Friday, June 15, 2007

official - or influential?

I confess that I am struggling with why seeing New Zealand as a Christian nation in past, present, and future is such a big deal. Under the threat of today's new-religions and 'no-religion's (as is so popular in our census forms), it smacks of Christianity trying to preserve some sort of home-field advantage in the game of religion. "Let's make sure we maintain a preferential treatment for Christianity and keep it kinda official."

Is that the way to go? Isn't that just a not-so-naked power play?

This Wilberforce movie (Amazing Grace) is a reminder of just how ugly 'official' Christianity can become. Wilberforce takes on a Parliament crammed with people no doubt claiming to be Christian who are also advocating for the slave trade - concerned as they are that its abolition will lead to a lowering of their standard of living! Official Christianity has a way of going to seed. It is a magnet for gigantic blindspots. No matter how much 'the days of Elijah' are sung about, it is actually the days of Malachi in which we live. Read it and weep! Official Christianity becomes institutional. It develops a form of godliness while denying its power (its real power) ...

... and it easily becomes corrupted. In the early 1990s a video went all around NZ causing great excitement among the Christian masses. It told the story of the election of Frederick Chiluba as the President of Zambia and how - at his inauguration, from memory - he proclaimed Zambia to be a Christian nation. That video was like a rugby ball down an All Black backline. It moved very quickly. Last year I was in Zambia. Last year I was on the street where Chiluba lives - under house arrest awaiting trial on corruption charges. What a gullible lot we Christian Kiwis are... (oh yeah - remember how Taupo was going to erupt!)

NAH! Let's not put all our eggs in the 'official basket', hoping to bring about transformation by that means. The urge in our nation to 'go back' to when we were more Christian - some mythical back, I suspect - needs to be traded-in for an urge to 'go further back' - way back to those early centuries when followers of Jesus were a marginalised persecuted minority in a world full of new-religions and 'no-religions' - and at the peak of their influence.

Today we are heading for a similar space. New religions and 'no-religions' are not going to go away. That would be like trying to turn off a waterfall at the tap. The storm clouds of persecution will continue to gather for authentic followers of Jesus. And is that such a bad thing? Do we want to be merely official - or do we really truly want to be influential for the sake of Jesus?

Again Wilberforce points the way. What was the secret of his influence in his marginalised persecuted space? ONE he discerned the call of God on his life, which was to politics rather than to the ministry, and he lived that call with character and courage. TWO he mixed-in to his world as salt and yet stood apart from that world as light and did so fully and forever. THREE he lived his life in the company of like-minded others (sadly, the story of the community which is the Clapham Sect is left untold in the movie) with resilience and purpose.

The posturing and soap-boxing and headlining that comes to mind when I think of "official" leaves me a bit cold. But the subversion of a grassroots movement of Jesus-followers committed to ONE and TWO and THREE and doing so against the odds ... well, that is a different story and probably an "influential" one as well.


nice chatting


Paul Windsor

12 comments:

Greg said...

I liked this post very much, partly because I agree with it, and partly because it does not seem like a very common view! With the recent interest in this discussion topic, I have been quite shocked at the number of people who hold that a "Christian" nation (defined as a place where Christians hold "official" power) is something we should aspire to. But did we do that well with this power when we had it?

One other thought: there is value in being constantly conscious of and carefully thinking through the pre-Christian, post-Christian distinction, particularly when we make comparisons between our situation and the early church. (Love this quote: The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried. G. K. Chesterton)

Ragged Glory said...

I pretty much think the same thing myself. It's pretty much irrelevant. Nice post. Peace be with you.

Nick said...

Hi Paul,

Interesting post...

I wonder though whether it would be helpful have a clearer definition of 'Christian Nation' for the purposes of this discussion. If you're talking about theocracy or a 'soft-theocracy' then I'm completely with your comments. I agree on going farther back to Christ himself - not just some romanticised glory day for the gospel....

But...I wonder if Oliver O'Donovan's work is helpful in arguing for a Christian secularism as opposed to a rootless secularism. His call for us to apply the gospel call not just to individuals, but to a society as a whole has to have implications for how we configure the nature of our secularism. He argues strongly for not exempting the structures of society from the announcement of the Lordship of Christ. Yet, this doesn't as most suspect, lead towards theocratic ends.

'Official' anything will always tend towards disrepair and unfaithfulness - but I'm not at all convinced that decides the issue for us. In fact the reverse can be argued - because of the tendency towards unfaithfulness, we should commit to engage further, rather than pull back. We simply can't exempt official structures from gospel persuasion. Moreover - a secularism not rooted in Christian thought will be far from neutral. There will never be a vacuum of ideological power.

Thinking about Wilberforce - given he took on Parliament - surely with an aim to make official a Christian stand on slavery, the argument can work both ways. He argued in effect for a change in official Christianity towards a gospel position on slavery. My question is this - what happens when we are successful in our persuasion of society?

