“The liberal church committed suicide when it severed itself from radicalism”says Christopher Hedges in his recent post on the “Suicide of the Liberal Church.” Now he admits “These radicals generally were not embraced by the church hierarchy but they kept the church vital and prophetic.” Indeed as much as I admire the history of radical movements in the mainline church, I can’t imagine a time when they represented the bulk of the church. I’m not sure how a movement at the edges could ever be “severed”?
I’m also suspicious of the language used by Christopher Hedges, who is able to denounce institutions as “demonic”, who writes off the efforts of tens of millions who make up the mainline church, who is not likely to offer many examples of justice work in the church, and therefore who can only give us stark picture of a mainline church that is “responsible for many of our greatest social ills.” This does not sound like Reinhold Niebuhr, who saw communities as grounding our “social fulfillment”, yes marked by sin but also the place where human responsibility is meaningfully exercised.
And if Hedges has a proposal it is this: “What remains of the church, if it is to survive as a social and cultural force, will see clergy and congregants leave sanctuaries to work in prisons, schools, labor halls and homeless and women’s shelters, form night basketball leagues and participate in grass-roots movements such as the anti-fracking struggle and the fight to raise the minimum wage. This shift will make it hard to maintain the largely empty church edifices, and the seminaries, but it will keep the church real and alive.”
What to make of this proposal? “It is unclear how invested Hedges is in the survival of liberal institutions—but either way, it’s hard to see how his intervention is constructive. He poses a lose/lose choice: be a neoliberal tool” by remaining in the church or his preferred option “be a lonely radical taking potshots at institutions attempting to figure out ways to thrive.” It was within those institutions that many of us were introduced to the radical tradition Hedges points us to. For me, it was in campus ministries, in seminary, in churches whose activists (some no longer with us) continue to inspire me.
But the other part of his proposal is that left wing politics replaces religious faith all together. And we’ve had a history of this in the mainline church. I can think of any number of campus ministries that ceased to do Bible studies, worship, or religious discussions and instead replaced this with justice work without reference to any religious tradition. So much so that most members of such ministries would be shocked to discover the religious origins of their particular ministry.
Think of any number of efforts from the YMCA to deaconess hospitals to AIDS ministries to many colleges that are wholly severed from the religious tradition that formed them. If we wanted to point to the numerical decline of the mainline, I would think part of the issue is the severing of theology and religious faith from the justice work the church. So there is no ability to pass on religious faith beyond a generation. Maybe it was thought if we do justice work without mentioning religious language, God would find a way to honor such work. But anyone else involved in the resulting work was none the wiser.
Now this is not a call to reduce that justice work. It is not to evade Hedge’s critique of the mainline church to the degree that it is applicable. But it is to ground that work. And to do that, my friend Virginia Dicken, reminded me of the passage from Micah 6:8. What does the Lord require of us? To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. So justice work is not an option. It is a requirement. It is systematic. And it is radical. Works of mercy would be expressing charity from soup kitchens to mentoring programs. Not optional either. And walk humbly, meaning that expression of church which grounded in theology and worship. Again, not optional.
Chris Hedges is right to call the church to social justice work. But he’s wrong to divorce works of mercy and walking humbly with our God from justice work. Churches that ignore justice but have a wonderful worship program are also doing it wrong. The goal is to integrate justice, works of mercy, worship and faith so that they become part and parcel of everything that is done. Now I can’t promise that will make your numbers go up. I still haven’t figured out the promised land of new members. But it could mean we’d be faithful to God. And it would mean we’d have the ability to speak in a compelling way about what grounds what we do.
And we’d have a means to share that with others. Because we in the liberal church really do have good news to share. If we believe it and act on it.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma