Daniel Kirk asks a great question: Is Christianity really any good for the world? ‘Is the world a better place because of our allegiance to Christ? Or are all the moves toward making the world a better place done by others and baptized by us?’ What prompted the soul-searching was the observation that the church in the West has only very belatedly woken up to the impending environmental crisis. The same could be said, Kirk suggests, for the church’s belittling treatment of women. He sees grounds for optimism, however, and describes three areas where ‘Christians have been, and are acting as, leading voices in changing the world for the better right now’.
The first is adoption, which can be a tangible sign to the world of the love with which God adopts people into his family – Kirk cites an article which argues to this effect in Christianity Today. Secondly, he extols the work of International Justice Mission and its determination to liberate people, not least children, from various modern forms of slavery. An excellent example. I have recently been involved in churches in the Netherlands and in London that have close links with IJM. Crossroads International Church in the Hague in particular has signalled a prophetic association with the God of peace and justice – in the ‘City of Peace and Justice’ – by helping to set up IJM Netherlands. Thirdly, Kirk highlights the fact that a ‘vocal minority of New Testament scholars and ethicists are drawing our attention to the fact that God’s gift of peace should be realized in the world in which we live and we should be agents of it’.
We could, no doubt, point to many other areas in which the church is ahead of the curve, often invisibly so; nor should we discount the immeasurable impact that simply being part of a local faith community, reconciled to God, transformed by the Spirit of God, has on people’s lives and the common good.
But I have some qualms about this line of argument. It seems to me that we also have to consider the possibility that in a competitive, pluralist, post-Christendom environment, striving for the moral high ground may lead to some rather unseemly and self-defeating one-upmanship. We are not the only people seeking to impress the world. In a recent article in The National (our local paper in the UAE) on relations between the US and the Muslim world, the Grand Mufti of Egypt argues eloquently for the exemplary character of Islamic civilization:
For more than 1,000 years Muslims have worshipped God, engaged in developing their societies and the human civilisation, and have sought to cultivate good moral character. Muslims have engaged, absorbed and assimilated a multiplicity of civilisations such as the Persians, Indians, Chinese, and Greeks, into our cultural and intellectual life. We benefited from each of these peoples and contributed to their cultures. From this we developed a humanitarian and cosmopolitan world view and one that does not allow us to consider ourselves superior to other people. And as our civilisation is concerned with humanity, it brings together both the spiritual and the material. We do not hate life or seek to create social imbalance. Anyone who engages in this goes against the teachings of our religion.
It must be a good thing that the church is seen to be leading the way in the struggle to bring about peace and justice and well-being, but what keeps this from degenerating into a contest to prove that our religion is better than that of the Grand Mufti or of Richard Dawkins? What right do we have?
This, I think, gets us to the heart of the theological problem. Kirk notes that Protestant social engagement has been held back by its obsession with personal piety. The need, therefore, is to ‘cultivate our theological imaginations with the realization that salvation is not merely about new creatures, but about new creation’. Absolutely. That’s well put. But I would suggest that there is a deeper theological anxiety that needs to be brought to the surface: How is the God we worship, whose ancient story we tell, to be justified?
Paul’s Letter to the Romans, I would argue, is about the justification of Israel’s God with respect both to Israel’s lack of spiritual and moral credibility and to the long dominance of European paganism. How was the righteousness or rightness or plausibility of YHWH to be demonstrated in the world? The answer was to be found in the story of Jesus, which anticipated the story of the emergence of a faithful people from the ruins of Second Temple Judaism, who would, by the integrity of their lives and witness, expose the ultimate futility of paganism. As Peter wrote: ‘Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation’ (1 Pet. 2:12).
It seems to me that in a fundamental way we have to ask that question again. Given the intellectual and social collapse of Christianity in the West, given the modern church’s often small-minded and reactionary response to scientific and cultural change, give its self-serving institutionalism, its complacent dogmatism, its preoccupation with private spirituality and ultimate destinies, given the catalogue of prominent moral failures, given the rampant factionalism and divisiveness, given the failure of the church to dissociate itself from the worship of the golden calves of consumerism, we surely have to ask what it will take for the Creator God, who called a people for himself in Abraham and redeemed them in Jesus, to be justified, to be shown to be true and righteous, a cogent and relevant object of belief.
Of course the church globally is doing some good in the world. But before we get too carried away with the self-justifying potential of our good works, perhaps we should first sit alongside the Jews whom Paul harangued in Romans 2:17-24.
We call ourselves Christians, we rely on the Word of God, we claim to know his will because we have listened to countless repetitive sermons over the years; we imagine ourselves to be a guide to the blind, a light to those in darkness, instructors of the foolish scientists and moralists and politicians, teachers of children, and so on…. But shouldn’t we who presume to teach others first teach ourselves? We preach against stealing, but we happily collude with the economic injustices of modern life. We preach against adultery and homosexuality and pornography while we desperately struggle to keep the darkness and distortions of our own hearts from public scrutiny. We claim to worship one God, but we are as much in the thrall of aspirational consumerism as anyone else. We boast in the salvation of God, but we dishonour God by the moral mediocrity of our lives. Wouldn’t it be fair to say, then, that ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the nations because of us’?
Underlying Paul’s theology in Romans is the recognition that if the people who claim to worship God lack integrity and credibility, then their God will be judged to lack integrity and credibility. This is not an argument for justification by works – we cannot forget that all our endeavours are motivated and sustained by grace. But it is perhaps an argument for a much more deliberate and concerted commitment on the part of the church to identify, repent of, and move beyond the structural intellectual, spiritual and moral failings of the modern era, and to pursue an active and consistent righteousness and integrity for the sake of the name and glory of God.