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Monday, September 22, 2008

agenda-driven or christ-driven?

Keith McIlWain has a good post on competing Christologies within the United Methodist Church.

He begins with a quote from Mark Tooley's book Taking Back the United Methodist Church. (See Keith's post for the details.)

Keith offers this insightful comment about the competing views of scripture:

I would take issue with Mr. Tooley's depiction of conservatives viewing Scripture as divine while liberals view it as a human document. We affirm that Jesus is both divine and human; surely, we can do the same for Scripture, without losing sight of the fact that it is our primary authority. Jesus, then, is both Savior and Liberator. For conservatives or liberals to forget this would be (and has been, at times) painful for the Church.

I agree. Christology has always been more a case of both/and rather than either/or. The paradoxical nature of Christian theology doesn't necessarily mesh well with modernist binary logic that would force us to choose one or the other, but we can't really expect any secular culture to be a perfect fit with Christianity.

Keith then adds:

That said, in all honesty, it is my opinion that in recent years it has more often than not been the theological Left which has forgotten these truths. Many on the theological Left (not all) seem to be more agenda-driven than mission-driven, doctrine-driven, Scripture-driven, or Christ-driven.

Here I disagree, not with Keith's assertion about those on the theological left who are agenda-driven, but with the implication that this is not equally true of some on the right.

In fact, in a post that begins with a quote from Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, it's highly ironic to accuse the theological left of being agenda-driven. Tooley is the poster boy for agenda-driven right-wing nationalism gilded with a thin layer of Christ-talk.

Mark Tooley supports torture and nationalist warmongering, against broad coalitions of conservative, moderate, and liberal Christians whose agreement on these matters is remarkable primarily because there are so few issues that unite Christians so strongly.

Confessing Christ in a World of Violence (CCWV) is a statement signed by many Christian leaders, both Protestants and Catholics, including liberals, moderates, and conservatives.

CCWV includes five confessions, of which the first two are:

1. Jesus Christ, as attested in Holy Scripture, knows no national boundaries. Those who confess his name are found throughout the earth. Our allegiance to Christ takes priority over national identity.
2. Christ commits Christians to a strong presumption against war. The wanton destructiveness of modern warfare strengthens this obligation. Standing in the shadow of the Cross, Christians have a responsibility to count the cost, speak out for the victims, and explore every alternative before a nation goes to war. We are committed to international cooperation rather than unilateral policies.

We've seen the benefits of international cooperation in the recent past: George Bush Sr. built a coalition of 80 nations, including 30 nations that supplied more than a quarter of a million troops, before the first Iraq war. George W. Bush, on the other hand, gave speeches dividing the world into "with us" and "against us," Donald Rumsfeld ridiculed any foreign leaders who voiced reservations, and we ended up with a much smaller force for a much larger task. The first Iraq war was finished in three months; the second has lasted longer than U.S. involvement in Word War II. International cooperation makes a difference.

Somehow, though, Mark Tooley manages to twist cooperation to mean idolatrous faith in the United Nations. He writes:

CCWV places great hope on "international" processes. "A policy that rejects the wisdom of international consultation should not be baptized by religiosity," it declares near the beginning, and "We are committed to international cooperation rather than unilateral policies" near the end. While warning that "no nation-state may usurp the place of God" it did not likewise insist that neither the United Nations nor any other international force can usurp the heavenly throne.

That reliance on international groups might be just as idolatrous as nation-state patriotism, it did not admit. Nor did it explain why international consensus must be a prerequisite for virtuous action in a world that is, according to Christian teaching, perpetually fallen and in rebellion against the divine order—and in which those the United States would consult and cooperate with have their own self-interests, which may include collaboration with oppressive regimes.

Note how Tooley deftly changes "cooperation" to "consensus" in the second paragraph. That's a much easier target to attack, but the word consensus does not appear in CCWV. Nor does the document mention the United Nations. But Tooley is more focused on his political agenda than on the actual contents of the CCWV document.

Another of CCWV's confessions is this:

4. Christ shows us that enemy-love is the heart of the gospel. While we were yet enemies, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8, 10). We are to show love to our enemies even as we believe God in Christ has shown love to us and the whole world. Enemy-love does not mean capitulating to hostile agendas or domination. It does mean refusing to demonize any human being created in God's image.

To which Tooley replies:

CCWV was also very concerned about America’s “demonization” of “perceived enemies.” One wonders if the signers acknowledge the possibility that America has enemies, or that any of those enemies may be demonic in their behavior. Is criticism of the Iranian theocracy, or of North Korea’s Stalinist regime, an act of “demonization”? Or is it simply describing the reality of those regimes?

Surely Mark Tooley is intelligent enough to know the difference between criticism and demonization. It's one thing to criticize someone's actions; it's quite another to degrade the person and treat them as less than human. But Tooley is clever enough not to directly criticize the language of the CCWV. Instead he leads with a hypothetical, "One wonders if..." and follows up with insinuating rhetorical questions, leaving the reader to consider possible answers. Again, Tooley is concerned with advancing his political agenda rather than actually considering the text of the CCWV confessions. Belittling the signers of the CCWV is only a side effect.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) is a faith-based organization trying to press our government to take the high road in matters of human dignity. Because the U.S. is global economic leader, we have a responsibility to set a good moral example as well.

I've written previously about Mark Tooley's issues with the NRCAT. Essentially, he complains that the NRCAT is not foucsed on torture by other nations.

The torture committed by nations like Syria, China, Iran, North Korea, and other nations is reprehensible, to be sure. But we have no moral authority to speak against it if we remain silent when our own government commits acts of torture. Because the United States is a democracy, its citizens have the power to affect our nation's policies. It is our responsibility to speak up when those policies violate human dignity. That's why the National Religious Campaign Against Torture focuses on abuses by the U.S. government.

Mark Tooley's agenda, on the other hand, is to neuter the church in its role as an independent voice. In Tooley's vision, the church should be a lap dog that passively accepts anything decreed by the powers of this age.

This is not the sort of renewal the United Methodist Church needs.

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At 9/23/2008 10:09 AM, Blogger Keith McIlwain said...

Don't beat around the bush, Bruce; say what you REALLY mean!

For the record, I agree with Mr. Tooley on some issues, and disagree with him on others. The quote I used was, admittedly, completely out of context...but hopefully used in a thought-rovoking fashion.

At 9/28/2008 8:55 AM, Blogger Steve Hayes said...

I reallly wonder what people mean when they talk about the "theological left".

I've asked before, but none of those who use the term seem willing to explain, so I've concluded that they don't know themselves.


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