Society and The Christian Witness

Society is not my project, my neighbor is. I need not bear illusions about the nature of society, or the evils present in it. I only have to fight to be a signpost to others that true kindness is possible, true love is possible, and the gospel can be lived out.

The welfare of my neighbor depends on me, and we are judged according not to the heights of religious righteousness, but according to our treatment of the least. We should not expect that if healthcare legislation passes that our society will be fixed, but we have an obligation to desire the welfare, bodily and otherwise for those who do not have these things in their reach.

We cannot fall prey to the idea that some legislation will suffice so that Christians can focus on other things. Christians in this country we know as the United States especially have forgotten what it means to not trust in the government to provide what the Church’s work is. Unfortunately many of my fellow citizens feel that Church is where we sing songs or worship, and hospitals are where we heal the sick. Call me a mediaevalist nut job, but I think the two belong together. Many community churches in the evangelical tradition now pride themselves in having a cafe, or some sort of lounge area. This just goes to show what we value in our Church life is far from helping the poor as part of our worship.

What might the Church be like if there were full time staff members who were doctors and clinicians?

My fellow citizens I think tend to assume that whatever America does for social benefits or the lack thereof is good enough for them. Our go-getter attitude in this “land of opportunity” has made it so that many irate people would like to decline all sorts of health reform, and at the same time funnel money both their personal funds and those of the church into new venues for entertaining rather than helping.

Christians must defend the defenseless even when they are counted among their ranks, rightly they should be so. The Church is at the disposal of the socially outcast, the economically weak, the political outcasts and the victims of injustice. When concern for the mistreatment of the weak, the distressed, the bankrupt, the orphaned and the jobless not only with sympathy but with action falls in the hands of those outside the Church, it is a sign of the Church’s infidelity to her call.

Legislation is not enough.

Even if some sort of bill passes, the Church should seek to exceed the witness of the state, because such is her calling. Of course Christians need concern for the general order of society and should rightly seek to advocate for the defense of the weak, the ending of unjust wars and the proper mediation of justice to crime of all sorts especially white collar crimes such as corruption. However, should a society come to worship these base vices as virtue the Church must do as she always does when faced with empires outside her control, make converts who will truthfully worship the God of Israel in all facets of life. This is the proper order for Christianity as a majority or governing body.

Even when power is placed in the hands of the Church to make decisions, our primary goal is to make faithful converts, not excuse ourselves from truthful worship because of our allegiance to the state, or excuse ourselves from power altogether simply because there was a time when the church had none. As much as I respect John Howard Yoder, the church as a power structure is simply a historical reality, and we should seek to rightly Christify this order, rather than call it into question without an alternative.

Of course the Church when mixed too closely with power becomes abusive, and we all stand to learn that lesson, we also stand to learn the lesson that no nation is our friend. Render to Caesar whatever he demands, but do not render him your worship, which belongs to God. Honor the emperor, Fear God. Have no care for those who can destroy the body, but fear the One who can destroy both body and soul in Gehennna. The right order of our honor calls emperors and rulers into faithful recognition of the One Whom we worship.

Learning from past mistakes this honor means, calling on these emperors and leaders not to Christianize the social order, but allow the Church the room to make faithful converts. Too often the upheavals of pagan orders has led to neo-pagan orders in which old gods go by new names and nominal participation in church life is acceptable. We have to continue to call this into question and pursue the right worship of God, in His Spirit. The right administration of the Church as a power broker calls for her to state prophetically her vision of peace and justice, but the enforcing of these things must happen in the Church not in society as a whole. The Church is the locus of salvation, and we rightly call society into agreement with natural law, but our primary emphasis must remain the Church and her image-bearing inconic witness about the kingdom we believe in.


11 thoughts on “Society and The Christian Witness

  1. Good post, this subject intrigues me:

    1. Do you think we should and/or how should we legislate Catholic freedom? Catholic freedom being those actions which are in accordance with our nature against the Kantian/Cartesian freedom of self-determination.

