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Why Christians Can’t Change Culture Through Politics

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Unless we’ve had the experience of living outside our culture for some time, we may not be aware of the particularities of our culture and have some difficulty articulating what distinguishes our own culture from any other.
Our culture is the air we breathe. It is ubiquitous such that our acquiescence to it is rarely questioned. Yet many suggest that it is culture, not mere individuals, that the gospel aspires to impact and change.

Culture is represented by inherited values, beliefs, practices and even artifacts. The impact of the gospel is to amend, reshape or possibly abandon these, replacing them with new values, beliefs, practices and products that reflect the reality of Christ’s kingdom.

So, if the gospel is being heard and heeded in a given location, the culture represented in that place must also change. Or so it would seem.

Frankly, the gospel does not seem to be making inroads in changing very many cultures these days. 

Scanning the horizon today, we are obliged to conclude that the gospel is not profoundly impacting culture.

The cultures of Western Europe and North America seem to be morally and ethically adrift. The Middle East is still enduring the “Arab Spring.”

It’s not that various ways and means of impacting culture have been left untried.

In his book, “To Change the World,” James Davison Hunter assesses attempts from various sectors of the Christian public to impact culture.

The Christian right has attempted to mediate the transformation of culture through policy and legislative means.

The Christian left, often viewed by the right as the liberals who have abandoned propositional truths of the Bible, seeks to effect social change in the arena of public justice.

According to Hunter, neither has been very effective in producing change because both sides have resorted to power through politics to achieve their goals.

Both sides have acquiesced to a culture that lacks common moral and social consensus and has resorted to an ever-expanding politicization in order to hold society intact.

Living in an increasingly politicized culture, Christians have instinctively resorted to the means of political power to effect change. Hunter contends that this is wrong-headed – not the way Christ intended.

Hunter’s analysis pertains primarily to the United States – my homeland. As I read his book, it seemed to me that the same critique could be made of my newly adopted land – Lebanon.

The tendency to resort to politics to effect change is not only a U.S. problem. The root of the problem is the tendency to use the most prominent power structures (that is, politics) to accomplish ends.

Politics is coercive power – hardly the appropriate means to effect change in Jesus’ kingdom.

That’s not to say that the gospel should not impact politics (it should and does) or that Christ-followers should not be involved in politics (many are).

It is, however, a critique of contemporary Christianity pursuing change through coercive political means.

This “will to power” can be detected in slogans tossed about in Christian rhetoric and media – “take back our country,” “drive out the enemy,” “recapture the land,” “extend the Kingdom” and so on.

Similar slogans abound in the rhetoric of the various Middle Eastern factions vying for power.

Hunter points out that solutions to the issues we care most about are rarely achieved through political means – issues such as the deterioration of family values, the desire for equity across races, classes and genders, the absence of decency, and care for the poor and elderly.

Some may respond that political solutions contribute to resolution of these issues.

But is it not true that political changes most often reflect public values rather than generate them?

“The consequence of the whole-hearted and uncritical embrace of politics by Christians has been, in effect, to reduce the Christian faith to a political ideology and various Christian denominations and para-church organizations to special interest groups,” Hunter writes.

He then proffers a different paradigm: “faithful presence within.” This is a conscious and intentional pursuit of well being for all – the common good.

Much as Jeremiah instructed the exiles to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” (Jeremiah 29:7), so Christians act as a priestly community seeking the well-being of the world – even those considered to be “enemies” of the faith.

This vision has traction in the post-Christian West and the Middle East.

For far too long, other faiths in the Middle East have perceived Christianity as “Christendom” – a will to power expressed through colonization, wars and cultural and economic dominance.

We may well critique this oversimplified view. Nevertheless, the perception remains, leaving in its wake fallow ground and hardened hearts to anything that connotes the Christian faith.

What if the world’s Christians were possessed with a will to transcend political wrangling and offer Muslims and others their best efforts at holistic well-being?

What if Christ-followers inserted themselves into the conflicts of the Middle East as givers rather than opportunists, as earnest peace-seekers rather than partisans to the military conflicts?

Would it make a difference? Admittedly, any change would be slow, but it would be more true to Jesus’ Kingdom and, whether you’re East or West, that’s worth trying.

Mike Kuhn is a professor at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. He has lived in Middle Eastern countries for 25 years and previously served as pastor of a church in the United States. A longer version of this article first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies blog and is used with permission.