However, my caveat is that I must not see the end of all this work to be a protection of my interests and my rights - which seems to be the root motive of much of our activism. The allure of official power and central standing in society must never be the end goal for us. Yet if we are to take the gospel to the heart of New Zealand society and culture - it cannot forever be without national implication...

Be interested to hear others' thoughts...

Nick

Sean said...

G'day Paul, hope you're well. Great post. Just wondering if you've heard of, or read a book called: Soul Cravings by Erwin McManus. I was with him for a conference recently, and he's great at addressing the gospel in a postmodern society, saying similar things [packaged very differently] as some things I've learnt at Carey. Will be worth checking that out...

take care,

from Africa,

sean D.

Paul Windsor said...

Gee - that was quick! I can't keep up with you...

Greg: This is the Christendom curse about which we speak, is it not? And thank-you for reminding us again of the danger of cut-and-pasting post-Christian into pre-Christian or vice versa. There are analogies and there are similarities - but we must stop short of direct equivalencies.
Going even further back - into the biblical material - this becomes such an issue when people simply assume that because Jesus did something, or the church in Acts did something, we should do it too. There is a uniqueness about those people and those situations that is not always repeat-able. Description does not always mean prescription.

Nick: you are raising new ideas and names for me. Thank-you! My Wilberforce comment on being salt-light is not intended to mean that involvement in secularism can only be personal and individual. It might start there - but it needs to evolve into coordinated Clapham Sect-like responses. This was a strategic and skilled team approach aiming at impacting society with its structures and systems ... I do feel sad that the movie did not make more of the Clapham approach. A concession to our individualism today?
As for that moment when we are 'successful in our persuasion of society'? It makes me very, very nervous. "Power corrupts, absolute power... " Not all of me welcomes this unlikely prospect. Maybe there is something in the prophet:priest:king typology to help us? Maybe the power in each of these roles can be used to correct the excesses in the other ones? The excesses of the 'king' (about which we speak here) needs to know the correction of the power from the 'prophet' and the 'priest' - and this needs to start in our smallest of communities where these roles exist in embryonic form? There are stories in the OT which work with this - like Amaziah and Amos.

Lisa said...

hmmm I'm going to go right back - forgive me. I needed time to ponder.

I was listening to talkback radio here in wellington today and the non christian host seemed to be rather bemused by the whole idea of Christianity an officialness. His line of thought was that as the Queen is our head of state and she is the head of the Anglician church then that makes us a Christian country however according to him we sure don't seem to be as radical about our beliefs and don't seem to want to die for them like someone from a Muslim country.

Chris Marshall said something similar in regard to Christian's and ethics he said that Jesus was a Radical and most of us are moderates.

However back to the point at hand: You can't force someone to be something they are not, in fact it is rather unhealthy to do so, didn't Jesus try and get to this through his parables about the pharisees.

I don't see people in the persecuted church having a hang up on whether their country is officially christian or not I think they are more concerned with being the best they can be for God and his kingdom - shouldn't we be too?

Paul Windsor said...

Yes, Lisa - I like your comment about the persecuted church. There is something in that. Being official is the last thing on their minds - as they just try to be faithful under pressure ... and meanwhile God does wonderful things through their testimony.

And Sean - I will track down that McManus book!

magicmalcs said...

Hi Paul

We don't have the same issues here in Australia. We like to be pagan. I think its the convict heritage.

BTW I attended your seminar on Fathering at Belgrave Heights Men's Convention. You said you had the 11 points you made in digital format. Would I be able to have them?

Paul Windsor said...

Yep - send me your email and I'll get them to you...

(but I am literally on my way to the airport to go to a Central Asian Republic - four flights and 51 hours later! - to speak at a conference for workers in that area)

... so it'll be a couple of weeks.

Andrew Butcher said...

I was meaning to post on this when I first read it but have only found time to do so now.

I coulnd't agree more with your comments Paul. I think we only need to reflect on some English and European history to realise that when the church became "official" life didn't necessarily become any easier or better for Christians or non-Chrisitans. Constantine's "Christian" empire may well have been more pragmatic politics than anything genuine, but he can hardly be described as the saviour of Europe. Depending which monarch you support and whether you're Protestant or Catholic is going to have some bearing on how you view official religion in England. In some ways we could probably say Luther was reacting against official religion that far from being part of the masses was used by the elite to exclude others. I'm not sure what those who claim for a Christian national religion actually want - just recognition (then why?) or some entree into power? The Christian entree to power is always through the cross, any other way is dangerous indeed.

dale said...

Excellent post!

My following comment is shameless proof-texting I admit, but these few words from Jeremiah 29:7 have been quite meaningful/thought-provoking to me as I consider us to be 'exiles' in a foreign land...

"But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."

Hey, it's better than the constant positivistic/therapeudic proof-texting of verse 11!!! :)

-d-

dale said...

Also meant to say (in strong agreement) that ever since ole Constantine (perhaps in other ways before?), the 'official' brand of 'christianity' has been certainly alive and kickin'...

-d-