    2. Do you think people have rights as American sees rights?

    3. Do you think the Medievalist were correct in executing unrepenting heretics? That age truly believed in the soul and a man teaching heresy was no different that a man throwing around anthrax, if anything the former was more dangerous. Aquinas agrees with secular punishment for heretics.

    4. What do you think the disconnect is between what a Catholic culture should strive for and what is actually possible in this society. As the Holy Father has said, this culture finds itself too shallow to even support the gospel.


    • Great Questions, and I’ll respond according to what I think. You’ve got some difficult questions, but here’s the best I’ve got.

      1. I think there’s a measure of external influence that comes with living the gospel. If we stop seeing the year constantine converted as an ultimate tragedy, and see it as a development of the growing influence of the Christian faith, despite abuses and the first recorded intra-Christian persecution (against the donatists) on a mass scale, we see that the Church has reasonable influence on society. However, this influence translates into calling first and foremost her faithful to be…well, faithful.

      We cannot force a society to agree with us, we can only be the Church and ask that society come to see the reasonable love in our position.

      2. no. I think dignitatis humanae personae while a powerful vatican II document, falls into a few traps of the atheistic hateful deism that the enlightenment produced. Americans can have whatever they want to have, and the Church’s responsibility isn’t t affirm the right to life, as much as to affirm that we value life as sacred.

      3. This is a tricky question, and you can blame my modern sensibilities but i think even heretics are to be kept alive. I take very seriously the equality of heresy and radical physical destruction, i think it’s important that we see that doctors of the soul have the same power as doctors, and bad teachers like bad doctors can destroy the world.

      I’m gonna have to disagree with Aquinas, because though they’re equal, punishment is something rendered in and through the community of faith, and that community shouldn’t resort to bodily punishment of heretics, all that does is fuel their fire. I think if in the middle ages the vatican had taken a position of non-confrontation after the initial split, our history might look very different.

      While we take heresy seriously, giving it a response that ends in serious corporal punishment/death makes us look like the empire, rather than like the community of new creation. The Church is a peaceable kingdom, and while this certainly was an acceptable position once upon a time given the cultural milieu, i don’t think it’s something we should seek to retain or rehabilitate.

      4. A Catholic culture should strive to have as minimal a nominalist population as possible. Thus Benedict XVI’s “small church” ecclesiology works. He’s working to minimalize nominalism, at least, that’s what I see. A Catholic culture, should strive to be Catholic.

      What’s possible is that the Church as a faithful witness attempts to deepen culture with aesthetics, with faithful witness, with invitation to the Christian life with loving patience all of which She has done before.

      What’s possible, is that the Church transcends culture in some ways, and shows people the new creation we believe in, and this image, while never cemented, remains consistent. What’s possible for society is that it see a robust community of Christians, living the gospel, so that everything they thought they knew is challenged by the power of love, kindness, mercy and goodness.

      What’s possible is that the Church continues to re-educate cultures that have lost their way, by continuing to be the community of the crucified-glorified one.

      I guess in practical terms, I like that Benedict XVI and Hauerwas are on the same page on the matter of ecclesiology, in that, the Church has to be a faithful witness. She has to call society to acknowledge that our witness while happening primarily in local community, becomes a synergy greater than the sum of individuals being affected. Our neighbor is the primary responsibility, but in our right love of neighbor, the kingdom will make itself manifest, and that’s the best we can do.

      I doubt these are satisfactory, but let’s talk.


  2. Don’t have time to say more than I liked a lot of the ideas in this post. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking. When I look at the other major industrialized nations of the world and their health-care systems, and ours here in America, under the lock and key of Big Business, Big Pharma, Big Insurance, I want to get medieval on folks! (Can a Buddhist do that? šŸ™‚ LOL!

    • I think a Bhuddist can get medieval, and by all means, embrace what I would call our “prophetic tradition” and speak to the powers that be.

    • Yes, Buddhists can indeed open a can of “whup ass” on the powers that be. šŸ™‚ And even get “medieval.” LOL!

      In fact, and more seriously, the “engaged Buddhism” of my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, is a living example of this. He has bravely and courageously spoken “truth to power” his whole life. It’s what got him expelled from his home country of Viet Nam at the start of the Viet Nam war, and it’s one of the reason that Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. The truly awakened heart cannot be silent in the face of societal injustice.

