Summit, Day 1: The Toxic Process

It’s Summit here on campus, which means three days of lectures and classes about pretty much any Bible-related topic you can imagine. The organizers have done a better job recently – certainly better than when I was an undergrad – of making the event more interesting to students and younger attendees, and as a result some real superstars of Christianity (oxymoron?) have been on stage, or soon will be. People like Shane Claiborne last year and Rachel Held Evans and alumnus Max Lucado this year.

Yesterday, however, it was Barron Jones’ turn. Jones preaches is a former minister (see correction in the comments) at Laurel Street Church of Christ in San Antonio, and he had some thought-provoking comments on the nature of the church and its involvement with politics.

“The church has formed an unholy and ungodly alliance with Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We are the fools who go along for the ride.”

For those on the right, he launched a volley of inflammatory comments:

“Some of you white people are afraid the president is a black man,” he said. “And you say, ‘Oh no, I just don’t like his politics.’ Please. That’s like saying, ‘I have two black friends, so there’s no way I can be racist. I’ve been to a black church once.'”

“The dead babies are dead, and unfortunately it’s legal to kill them in this country, but the dead babies are gone. What are you going to do for the live ones? … I see a lot more excitement in our churches for hiring preachers and paving parking lots than feeding orphans. What if the church shut up about abortion and every Christian family adopted a foster child in the name of Jesus Christ?”

For those on the left, he criticized blacks who “would drink Obama’s bath water” or consider their duty to help the poor finished when they vote for a Democrat.

He criticized both sides for spending time arguing about politics rather than furthering the kingdom of God.

“Look at how much time and effort you spend trying to get people to go along with your viewpoint,” he said. “In 2011, the political process is toxic to the kingdom of God.”

It was a fiery sermon about evils of politics, and he was adamant about the fact that he has never voted, not even for a fellow black man like Obama. “God is not impressed with your vote,” he said.

I was certainly convicted; I do my fair share of arguing about politics, but what do these debates do to help further the mandates of James 1:27? Is it time to dial back the political rhetoric and do more talking with my actions?

Jones used as an example the early church, which did not rail politically against the oppressive powers that be but simply took in orphans and and raised them as their own, letting that stand as their political message.

But is there no role for government or politics in the life of a Christian? I’m not so sure.

Later in the afternoon, the International Justice Mission’s Sharon Cohn Wu spoke about IJM’s role in helping a 14-year-old girl escape an Indian brothel, with the help of local police and government authorities. In many cases, she said, the laws against child abuse and slavery exist, but they are not fully enforced by impotent or corrupt governments. IJM works with these governments to strengthen laws, weed out corruption and pursue justice.

At the same time, she said, the communities can truly change only when the churches step forward and transform the culture of these neighborhoods where the child-sex trade is rampant.

“Churches and government,” she said in response to a question, “shouldn’t be set up against each other.”

Exactly. Jones is right that if we spend all our time engaged in the political process, we will miss opportunities to be the hands and feet of Christ. A vote is a poor substitute for the committed action of the church.

On the other hand, the government can play a role in alleviating suffering and caring for the poor, and a strong, competent central government can protect the vulnerable through social safety nets and smart regulations.

The day ended with a screening of a documentary called Consuming Kids, about the pervasive marketing efforts aimed at our children for everything from fairly innocuous items like action figures and stuffed animals to more problematic things like fast food and violent video games – a proliferation that occurred after Congress neutered the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to regulate advertising aimed at children and the Reagan administration waged war on regulatory agencies in general.

The result has been increasing levels of childhood obesity, depression, attention-deficit disorders and eating disorders.

The FTC and the Federal Commerce Commission are altogether too cautious in their efforts to stem the tide of misleading, dangerous or deceptive advertising aimed at our children because America’s anti-government, pro-individualistic culture has put the onus of protecting children on the parents. As one speaker in the documentary said: If a trucking company said it would send all its trucks down the street at 150 mph, would we tell parents it’s solely their responsibility to keep their children out of the road, or is this a problem in which all members of the marketplace share responsibility?

Similarly, if one political party advocates ending the social safety net and using the savings to reduce taxes for the wealthy, I do not think that is a morally neutral decision, neither do I think our votes in that situation carry no moral or spiritual weight. Further, I feel not voting in such a situation also carries a moral weight.

The early New Testament church did not have the luxury of representative democracy, and perhaps the church would be better off without it. But it’s the government we have, and I think we as Christians have a responsibility to work within that system to do our Christian duty for what Cohn called “the last, the lost, the least and the littlest.”

3 thoughts on “Summit, Day 1: The Toxic Process”

  1. I agree. I don’t see what a person accomplishes with that sort of political prudery, except possibly giving himself a little self-righteous high when an election comes around. Political action is just like any other kind of action, and refusing to participate doesn’t somehow exempt a person from critique (despite what Kant and Lipscomb thought).

    Also, the regulation of corporate power is a Big Deal. It’s something we have been trying to figure out since, what, East India? And we still don’t have a good handle on it. This “corporations are people” argument completely baffles me. Maybe it’s like dismantling social services: you only think it’s a good idea if you’re convinced you’re never going to be on the crappy end of the deal.

  2. Hi Paul,

    I enjoyed reading your article. Thanks!

    Just one word of correction: I preached for Laurel Street Church of Christ from 2006 – 2010. As of August 2010, I have not preached regularly for any local congregation.

    Best wishes from San Antonio,

    Barron Jones

    1. Thanks for the correction, Barron! I got there a little late and missed the introduction, so I had to use Google, which was less helpful than I assumed. 🙂 Thanks also for the challenging words; they were definitely the talk of Summit for the next two days.

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