Sunday, October 31, 2010

Institutions Can Be Change Agents

I have written of my own experience with the first two ways by which evangelicals believe they can change the world, namely, through evangelizing enough people to reach critical mass, and through changing values by gaining political power. Hunter also speaks of the institutions of society.

Those of us who have only a passing acquaintance with sociology sometimes overlook the crucial role that institutions play as they mediate between the body politic and individuals. I have been involved with many institutions through the years. I was on the board of a small Christian school in Chicago and in Detroit much action occurred through community organizations. However, those organizations seemed to be exclusively focused on being agents of influence on the political machine.

After our daughter was killed in a crash my wife and I became involved in one of Canada’s best institutions, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. In my opinion the people who run MADD really know what they are doing. They understand how to act on multiple societal fronts at the same time, how to bring about political change, and how to influence a change of values in society.

MADD caries on a continual political lobbying effort. They gather statistics, they make presentations and apply pressure. As a result they have seen a gradual change in laws that have raised the penalties for drunk driving while lowering the legal tolerance level.

MADD also seeks to change the values of society. They do this through advertising and through presentations. My wife and I have spoken at The Rotary on behalf of MADD and we also coordinated a contest among school children in Grey County whereby children drew a billboard against Drunk Driving and the winning design was actually turned into a billboard and displayed.

MADD also cares for people who have lost family members to drunk driving. This was in fact our first contact as a nearby chapter called us and offered support.

What we see from this institution is an example of a number of things which Hunter speaks of. MADD speaks to the cultural forming elites of society. Because harm from drunk driving is no respecter of persons they have been able to enlist the support of a number of people who are part of Canada’s elite opinion making class.

As a result society has begun to change its values in regards to drinking and driving. Drunk driving is no longer a joke, it is no longer socially acceptable to drink and drive. That is not to say it does not happen, it happens all the time. But society no longer considers it to be permissible behaviour. And this real shift in attitude is largely credited to MADD which effectively, year in and year out, harnessed the power of the opinion making elites. Thus, as I see it, they have functioned brilliantly as an institution by mediating between the political sphere on one hand and seeking to influence the value system of individuals on the other. And further, to a limit extent, they have sought to give care to people at moments of great vulnerability.

MADD however understands its limitations as an institution. It does not, as far as I know, set as a goal the one hundred percent elimination of drunk driving. Nor does it seem to be tempted to go off mission and become involved in other worthwhile causes. Thus MADD seeks change but seeks it within a reasonable framework.

One more thing should be added from my perspective. Many of the people who are active in MADD are people who have lost part of their lives to a drunk driver. And this fact is ever before the organization. Yet, in spite of its title, the majority of people who compose MADD are not consumed with anger, or what Hunter would call resentment. They are people who wish to spare others the horror that they have experienced. This has added to the institution’s impact.

I do see in mediating institutions a way to bring positive influence on society.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

If not Chicago how about Detroit?

In my seventh year in Chicago, while in the midst of the Vietnamese refugee re-location project, I was called by David Clark, District Superintendent in another district, and asked to consider coming to a church in Detroit’s inner city. This was quite a different situation from Chicago in almost every way. Chicago, under Mayor Daley, was a well run city. People worked, raised their families and were frequently involved in community organizations. Even so there were of course massive problems in Chicago, problems large enough to challenge thousands of pastors and workers for their entire lives and I don’t wish to understate that reality.

Detroit however sat in contrast to Chicago, for Detroit was then beginning the slide to its current decrepitude. Riots has seared the soul of the city. White flight took on epidemic proportions and was encouraged by various policies. City government had as its goal to establish political power and to skim money. I will never forget walking into a city hall office and reading a large sign which said something like this: “Employees are forbidden to talk to the FBI without permission of their supervisor.”

The church itself was a result of the split of Central Alliance -- the old mother church of the Alliance in Detroit. Wayne State University wished to buy the old church to make a parking lot and so the congregation sold and moved to Dearborn. But a small group stayed behind and took up residence in another large building which was already owned by the city and slated to be demolished for even more parking.This "stay behind" group was the church that called me. I answered the call and went.

When I arrived the whole city was politicized in a way which has only recently become familiar to wider society. The presence of the city government was like humidity on a hot day and I knew that we would not be able to establish ourselves or have any relevance without becoming immersed in the political milieu.

And so I did. To this day I display in my office a plaque of appreciation given to me by one of the community organizations. Voter registration drives, court injunctions to stop this or stop that, appearing before City Council and being on a first name basis with many, including the now well known United States Senator Carl Levin, I was there, fully present and active, I worked the system.

It was generally accepted by many that community political action was going to save Detroit. Individual houses would be spared demolition, work programs would be brought in, prostitution bars closed and “hot bed” hotels zoned out – by community action. And all of this happened, and more. If political action could save even a local society, Detroit would have been saved. But Detroit was not saved.

