. While there may be Christians who think so apocalyptically about our Earth that they do not mind abusing it, this view does not seem to me to be general. Ball fails to show a path from our present carbon-based energy to “green” energy without major, economically devastating disruptions of the economy with incalculable suffering by ordinary people everywhere. It is ironic that this book appeared not long before the Meteorological Society of Great Britain quietly announced global-warming has plateaued for the past 16 years, which is about the same length of time global temperatures had previously been rising, following 40 years of cooling. In other words, global warming seems far from being settled science.

Camosy recognizes abortion will not be obliterated, but seeks to reduce the numbers of abortions with a two-pronged approach: (1) make abortion illegal (but, apparently with a blind eye to doctors who abort anyway – though this is not explicitly stated, it seems to be assumed) and (2) alleviate conditions that make abortion the only apparent alternative for many poor, single women.

Crumpton’s background as an account executive with an advertising company prior to entering Union Theological Seminary to get her M.Div. and entering the ministry makes her a natural to talk about consumerism. She does a fine job of pointing to how much we need to resist the constant manipulation by the advertising media to define ourselves and our happiness by “stuff” and entertainment. This essay is quite valuable as a resource.

Gushee’s essay on torture responds to mindless Christian acceptance of governmental policies of EIT, or Enhanced Interrogation Techniques introduced by the Bush administration. He says these are illegal, since American law specifically bans torture and they were merely “defined” as not being torture. He also maintained that, counter to supporter’s claims, these techniques were ineffective in getting “actionable intelligence.” He further argued the long-term sacrifice of the moral high-ground will weaken us instead of strengthen us. This will be in two ways: (1) loosing moral standing in the world and (2) opening the door to even more torturous techniques in the future. He changed my mind about a subject I had not thought deeply enough about.

My over-all impression of the book is mixed. Section I, with its examination of how the church has failed in its mission of being the incarnate presence of Jesus in the world, is very good. As specific issues are addressed, some of the writers are excellent; others are not. All are passionate and thought-provoking, even when one disagrees with their positions. I give this effort a solid B+, as it presents a challenge to accepted positions of traditional evangelicalism. Those patterns of approaching the mission of the church have done little to change the world – and have left the church in disrepute by those we are called to serve and lead in the way of Christ. Are the solutions proposed here workable? Some have worked and are working to change, at least parts of, the world. Others are more wishful thinking than practical solutions. All, however, seek earnestly to point to more fervent imitation of the Lord who invites us, “Follow Me.”

Note: in future posts, I hope to critique some of these essays individually.


One Response

  1. Looking forward as always to your insight. Tempted to buy & read it, but school precludes that idea.

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