An Optimistic Skepticism: My Take On the Manhattan Declaration

In late September, a group of Christian leaders from the Evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of the Church gathered in Manhattan and drafted a document now called the Manhattan Declaration. The document was released a couple weeks ago on November 20, signed by a number of Christian leaders representing all three of the branches of the Church. The Declaration is a call to Christians and non-Christians to join the signers in affirming and defending three “fundamental truths.”

1. the sanctity of human life.

2. the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.

3. the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Since it’s release in November, the Declaration’s website has invited other Christians to sign the declaration. As of my writing this, the document has been signed by more than 208,000 Christians. I’m not one of them…. yet.

When I read the Manhattan Declaration, there was much that I found commendable, but I also thought that too much went unsaid, and I remain skeptical of its effectiveness.

First, I appreciate the emphasis on unity among Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox voices. The signers from all three branches claim a common heritage. The Declaration begins:

Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word, seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering.

The Declaration then goes on to give concrete examples of this common tradition. It recalls Christians in the Roman Empire rescuing discarded babies from trash heaps and remaining in cities to tend to the sick and dying rather than fleeing, like many did. It celebrates the role monasteries played in preserving literature and art, the role of Christians like John Wesley and William Wilberforce in ending the slave trade in England, and the Christian women who headed up the suffrage movement in America. It even celebrates the Christians who participated in the Civil Rights marches of 50s and 60s (something many evangelicals are less-quick to stand in solidarity with). I think this is easily the best part of the Manhattan Declaration, as it highlights some of the greatest examples of faithfulness and commitment to justice in the Church’s history.

The Manhattan Declaration also very evidently seeks to be honest, thorough, and compassionate. Even as the document celebrates faithful Christians through the ages, it also acknowledges “the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages.” When speaking of issues of life, the Declaration doesn’t only address abortion and euthanasia, but also says that genocide, human trafficking, exploitation of laborers, and innocent victims of war are all symptoms of the sam problem. When speaking of homosexuality, the Declaration says,

“We have compassion for those so disposed; we respect them as human beings possessing profound, inherent, and equal dignity; and we pay tribute to the men and women who strive, often with little assistance, to resist the temptation to yield to desires that they, no less than we, regard as wayward. We stand with them, even when they falter.” (emphasis my own)

In spite of its strong points, I’m still skeptical for a number of reasons.

First, when speaking of marriage, the Manhattan Declaration falls short of fully addressing the problem. The document laments the erosion of the dignity of marriage, evidenced by increasing divorce rates, increasing amounts of sexual co-habitation outside of marriage, and an increasing inability to consistently define marriage. It also confesses the Church’s failure to uphold the dignity of marriage within the Christian community. This is only half of the problem, though. Our culture, and even more so the Church, has lost a healthy view of singleness. The reason so many co-habiate or are sexually active before marriage is not only because we’ve failed to uphold the dignity of marriage, but also because we’ve failed to uphold the dignity of singleness. The word “single” or “singleness” isn’t once mentioned in the Manhattan Declaration.

The main source of my skepticism, though, is in the expectations of those who have drafted and signed the declaration. The declaration does a fine job of articulating the three ‘fundamental truths’ and the threats that are challenging them today. It’s less strong in articulating concrete next steps that we’ll take as Christians.

In his book The New Christians, Tony Jones notes that a critique of the liberal church (those Christians on the opposite side of the theological spectrum from the drafters of the Manhattan Declaration) is that they’ve gone from being “revolutionaries” to being “resolutionaries.” In other words, the liberal Christians who fought for social justice at the turn of the 20th century by the century’s end had gained the reputation of addressing justice issues by (un)simply passing resolutions at denominational meetings instead of getting their hands dirty. It seems that the conservative side of the spectrum has gone in the same direction. Paul Louis Metzger has noted this trend in his book Consuming Jesus, as has Tony Campolo in his book Can Mainline Denominations Make a Comeback?.

I hope  that the Christians signing the Manhattan Declaration will take seriously the heritage the Declaration claims for the Church of Christians through the ages tending the sick, serving the poor, and standing in solidarity with the oppressed and outcast. I pray that they’ll take seriously the problems and threats to justice that the declaration identifies, and that their response will go beyond merely signing a document. The Manhattan Declaration will only bear good fruit if it’s followed by concrete actions. May we be found faithful.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “An Optimistic Skepticism: My Take On the Manhattan Declaration

  1. Michael – I appreciate your take on this issue, mostly especially your emphasis on “singleness” being a sanctified role equal to that of the sacred role of marriage. In our concentration on “no sex before marraige”, we often send the message that marriage is the only viable option for a healthy and productive human life. It is a nuance I had missed when reading the declaration myself. Thanks for bringing it up.

  2. Yours is a thoughtful perspective, and I appreciate the points you make about the Manhattan Doctrine’s ommissions. It seems obvious that I would have a stronger negative reaction to the piece than you might (as I am not at all the audience to which the Manhattan Doctrine is directed); however, I find it to be seriously deficient even within the evangelical context.

    My problem is that it doesn’t seem to be grounded in a spirit of Christianity, at least Christianity as I feel it’s expressed in the gospels. The document seems rather to be grounded in a very specific political ideology, which then co-opts the name of Christianity in order to sell its points. I find it coersive, insidious, and presumptuous, just I have always found the conservative right’s insistance upon co-opting Christianity to its purposes.

    I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the Manhattan Doctrine reads like a list of ideological talking points, nor that nothing contained in it is illuminating or revelatory. Yet it underscores again the (I feel) incorrect assumption that if one does not agree with the basic tenets of the document, then one is not a Christian. Rather, one is a “fallen” Christian, or a “stumbling” one, at best.

    Moreover, though I think the comments about life and liberty have some broad positive perspectives and are generally consistent with a Christian ethic, the assertion that so-called “traditional marriage” is one of the fundamental tenets of Christian social activism is laughable. Aren’t there other broad concepts of social justice and activism that might be more central to the Christian ethic, rather than a petty quibbling over definitions?

    Anyway. That’s the perspective of this former evangelical.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s