Perhaps Detroit activists have moved on from those dreamy days of believing in change through politics. An article on Detroit in The National Post September 13, 2010 reveals the current state of affairs. Individuals act to plant gardens or to develop farms, art projects are erected in empty areas, and local people band together to push out drug pushers from their neighbourhoods. Promises from the government are met with scepticism, a scepticism that I totally resonate with. From the article I sensed that there may be glimmers of hope, not that yet another Federal grant will be obtained, but that a modest sense of community may be formed in this once great city. People are doing good things, seeking to live healthful lives, bringing healing and joy where they can.

It seemed to me as I read The National Post article that the people being described were practicing something like what Hunter calls “faithful presence.” That is, they are trying to breath life into their society. This is something for us as Christians to think about in Canada. Can we breath health, temporal health and eternal health, into Canada?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Could I At Least Change Chicago?

Church planting in Chicago first brought me face to face with questions of the involvement of Christians/church in the world. Race, war, poverty, the environment, it was all on the table and Christians around me where trying to be relevant. As part of my Ph. D. studies at Northwestern University I was in classes at a seminary where the students were trying to apply the theories of social involvement which they drew from their studies of then contemporary theologians – trying to develop their praxis as some would say. A fairly large group of them decided to have a sit-in at the seminary to protest the development of a certain coal burning power generating plant in Chicago. As I walked by one day I noticed that the whole area of the sit-in was thick with cigarette smoke. Later I asked one of the participants if he did not think this a bit odd, that they would protest air pollution yet pollute each other’s air. He didn’t see my point. Of course now, everyone sees that point. This incident really brought home to me that Christians –desiring, as they do. the best for others-- are quick to get on bandwagons, right or left, without considering the wider ramifications.

As my wife and I planted a church, we faced the question: what should be our attitude toward the issues of the day? I took the stance of focusing on planting a church, believing that a church, a group of people committed to Jesus Christ, could best address the issues of the neighbourhood. Thus, most of our programs were in some way or another slated as “outreach.” Friday youth night with a full basketball program run by volunteers from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. Door to door visitation, small group Bible studies by the dozens. I kept a written log of my time and sought to spend fifty percent in evangelism. As a result my wife and led more people to Christ and baptized more people than we have at any other point in our lives. It was an amazing period in our ministry.

However I did very little with the structural issues of the community. I would say there were several reasons for this. During that time the government answer to poverty was welfare, and I saw welfare destroy people’s lives. I also observed some effective government sponsored programs, such as one that trained youth in marketable skills. Ironically, that particular program was cancelled during a period of budget cutting while programs that produced few results continued.

In was for sure in Chicago that I developed a deep cynicism toward almost all government run/sponsored anti-poverty programs. At the same time I learned to respect the lives of the working people around me. My father was a member of a union and worked his whole life. The people I knew in Chicago were not rich like the people in the suburbs, but most of them brought home a paycheck and lived happy lives and hoped for better things. At the same time, teens dropping out of high school, a rising gang presence, the insidious entrance of drugs, these and other community dysfunctions were an incoming storm.

In the end I left Chicago for Detroit realizing that just being a church like all the churches I had known growing up was not enough for the tumultuous seas of the inner city. By then I had worked on a number of things beyond youth basketball night, but was still trying to see how the church could truly be a church and truly be a place where people’s lives could be holistically changed.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Thesis: Our Key Assumptions on How to Change the World are Wrong

As a sociologist James Davidson Hunter begins To Change the World with an analysis of the social theory that has guided Christians (it needs to be kept in mind throughout that while Evangelicals are highly profiled, Hunter is including both Mainline Protestant Churches and Roman Catholics in his critique) through the past one hundred years or so. To do this he first gives a synopsis of the project of “world making” by which he means the creation mandate given to Adam and Eve to cultivate and keep the garden and subdue the earth, which he interprets to be the whole human enterprise of creating culture. Theologians have traditionally spoken of this as the creation mandate and there is general agreement that sin did not lift this mandate and therefore culture is an outcome of our mandate to “make the world.”

Currently Christians are not happy with the culture that has been created, especially Christians in North America, and Hunter agrees with their analysis that the Christian culture of yesterday has been severely eroded. Because he is writing for the American church, I will humbly undertake to comment on how I see the relevance of his analysis to Canada. I will venture to say that Christians in Canada also are not happy with the culture in which they live, and that they desire to change it.

Later we will notice that this is precisely what Hunter advises us not to do, that is, we need to stop desiring to change the world. But first, how do we think we can change the world and how has that shaped our action?