      PS — (I breathed a sigh of relief when you decided to opt out of burning us heretics and non-believers at the stake! LOL — just kidding, just kidding.) As you might suspect, I have BIG problems with the whole idea of “heretics”ā€”I think there *is* truth, but the whole “heresy” thing is so wrapped up in *power* and who has the *power* to say what is “true teaching” and what isn’t. The very idea is irredeemable to me the moment the power and hierarchy come into the picture.

      The very idea that someone having some belief I don’t believe is is the equivalent of carrying anthrax and that therefore that (if I have the power) I can torture or “dispose” of this being I have totally objectified as a mere “carrier,” — well, I protest against that with every single fiber of my being and would throughout eternity, and I’ll bet divine Love is on my side, not the murderous power-mongers who excuse their dark evil in the name of “defending the faith.”

  3. Steve, I’m still a pacifist by personal choice, and specifically a non-resistant pacifist. We have to speak the truth to arbitrary power with both our resistance and our openness to suffering.

    HAHA on the heretics thing. I think that there is truth, and that soem beliefs are better than others. For example, calvinism has a very despotic totalitarian moral arbiter who requires blood, this is injurious to one’s physical self as well as one’s soul. However, heresy is often its own punishment, and we have to respond eschatologically instead of with the power systems of today, or yesterday for that matter.

    I think that some beliefs are very injurious, as injurious to the soul as losing a leg to a virus is to a physical body. I’m with you against “destroying carriers” because I think the best and most enduring witness is letting those sects rise and fall. The best thing for the Church to do is go about loving neighbor and God.

    The only proper defense of the faith is done from this witness to the end of all things, and the final reconciliation that we believe is made possible in Jesus. I think Aquinas was simply situated in a world where this was not only common, it was regarded as a concrete manifestation of justice.

    Society has changed, and the Church has a greater responsibility to exceed the mercy of society. The greater a man’s sins, the greater should be the Church’s mercy. In the end, heresy is a hiccup, and we shouldn’t shotgun hiccups.

    I think we’re on the same page here. As always, thanks for your comment Steve, and thank you for the example of your heart teacher. I think a proper equivalent is Rowan Williams, who while watching his communion fight over the ordination of gay bishops is enduring it with patience. I know HH and I will be disagreed here, most likely, but I think He speaks Christ with his understanding love, patience and fortitude in the face of heresy.

  4. Yes, it sounds like we are on the same page here.

    Rowan Williams is a fascinating guy — and he’s in a *very* hard place. His own personal views on homosexuality *seem* to be quite liberal for his sect, and yet, he seems ultimately concerned about schism (as no doubt he should be, as some basic level). I wouldn’t pigeon-hole him, that’s for sure, and I sure wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. In the pictures I’ve seen of him, there looks to be a great soul peering out of his eyes. I’m sure I’d be blessed to know the man. I might disagree with him, but I would never demonize him, as some have. I think the schism is inevitable, frankly, at some point.

    • I hope the schism can be averted and that the liberalist fascism without reason will just slowly give way to new ecumenical spirit.

      But, he’ll do the best he can, I worry about whoever succeeds him.

    • Eli, I can tell you first-hand that language like “liberalist facism” has it’s counter-pole on the other side of this issue, and all such language only “polarizes” things further.

      There are truly thoughtful loving people on both sides of this issue. I respect your view, but I think we need to put down our word weapons even as we agree to disagree, and even if we can identify extremists on both sides.


  5. You’re right, and I stand corrected. I’ve known both extremists and thoughtful people on both sides of the matter, and I jsut hate the idea of schism. I feel like there are schismatics everywhere, and I don’t knwo why but i take the issue of schism to heart very very deeply. I meant schismatics, but nevertheless, you’re right.

    Thank you brother, because that’s what matters most people.


    • No problemo, and I certainly expect you to do the same for me, my brother!

      And I understand, deeply, I think, why schism is so awful to you, and I’m not unsympathetic. And finally, it’s because you great heart cares.


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