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.

Thoughts on “The New Christians” by Tony Jones

the_new_christians_tony_jonesAbout a year ago, now, I attended the Church Basement Roadshow when it stopped at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Communty in Pittsburgh. The Roadshow was a book tour for 3 then-recently-published books by Tony Jones, Mark Scandrette, and Doug Pagitt. I was really intrigued by what Tony had to say then, and so I picked up Tony’s book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier.

Though he stepped down from the position last year, at the time of writing The New Christians, Tony was serving as the National Coordinator for Emergent Village. In The New Christians, Tony gives an explanation of the emerging church movement, including the shifts in our broader cultural context from modernity to post-modernity, some of the earlier history of the movement, the theology and ecclesiology behind the movement, and some contemporary stories that illustrate what the emerging church looks like on the ground.

The stories from the movement, both its early history and more recent stories of emerging churches, are what’s most helpful in the book. More than anything else, the emerging church is a movement of people. It’s difficult to define emergent Christianity in terms of a particular doctrine or theory, which Tony illustrates very well in the diversity of stories he tells. Tony’s stories aren’t just diverse in terms of the theological perspective of the individuals, though. Tony also reports “dispatches” of emergents who are very much at the center of the movement (though they wouldn’t like to be considered at the center or choose to be there) as well as lesser known emergents, faithfully demonstrating the movement’s egalitarian values.

What I found less helpful about the book is the ways in which Tony handles his and the emerging church’s critics. Tony begins the book by critiqueing and attempting to reveal the weaknesses of both evangelical/fundamentalist/conservative forms of Christianity and liberal/progressive forms of Christianity, as well as criticize both the religious right and left for attacking each other and the emerging church. He concludes that “Christian leaders resort to unnuanced attacks on one another.” [p.21] While this may be true, Tony says this after critiqueing and rejecting both the “right” and the “left” in less than 20 pages. His criticisms ultimately comes across as the pot calling the kettle black.

Tony also takes the comments of his critics VERY personally. Granted, some of his critcs have made comments that are very personal. Yet as I read the book, I couldn’t help but get the impression that Tony wasn’t prepared for some of the harsh criticism his thoughts have received. Much of the book comes across as defensive, and in some cases even as emotional venting.

The personal responses to personal attacks lead to what I think is the greatest weakness of the book. Because Tony responds in such a personal way that it’s hard to tell when Tony is talking about the characteristics of the emerging church and when he’s speaking more from his own opinion.

At the same time, this may be the book’s greatest strength. For much of the book, reading it feels like sitting across the table with Tony and chatting him. The New Christians is very much an insiders account of the emerging church, and Tony’s personal interest in the movement, his passion, and his emotions give the book an extra measure of authenticity.

If you’re looking to be inspired or to find new insights into the current state of the church, The New Christians will probably disappoint you. If you’re looking for an authentic first-hand account of the emerging church movement, though, The New Christians is certainly worth checking out.

Catching Up On Blogging

It’s been a while since I last updated on here. I’ve been meaning to post for a while, now. The problem has been that the past two weeks have been a combination of being busy with not having immediate access to the internet, which has resulted in no new postings since mid-July. There are a number of things I’ve been wanting to write, and that list keeps growing. So, I’m going to catch up right now by covering everything in one fell swoop. Buckle your seatbelts, here we go….

 

New Wilmington Mission Conference

 

This is the third year I’ve worked on the conference staff, and in terms of speakers, this has to be the best of the three. If you have a chance, I strongly encourage you to check out the sermons from the conference by Jim Martin (of International Justice Mission) and Ken Bailey. The impact of Jim’s sermon was incredible. It felt as if he took the whole congregation through crucifixion and resurrection. Ken Bailey is always brilliant, but in this particular sermon, his intellect as a New Testament Scholar is combined with his passion as a missionary of Jesus Christ.

 

Thinking About Patience

 

I’ve been spending time lately reading the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (a Victorian-era poet and Jesuit Priest). I’m planning on writing a full post about him once I finish the volume I picked up. But for now, I just want to share a portion of a poem that stuck out to me:

 

Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,

But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks

Wants wars, wants wounds; weary his times, his task;

To do without, take tosses, and obey.

 

Reading this showed me that when I ask for patience, what I’m usually asking for isn’t patience at all, but simply relief of my hardship or discomfort. But asking for patience is a dangerous thing. Asking for patience means asking for wars and wounds. It means asking for contentment within hardship, not relief of hardship. Maybe we need to recover some of the earlier translations of scripture that, instead of using the word “patience,” use the term “long-suffering.”

 

From Fantasy to Imagination

 

I can’t remember now whether I read this recently or heard it in a sermon. (My best guess is that I read it either in Dangerous Act of  Worship or Shaping of Things to Come). Somewhere, though, someone talked about serving God with imagination. Something that stuck out to me is that a defining characteristic of imagination is practice. Having creative ideas about ministry (or serving God more generally) is useless if we don’t put those ideas to use. Imagination that stays in our heads isn’t imagination at all; it’s fantasy.

 

I’m noticing that I’m much better at fantasy than at imagination. Maybe it’s because fantasy is safer. If ideas stay in my head, they won’t be criticized by others, and more importantly, they won’t fail. Fantasy, though, is also useless.

 

As Chris and I continue with the church planting work, we’re beginning to grow restless. We’ve been spending a lot of time talking about plans and ideas with others, writing about them in a grant proposal, and praying about them. I think our restlessness, at least in part, comes from a strong desire for this new church not to be a fantasy, but a reality brought about by God’s Spirit gifting us with imaginative vision.

 

Church Basement Roadshow

 

The Church Basement Roadshow, a book tour featuring Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt and Mark Scandrette, came through Pittsburgh last Saturday night. I appreciated what all three had to say. One thing that disappointed me, though was who attended, or perhaps it’s better to say who didn’t attend.

 

The event was hosted by Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community (with help from the Open Door and Emergent Pittsburgh). As much as I like Hot Metal, I’m not sure that was the best location for the event. This isn’t because I have anything against HMB. I think they’re one of the best examples in Pittsburgh of how to do church faithfully in a particular neighborhood. And that’s just it. Most of the people at Hot Metal Bridge (and the Open Door and other Emergent churches) already get it. The people who most needed to hear and learn from Jones, Pagitt and Scandrette are those in mainline churches who are struggling to do ministry faithfully and effectively in a 21st century context. It’s a shame most leaders from those churches didn’t come.