Essentially Christians have accepted the very popular understanding of culture that has been widely adopted by politicians and by educators. Hunter says:

"The substance of this view can be summarized something like this: The essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals—in what are typically called “values.” Values are, simply, moral preferences; inclinations toward or conscious attachment to what is good and right and true. Culture is manifested in the ways these values guide actual decisions we individuals make about how to live.He says: . . . . By this view, a culture is made up of the accumulation of values held by the majority of people and the choices made on the basis of those values.” P. 6

Thus, in this view, the culture changes when individuals change their values. Change the values, change the culture. In the past one hundred years Christians have approached this project of changing the values of individuals in three ways, choosing one method exclusively, or working a combination.

First Christians have approached the project through Evangelism. The impact on values that is made when a person is truly transformed by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit and discipled can be profound. Thus, through evangelism Christians have sought to change the culture by seeing one person at a time become a Christian, one person at a time re-orienting their personal values to the values of Scripture. In so doing they have hoped that somewhere they would reach critical mass, that is, if enough people in Canada would be truly converted, become true and devoted followers of Jesus Christ, then the culture of Canada would shift back to a Christian culture. The success of the past sixty years of evangelism (post World War II with the rise of Youth for Christ and Billy Graham through the campus ministries and the Jesus People movement until today) is obvious. Around the turn of the century I recall reading an article in the New York Times that spoke of the Christian resurgence as being a third Great Awakening. However pollster George Barna gave Christians of all denominations a rude awakening when he noted in several books that Christians display values that mirror those of the surrounding culture. So "change individuals -- change culture" is not working.

The whole project of evangelism has come under withering attack in recent years by certain voices in the evangelical left (Brian McLaren to mention one) and the Anabaptists. In the name of the Creation Mandate they call for us to notch evangelism down on the priority list and to ratchet up the renewal of cultural forms. That is, if evangelism is the pathway to changing the culture of North America, it has failed, so these voices say, so let’s try something else.

The call to substitute, or downplay, evangelism for the Creation Mandate is worthy of a lengthy critique. But here, a few words. First we should remember that C. S. Lewis stood against this morphing of evangelism into renewal of culture when he pointed out that cultural forms do not exist but that individual people exist, that is, individual people have ontological status. So, “the laboring class” or what have you cannot be saved and will not live in eternity, but individual laboring people can be saved and live in eternity. Later Hunter argues that when Jesus told us to “obey” all that he had said that this would include the Creation Mandate. I am a fan of the Creation Mandate, and certainly it is part of the Christian’s obedience. But, evangelism, that is the evangelism of individual people who can be immersed into the waters of baptism, is the heart of the Great Commission.

Hunter does not call us to abandon evangelism – he is totally in favor of evangelism. What Hunter says is that by itself bringing people to Christ will not change the culture. The focus on the conversion of people which we find in the book of Acts is absolutely critical, but I personally have learned the hard way how resistant the overall culture is to change and agree that evangelism by itself will not bring such change about.

Second, Political Action. After evangelism, political action is the strategy of choice to change the world for Christians.

The logic is simple. Values are shaped by law, and law is shaped by the values of law-makers, i.e., legislators, judges and heads of state. So, when Christians sit in those positions with Christian values they will make good laws which in turn will create a Christian culture.

While Hunter affirms politics as a legitimate sphere of human activity and one in which Christians are properly to be involved he sees the current situation where “politics is the tactic of choice for many Christians as they think about changing the world” (p.12) However, he says, politics by itself does not shape culture. I would point out that politics, as part of the on-going stream of human activity, does play a role in shaping culture, and for this reason the hard work of political leaders should not be minimized as being either unimportant or ineffective. However, while I agree with Hunter that politics by itself does not shape culture, in Canadian culture politics is the focal point for power, perhaps even more so that in the United States because the Canadian people look to government to solve many of life’s problems.

A second issue in regards to the Christian involvement in politics is the question of Christians and power. Politics and power walk hand in hand, so many Christians (again—not only evangelicals) in America have faced the question: “does the cultural mandate call for us to brazenly seek power-- to have a “will to power?” and many have answered “yes.” The ironic implications of that decision are playing out before our eyes.

Third, Social Reform.
In every society there are various institutions which mediate between “citizens and the state and market.” (p.14) These are voluntary institutions and they have been used to bring about moral reform by “addressing particular problems with the family, schools, neighborhoods and civic associations.“ Illustrations of these voluntary social movements include, among others, “the fatherhood movement, the marriage movement, the character movement, the teen-abstinence movement.” (p.14) Hunter points out that these movements have contributed to culture but again have not created the desired cultural change sought by Christians.

Thus these three activities: evangelism, politics and social reform are the three projects of choice for Christians to change the culture to a Christian culture, to change the world if you please, by changing the values of individuals one person at a time with a goal of reaching a critical mass at which point the whole culture will shift. Hunter says:

"At the end of the day, the message is clear…. If you have the courage and hold to the right values and if you think Christianly with an adequate Christian worldview, you too can change the world. This account is almost wholly mistaken.” (p. 17)(emphasis mine)