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.

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Could a President Keep These Vows?

Chris and I sat in Arefa’s today and watched the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States. A lot went through my mind. I was deeply moved seeing the faces of older African Americans watching the events of the day and wondering to myself how significant this day is for them. I found myself grateful for the country I live in when Chris reminded me how rare of an event it is in our world to see power change hands so easily and peacefully. I was honored when Marie, the owner of Arefa’s, entrusted me with the TV remote control during the inauguration. (Okay, so this last point pales in comparison with the others…)

 

What caught my attention most, though, was the actual oath President Obama took. My first thought was, “That was… short.” In fact, the Presidential Oath of Office is shorter than the Vice Presidential Oath. (Anyone know why that is?) When I shared this observation with Chris, he commented, “Yeah. Our ordination vows are longer the Presidential Oath of Office.”

 

This sent my Presbyterian mind racing. Being raised Presbyterian, one of the things I was always taught to appreciate about our heritage was the Presbyterian influence on the American political system. The representative democracy of our country derives from the Presbyterian practice of congregations being ruled by a ‘session’ of elders, and the larger denomination by elders and pastors from churches across the country. We have Presbyterian polity to thank for our American political system. What if, though, oaths of office were influenced by Presbyterian ordination vows?

 

When I was ordained back in September, I had to give an affirmative answer to each of these questions:

 

1.)    Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

2.)    Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?

3.)    Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?

4.)    Will you be a minister of the Word and Sacrament in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and continually guided by our confessions?

5.)    Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?

6.)    Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?

7.)    Do you promise to further the peace, unity and purity of the church?

8.)    Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

9.)    Will you be a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith, and caring for people? Will you be active in government and discipline, serving in the governing bodies of the church; and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

 

Could these vows be adapted for a president, or any political ruler? A few references would need to be changed. The church would be changed to the American people, the Scriptures to the constitution, and the confessions perhaps to the rulings, decisions and policies of Supreme Courts past and present, and previous presidents. This does, of course leave one more reference that would need to be changed, but I can’t think of anything comparable to Jesus Christ or the Triune God that could be substituted where reference is made to them. (Perhaps this shows the weakness of government in a religiously plural society. There’s no Higher Power apart from an abstract concept to which the country’s leader can be expected to submit. But we’ll save that for a different blogpost…)

 

What do you all think? Would it be reasonable for a president to take vows comparable to these? What if the presidential oath of office included vows to work for the reconciliation of the world? Or vows to further the peace, unity and purity of America? Or vows to serve the American people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love? Would this matter?

Why? Why? Why??!!

As I explained in a previous post, I’m really not a fan of pastors endorsing political candidates. Lately, it’s been grieving me to see some Christians putting more enthusiastic hope into either Obama or McCain than what I’ve ever seen them put into their Lord. Neither candidate is the Messiah. Both are human and imperfect, and Christians need to take a realistic approach to candidates.

That being said, I should probably still make the disclaimer that I’m not a fan of Barack Obama. Though I’m still, frankly, undecided about this election (mainly because I just haven’t taken the time to read upon either candidate fully), I have a hard time seeing myself voting for him. Although, the thought of voting for John McCain doesn’t really appeal either.

Despite my hesitations about Obama, this REALLY makes me angry. Focus on the Family has published a “letter” written by “a Christian in the year 2012,” at the end of Obama’s would-be first term. Just a few of the things that describe a post-Obama’s presidency America:

  • Legalized same-sex marriage is the law of the land in all 50 states, which results in the dissolution of the Boy Scouts of America, the resignation of all evangelical Christian teachers from public schools (because of the mandated teaching in 1st grade of homosexuality as a legitmate option to choose), the closing of all Christian adoption agencies, and churches losing their tax-exempt status, among other consequences.
  • The forbidding of any and all Christian speech in the public square, resulting in all religious organizations being banned from school and university properties. So, church plants have been forced to close, parachurch ministries have been forced off-campus, and ‘see you at the pole’ is put to an end.
  • Abortion is made even more accessible, to the point that doctors and nurses cannot object to performing them on the grounds of moral conscience.
  • Pornography is now freely accessible and unmonitored, even forms of pornography now considered illegal.

Don’t get me wrong. A country that looks like this would be miserable to live in. But, even if Obama is elected, the chances of all of this happening to this degree are just slightly more than 0%.

On top of that, why should Christians be so concerned? We don’t bow the knee to our government, we bow only to Jesus Christ. Even if all this were to happen, God’s purposes of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth will not be stopped.

So, as much as it grieves me to see Christians place hope in false-messiahs running for office, it grieves me just as much when Christians place undue fear into fellow Christians. Obama’s certainly not Jesus. But, odd’s are, he’s probably not the antichrist either.

Pastors and Politics

Yesterday was the primary election here in Pennsylvania, and it got me to thinking…

I remember the 2004 election well. I was in my final semester at Grove City College, one of the most republican colleges in the country. The college administration was even kind enough to have special inter-visitation hours (normally reserved for the weekends) so you could watch the election results with friends of the opposite sex (I’m laughing as I type this sentence). People were watching the election results (probably on Fox News) with great cheers every time Bush was declared the victor in a new state. I remember talking a couple days later with a friend who happened to be Democrat. She was ridiculed by a lot of her peers, and in some cases her Christian character was questioned, because clearly a vote for ‘W’ was a vote for Jesus. This atmosphere wasn’t sitting right with me.

The Sunday following the election, I had the opportunity to preach in a small Congregationalist church outside of Mercer. It was a friendly church, and one of the few that I’ve ever preached in where members of the congregation actually referred back to points of my sermon in conversation after the service (as opposed to the cliché “nice sermon” or “thank you for that message”). I loved this church, except for one thing. During the sharing of joys and concerns, the pastor and several in the congregation agreed that we needed to thank God for putting the “right man” in office, and acknowledged how hard they had been praying that this would happen. Now, I had voted for ‘W,’  and even I felt awkward at this point. I can’t imagine how anyone who voted for Kerry would feel in the context of this church.

As the Pennsylvania primary was drawing closer over the past month, I saw the opposite side of the pendulum here at Pittsburgh Seminary. I’ve seen as many Obama pins here as I saw ‘W’ pins at Grove City. I also saw and read in the news of somewhere around 100 local pastors officially endorsing Barack Obama for president. I wonder how the republicans and the Clinton supporters in their congregations feel?

Don’t get me wrong, pastors have every legal right to participate in the political process and to express their opinions. I would also argue that they, and any Christian, ought to allow their faith to inform, even dictate, their voting and political action. The problem is twofold. Firstly, no presidential candidate is Jesus, and there are valid, Christian reasons for voting (or not voting) democrat or republican. Secondly, pastors are called to the vocation first and foremost of proclaiming the gospel. When they associate too closely with any one presidential candidate, pastors run the risk of isolating themselves from those of a different political persuasion.

Perhaps it would better, rather than pastors (and Christians in general) attempting to endorse a particular candidate, to focus their political energies on speaking to particular issues. Maybe if instead of pastors talking about Obama, Clinton and McCain, they should focus on speaking about the need to preserve the life of the unborn, to be better stewards of the planet entrusted to our care, to correct the wrongs of racism still present in our society, and so on.

This would be a counter-cultural move; it would mean Christians refusing to be put into a particular political box defined by this-worldly standards. So long as we allow ourselves to be defined politically by our endorsement of particular candidate, we’ll misrepresent the gospel of Jesus Christ.