Peter Leithart wants to add to my work as clerk of session. First, he’s reading a lot of sociologists of religion (would John Milbank approve?) on the capacity of congregations to function like families and provide for members in similar ways:
This social capital is not merely intangible. Congregations offer material support to needy members: “When people in congregations talk about building relationships and creating community, they are talking about more than warm, fuzzy feelings. These relationships often take on a depth of mutual obligation that involves pain and sacrifice, as well as joy and celebration. Once having entered these communities, participants are challenged to care for each other, in good times and in bad, and most of this caring takes place informally, rather than through organized programs” (65). Tangible support is particularly beneficial to immigrants: “In Chicago we encountered a congregation whose religious roots are in Nigeria—the Holy Order of Cherubim and Seraphim. There we heard, ‘Our church has a lot of immigrants that are coming to this country. Some of them are very young families. . . . So, you have the church trying to be like a family structure. To be able to mend all of this together so they can have a life.’ Mending together a life often requires informal assistance, rituals of healing and mourning, and the timely visit of a pastor”
Next, he thinks congregations can contribute to a number of the policy questions before the nation:
The US faces policy challenges of gargantuan proportions. Immigration, social security, drugs, race, crime and prison reform, health care, Islamicism and other international challenges. I’d put same-sex marriage, the ethical issues surrounding biotechnology, and abortion high on that list, and some would add environmental issues to the short list.
For ordinary Americans, that list poses two challenges. First, each is a hugely complex, apparently insoluble problem. A health care reform bill has been passed, but many doubt whether it will improve health care or lower costs. The difficulty of formulating a policy on immigration that answers to all American interests and values is evident in the fact that no such policy has been formulated and legislated. There are limits on what a war-weary America can do about ISIS.
Second, ordinary citizens don’t have the capacity to do much about any of them. We can vote, but few have the ability or opportunity to do much else. At best, we respond by bitching about the state of the world or engaging in Facebook polemics; at worst, we throw up our hands and find some way to avoid thinking about it.
For Christians, there is an alternative approach that disaggregates the problems and opens the possibility of constructive action. Instead of treating these issues as questions of national or state policy, we can examine them as ecclesial questions, questions about the ministry and mission of the church.
I don’t mean that we stop debating the merits of policy proposals. Institutional and legal patterns are critical, and there are definitely healthy and unhealthy, good and bad ways to organize our life together. But public policy isn’t the only way to address social needs, and for the church, legislated policy isn’t the primary way to address social needs.
No group of citizens can build a wall along the Mexican border, and few contribute in any meaningful way to formulating immigration policy. But nearly everyone lives in a town with a Hispanic minority. In addition to (or before) asking, “How can America control immigration?” Christians should ask, “What obligations do churches have toward immigrants? What can we do to proclaim the gospel to them in word and deed?” We shouldn’t merely ask how Federal or State governments can make health insurance available, but how churches can provide affordable basic medical care to the poor in a local area. We may not have the policy answers to the drug trade, but many churches support or provide help for addicts and some have effectively intervened to reduce gang violence. We can’t stop ISIS, but churches can send and support missionaries in Islamic countries, and churches can mount targeted evangelistic campaigns to Muslims in our neighborhoods. We can think of Muslim immigration to the US as a threat to our Christian heritage; we can also recognize it as one of the greatest opportunities for Muslim evangelism since the sixth century.
Well, one relief is that the economy is so bad in this part of Michigan that we don’t have that many Hispanics, so that round of meetings is not needed (even if it means finding a good Mexican-restaurant is a challenge). But how in the world if congregations barely agree on the order of service are we now supposed to find consensus on drug treatment procedures?
Plus, I’m not going near Islam (except when having drinks with our Muslim neighbor). Hasn’t Peter seen any of those ISIL videos?
Just this morning I was reading an almost twenty-year old verdict on the effects of modernity on Dutch Reformed churches:
Whereas once (and still in some isolationist communities) there was considerable homogeneity of perspective on virtually all matters of faith — that is, the Reformed message was uniformly accepted throughout the Reformed community — that is no longer the case. Among respondents in each of the countries under consideration, there is immense variation in matters of belief. Whether considering new understandings of Scripture or new formulations of divinity or new attitudes about the fate of nonbelievers, consensus is rare. On matters of political and moral concern, Christians of the Reformed churches have significant differences of opinion. (Rethinking Secularization: Reformed Reactions to Modernity, 281)
So do members of most communions (Roman Catholics included where they put the “it” in unity). But now Peter wants us to take on social policy? How much free time does he have in his new position?